November 14, 2011
Profile: Ahmed Abdi Godane (Mukhtar Abu Zubair)
This piece is part of a series of al Shabaab leadership profiles.
Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair, was the emir of al Shabaab. He was one of the original founders of al Shabaab. The United States Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Godane as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) on November 20, 2008. On April 12, 2010, the United Nations subjected him to sanctions pursuant to paragraph 8 of UN Security Council Resolution 1844. The State Department authorized a reward of up to $7 million for information leading to his location on June 7, 2012. OFAC, the U.S. State Department, and the United Nations use his alias Ahmed Abdi aw Mohamed in their respective listings. A U.S. airstrike killed Godane on September 1, 2014.
Godane was from Hargeisa in Somaliland and was a member of the Isaaq clan. His clan’s territory was beyond the control of al Shabaab, which left him without a strong clan base within the group. Godane historically favored members of his own clan, despite open antagonism towards the clan system, which embittered other elements in al Shabaab. He studied at a madrassa in Pakistan on a scholarship funded by wealthy Saudis and returned to Somalia in 2001. His ideological upbringing and theological beliefs placed him as the central figure in al Shabaab’s takfir wing. A May 2010 International Crisis Group report also described him as uncharismatic and reclusive. He made the majority of his statements in recorded audio messages, which were distributed through online jihadist forums. According to unconfirmed reports from a Somali media outlet, Godane had a home in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, where his wife and their children began living in 2008. The reports also claimed he visited them twice in 2010, using a Kenyan passport with a different name to enter the country.
Godane rejected Somali nationalist goals and the clan system. He understood the group’s effort in Somalia as just one front in the global jihad led by al Qaeda. In his first statement on June 2, 2008, as the head of al Shabaab, Godane pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and praised other prominent al Qaeda operatives. He also vowed that his group would launch a direct attack against the United States. Godane continued to reject dialogue or negotiations with what he called the “apostate government,” arguing that the then-Transitional Federal Government (now the Somali Federal Government) must either surrender or face destruction. “We tell the Mujahadeen to not trust [negotiations], and they should know that it is the path which led those whom they are fighting today to apostasy,” he said in an audio message released on jihadist forums on July 6, 2009. Godane publicly expressed solidarity with the Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda franchise, following a joint American-Iraqi operation that killed two of the group’s leaders on April 18, 2010. Several days after the July 11, 2010 bombings in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 74 people, Godane claimed responsibility for the attacks and warned that, “What happened in Kampala was just the beginning."
Godane had a checkered relationship with other members of al Shabaab’s leadership. He had been at odds with Sheikh Mukhtar Robow over al Shabaab’s ideology and direction since 2008, and continually worked to undermine Robow’s support within the organization. Their feud reached a new level in October 2010, following al Shabaab’s failed Ramadan offensive. Robow pulled his troops from Mogadishu and threatened to form a splinter group over several grievances with Godane’s management of the offensive. On July 12, 2011, a fresh row erupted between the two leaders, and Robow forced Godane to withdraw his troops from Baidoa. Godane also clashed with Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of Hizb al Islam. He met with Aweys on July 9, 2010 for unity talks, but those negotiations ended with no agreement. Just before the December 2010 merger, Godane ordered a series of attacks against towns held by Hizb al Islam. His actions drew a sharp public rebuke from Fuad Mohamed Qalaf, also known as Shongole. In September 2012, reports surfaced that Hizb al Islam officially broke away from al Shabaab because of “political and ideological differences,” but there was little known evidence to substantiate the group’s full operational independence from al Shabaab.
Another prominent al Shabaab member, American Omar Hammami, released a video to online forums on January 9, 2013 attacking Godane’s leadership and accusing him of persecuting foreign fighters. By April 2013, even long-time Godane supporter, Ibrahim al Afghani, denounced the group’s leader in a letter to Ayman al Zawahiri accusing Godane of poor command appointments and of mistreating foreign fighters. Godane responded to these accusations with force. He reportedly ordered the killing of Hammami and other foreign jihadists on April 25. Afghani, Robow and Aweys issued a fatwa telling Godane supporters to cease hunting Hammami. Militants loyal to Godane killed Hammami on September 11, 2012.
