US armed forces have launched an air strike against the Islamist militant group al-Shabab in Somalia. The attack targeted the head of the group, Ahmed Abdi Godane, but it's not yet clear if he was hit.
The Pentagon's initial statement was terse. A spokesman confirmed an "operation" was carried out against the militia, and that it was "assessing the results."
Only on Monday afternoon could Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby confirm what Somali officials had already let slip: the drone missile strike was directed at Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr.
Kirby said that "actionable" intelligence led to the airstrikes by special operations forces using both manned and unmanned aircraft. The airstrikes "hit what they were aiming at," Pentagon spokesman Kirby said, saying that if Godane were killed in the attack, it would be "a very significant blow" to al-Shabab and its capabilities.
Godane, who has headed the East African terrorist group since 2008, is high on the US State Department's list of the world's top terror fugitives. The US is offering a $7-million (5.33-million-euro) reward for information leading to Godane's arrest.
It is still not clear whether Godane, high-ranking advisors and commanders were among the "several" dead reported by the German press agency DPA in the military mission in southern Somalia. According to the Associated Press news agency, "six militants" were killed.
Drones instead of ground troops
In the 1990s the US was forced to withdraw its troops following a traumatic mission, and over the past years, Washington has relied on drone strikes to keep the al Qaeda-linked terrorist group in check. Observers rate the fact that the Somali government has not protested yet as an indication that it was informed and involved. The population was pleased at the news, says DW correspondent Hussein Aweys in the capital Mogadishu.
Monday's drone strike is presumably connected to the offensive launched this past weekend by Somali government forces and African Union (AU) troops under the codename "Operation Indian Ocean".
They managed to recapture the strategically important town of Bulomarer, an al-Shabab stronghold in southwestern Somalia. Apparently in retaliation, the militia then attacked the intelligence headquarters and a high-security prison in Mogadishu on Sunday.
The US operation is presumably also linked to the Somali and AU troops' plans to capture the coastal town of Barawe, the last port under al-Shabab's control. From here, the militia dispatches ships carrying charcoal to the Gulf States - the group's key source of income at an estimated 19 million euros per year.
Far from defeated
But even Godane's death wouldn't mean the militia is defeated, says Annette Weber, Somalia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), adding they have proven to be quite versatile over the past years. "They were always prepared to adapt their military tactics, from urban fighting in Mogadishu and control over larger territories outside of the city to the return to guerilla fighting." The militia still has a relatively large sphere of influence even though it was swept out of the capital by AU troops in 2011, she says. "The idea of al-Shabab is much greater than a few hundred or thousand fighters in southern Somalia", Weber told DW.
But simply taking control of al-Shabab's territory is not going to be the end of the group, warns Rashi Abdi - a security analyst and Somalia expert based in Nairobi - even if the present offensive is the most intense against their strongholds in the south so far. "It has deep roots in Somali society in many places," he told DW. "While the military campaign will probably diminish al-Shabab's military capabilities, its asymmetric capabilities will not be diminished and will probably escalate as a result of the military pressure."
Seeking a political solution
Weber is critical of reports that al-Shabab is the eastern toehold of a pan-African terrorism belt that stretches all the way to Mali in the west. While Godane publicly confirmed his alliance with al Qaeda, praising the terrorist network as "pioneers of the jihad," cooperation with other militant groups like Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is not as close as reports would indicate. "Al-Shabab is a very self-contained group," she says, adding that although some fighters from the western diaspora are trickling in, the group is by no means hooked up with the network of your typical traveling jihadists.
Rashid Abdi agrees that there may be a broad strategic approximation between the jihadist groups, but he points out they definately have different ideologies. "The context is always very different from one place to another, so we should not always see a grand scheme," he says.
Experts like Weber and Rashid have for years urged a political solution for Somalia, but a change in stance is not on the horizon, particularly in Washington. Strategies based solely on a military solution are not likely to be "crowned by far-reaching success," Weber says. "We've seen over the years that al-Shabab is very adept at adapting territorially and tactically."
This is essentially a political struggle, Rashid says. "It may be military at the moment, however the real problem in Somalia is not even al-Shabab, but the inability of the government as well as the clans to really agree on stabilization and a political way forward."