The U.S. military fired missiles at a high-level meeting of an Islamic militant group in Somalia on Monday, but it was too early to tell whether its leader had been killed, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday.
“At approximately 11:20 Eastern Time, working from actionable intelligence, U.S. special operations forces, using manned and unmanned aircraft, destroyed an encampment and a vehicle, using several Hellfire missiles and laser-guided munitions. This operation was a direct strike against the al-Shabab network, specifically, the group’s leader, Ahmed Abdi-aw Mohamed, also known as Ahmed Godane,” Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters.
“We certainly believe that we hit what we were aiming at,” Kirby said, but he could not confirm that Godane or other al-Shabab leaders were killed.
“We are still assessing the results of the operation, and we’ll provide additional information when and if appropriate,” he said.
There were no U.S. troops on the ground before or after the attack, which occurred in south central Somalia, Kirby said.
Al-Shabab has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Godane claimed responsibility for the deadly Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013, in which at least 67 people died and more than 170 were injured. The group also has claimed responsibility for numerous bombings and assassinations in Somalia.
Al-Shabab continued to plan attacks against Westerners, including Americans in East Africa, according to Kirby.
“If he was killed, this is a very significant blow to their network, to their organization and, we believe, to their ability to continue to conduct terrorist attacks,” Kirby said.
Local reports from Somalia have claimed that U.S. drones struck late Monday in southern Somalia, where top al-Shabab officials had been conducting meetings. The Associated Press reported that top al-Shabab members were among the dead, although it remained unclear late Tuesday whether the group’s leader, Godane, was among the six militants reportedly killed.
Abu Mohammed, a spokesman for al-Shabab, told the AP that two vehicles were heading toward the coastal town of Barawe, al-Shabab’s main base, when they were hit. He said that Godane was in one of the vehicles but declined to say whether he was killed or injured.
Experts said the elimination of Godane would mark a severe but not necessarily fatal blow to a militant group that has proven resilient in battle, experts say.
Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, said al-Shabab has proved “remarkably resilient” during its decade of operation, shifting from an armed militant youth wing of a loose Islamist alliance to the spearhead of an insurgency.
At one point the group “controlled more territory than the weak Somali government,” Pham said. “Hence it would be foolhardy to predict its demise based on any single strike, even if the attack took out the current leadership.”
“We’re mindful that there remain other leaders of the organization at large,” Kirby noted.
Still, if U.S. strikes succeeded in the elimination of Abdi Godane, it would be a significant development, Pham said.
“Even as he was turning the group away from an insurgency and into more of a transnational terrorist group, Godane was also fighting an internal battle for the future direction of al-Shabab,” Pham said.
“It may well be that his demise will give those who remain of these opponents the opportunity to shift the group’s priorities or even possibly arrive at a modus vivendi with the Somali government,” Pham added. “Time alone will tell.”
In January, Voice of America reported that another U.S. drone strike almost killed Godane. He survived, but a senior aide was killed, VOA said.
Kirby raised the prospect that more U.S. strikes will be conducted against militant targets in the region.
“We’re going to continue to use all the tools at our disposal … to dismantle al-Shabab and other terrorist groups who threaten U.S. interests as well as the interests of our allies and our partner nations,” he said.
The latest U.S. action comes after Somali government forces regained control of the high-security Godka Jilacow prison in Mogadishu that was attacked Sunday by seven suspected Islamic militants. The Pentagon did not indicate whether the U.S. action Monday was related to the prison attack.
The Islamist group, along with Nigeria-based militant group Boko Haram, poses a threat to regional stability and has long been a concern for U.S. counterterrorism officials.
However, the group has come under increased pressure from U.S.-backed African Union forces, which have been battling the insurgents for years.
Recently, the U.S. has been bolstering its own presence in Somalia, where about 120 special operators train and advise local Somali forces in their fight against al-Shabab. In the past, U.S. troops focused mainly on providing support to troops from the African Union Mission to Somalia, but special-operations personnel are now providing direct training and assistance to the Somali armed forces.
U.S. officials have credited African Union troops with helping to turn the tide in Somalia, where al-Shabab was once poised to overrun the capital city of Mogadishu.
Stars and Stripes reporters Chris Carroll and Audrea Huff contributed to this report.