The infighting reached a new level when two different al Shabaab factions fought each other in Barawe, Lower Shabelle region on June 19 and 20, 2013. Afghani was killed by pro-Godane forces, and Robow and Aweys were forced to flee Lower Shabelle region. Aweys defected to the Somali government and there were reports on July 7 that Robow was also talking with Somali government officials. Reports claimed that Godane had detained foreign fighters within al Shabaab on July 28. Godane responded with an audio message on July 30 that commented on the allegations of internal rifts within the group. He denounced commanders causing dissent in the organization, but did not specifically name any fighters. Godane reminded his followers that their fight is “borderless and not constrained to some geographical regions or any specific land.”
Godane claimed credit for the September 20, 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. He warned Kenya to prepare “for long-lasting war, blood, destruction and evacuation," stating that the attack was in retaliation for Kenya’s 2011 invasion of Somalia. As Godane expanded al Shabaab’s battlefield the group continued carrying out large-scale attacks within Mogadishu. Godane continued to struggle with mitigating infighting within al Shabaab, including one incident in which he was reportedly shot and wounded by al Shabaab militants.
A U.S. airstrike targeted and killed Godane in Sablale Yeroy, Lower Shabelle region, on September 1, 2014. He had been targeted previously. A January 26, 2014 U.S. airstrike near the former al Shabaab stronghold in Barawe, Lower Shabelle region, killed Godane’s deputy, Sahal Iskudhuq, but failed to kill Godane.
September 6, 2014: Al Shabaab released a eulogy for Godane that confirmed his death and announced the appointment of Ahmad Umar as the new emir. (SITE)
September 1, 2014: A U.S. airstrike killed Godane in Sablale Yeroy, Lower Shabelle region. (Washington Post)
May 14, 2014: Godane delivered a speech lecturing on the suffering of Muslims in Kenya and throughout the world, “We advise the Muslims in different parts of the world who are suffering under the heel of the global Crusader against their Islam to. . .pick up arms in order to defend their religion, honour and properties.” (SITE)
March 10, 2013: Godane called for the people of Somalia to unite in support of al Shabaab’s struggle against Ethiopian forces, referring to Ethiopia as Somalia’s “arch enemy.” (SITE)
September 25, 2013: Godane claimed credit for al Shabaab’s attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and threatened Kenya to prepare for a “long-lasting war.” Godane additionally stated that the attack was retaliation for Kenya's invasion of southern Somalia in 2011. (al Jazeera America)
July 30, 2013: Godane commented on the internal rifts within al Shabaab in an audio message. He reminded militants that the fight is “borderless,” and denounced commanders causing dissent in the organization. (SITE)
July 28, 2013: Godane allegedly arrested all foreign commanders within al Shabaab, including militant commanders from Yemen, Kenya and Sudan. (Dalsan Radio)
June 20, 2013: Fighting erupted between forces loyal to Godane and those loyal to Afghani, Robow and Aweys in Barawe, Lower Shabelle region. Afghani was killed, and Robow and Aweys fled the city. (CNN)
June 17, 2013: A statement from al Shabaab’s central command, released on jihadist forums, reasserted Godane’s power and denounced other senior officials like Hammami, Afghani, and Aweys for speaking out against Godane. The statement also accused these dissenters of corruption, slander and trying to divide al Shabaab. (SITE)
May 18, 2013: Al Shabaab released a statement affirming support for Godane and disavowing Hammami, Afghani, and Aweys, whom the statement accuses of spreading lies. (SITE)
May 4, 2013: Godane continued to refuse to respond to criticism from senior al Shabaab officials; instead, he released a speech calling for al Shabaab militants to continue to attack Somali officials and foreign invaders. (SITE)
April 26, 2013: Omar Hammami tweeted a picture of a gunshot wound he received saying that Godane ordered al Shabaab militants to kill Hammami and several foreign fighters accompanying him. (SITE)
December 10, 2012: Godane praised what he said was progress made by Ansar al Sharia in Yemen (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s insurgent arm) during a speech, and urged other Islamist fighters to continue their jihad until “the Mujahideen has irreversibly come to an end.” (SITE)
October 27, 2012: Godane released a speech on Eid al Adha praising recent jihadi victories in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Nigeria, Iraq and Afghanistan. He also lauded the progress made by al Shabaab fighters against AMISOM troops and specifically said the Kenyan decision to enter Somalia was a “historic mistake.” (SITE)
June 18, 2012: Godane vowed to continue jihad against the TFG and AMISOM until all of the Horn of Africa is under an Islamic government in an audio message. (Mareeg)
April 1, 2012: Disagreements between Godane and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys became public. Godane had declared that no jihadist group, other than al Shabaab, should be established in Somalia. Aweys disagreed, saying, “One cannot limit or make jihad a membership, jihad is open to everyone who is willing to fight.” (Garowe Online)
March 20, 2012: Godane vowed that al Shabaab would continue to fight against AMISOM and urged jihadists to continue their fight, including in Puntland: “Mujahedeen fighters in areas controlled by the apostate Puntland government must remain unified, you must strengthen your battle fronts until you ensure the Islamic flag flies over the whole region." (AFP)
March 19, 2012: Godane delivered a speech on the London Conference on Somalia, which was held on February 23. He said that there were four goals of the conference: to strengthen the “Crusader alliance”; to divide the country by tribe, making it easier to destroy; to loot the country of its resources; and, finally, to fight against Islamic law and institute an “atheist constitution.” (SITE)
February 9, 2012: Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda core, declared that al Shabaab had formally joined al Qaeda. In the video, Godane pledged allegiance to Zawahiri. (SITE)
October 22, 2011: Godane congratulated the Libyan rebels on killing former Libyan leader Muammar al Qadhafi in a recorded audio message. He added that Libyans should not allow another leader like Qadhafi to take power. (Shabelle Media Network)
August 30, 2011: Godane released an audio message criticizing al Shabaab fighters who had abandoned their cause following the group’s withdrawal from Mogadishu, and argued the move wasn’t a sign of weakness. “We didn't abandon the fighting and we aren't weak. We are now launching a new phase of fighting against you, which will prove to be your end,” he said. He also accused foreign aid groups of deception. “Aid agencies and some countries declared famine and pretend they want to help you. They do so for these reasons: for trade purposes, to convert you from your religion and to colonize you," he said. (Reuters)
May 18, 2011: Godane ordered the establishment of a new charitable organization, the al Shaheed (Martyrs) Foundation, to raise and educate the children of slain al Shabaab fighters. (SITE)
March 2, 2011: Godane released an audio message condemning the presence of Burundian troops in Somalia, and called on the Burundian people to demand their withdrawal. “This message is to inform the Burundians that their forces in Somalia don’t know the facts exist in this country. You know that many forces from the world and from Ethiopia have failed to do anything in Somalia and dragging of AU soldiers in Mogadishu is a clear sign for their failure.” He also warned them that countries have sent forces to Somalia in the past only to withdraw in failure. “Several countries around the world including the so called world super power [America] and Ethiopia, and they have left the country mourning, and their mission has ended in vain,” he said. (Shabelle Media Network, Somaliweyn)
January 28, 2011: Godane called on al Shabaab fighters to show restraint in regions under the group’s control so they do not turn people against Islam. (Shabelle Media Network)
July 15, 2010: Godane claimed responsibility for deadly twin bombings in Kampala, Uganda on behalf of al Shabaab. “Allah willing, we will take revenge for all who were martyred by AMISOM guns. What happened in Kampala is just the beginning and a prelude,” he said. (SITE)
June 24, 2010: Godane urged voters in Somaliland to oppose the semi-autonomous state’s elections and resist democracy, which he called un-Islamic. "The reality is that democracy is something Allah made unlawful, and someone else cannot make it lawful," he said. (Reuters)
Samuel Cleaves updated this profile on January 6, 2015
Breuk Bass updated this profile on August 19, 2013.
Jared Sorhaindo updated this profile on August 3, 2012.