NAIROBI — Somali and US officials said Tuesday that the leader of Al Shabab, the Somali militant group that has allied itself with Al Qaeda and terrorized civilians in the region for years, might have been killed in a US airstrike.
Officials said the strike took place on a small village near Barawe, a well-known Al Shabab den. They said the Al Shabab leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, might have been in a vehicle hit during the attack, but they were awaiting further details before they could confirm whether he had been killed.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said US warplanes conducted the strikes Saturday evening, dropping a number of Hellfire missiles and precision bombs on an encampment. A vehicle at the encampment was also struck, he said.
Defense officials said they believed that both the encampment and the vehicle were destroyed, but they were still trying to determine whether Godane was killed.
“We certainly believe that we hit what we were aiming at,” Kirby said during a news briefing. He said the United States would “continue to use all the tools at our disposal” to “dismantle Al Shabab and other terrorist groups.”
One US official in Nairobi said “we’re 80 percent sure” Godane was killed in the strike. Still, militants in places such as Yemen and Pakistan have been thought to be killed in drone strikes, only to resurface weeks or months later, crowing about having survived US attempts to kill them.
“There were no boots on the ground,” added the US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The official said there had been strong intelligence indicating that several senior Al Shabab leaders, including Godane, had been meeting at a location targeted by US commandos.
Godane is one of the most wanted figures in Africa, widely believed to have orchestrated countless attacks on civilians, including the massacre of dozens of shoppers at a mall in Nairobi last year.
He has presided over a reign of terror inside Somalia for several years, organizing the stoning of teenage girls and public amputations. During Somalia’s famine in 2011, when more than 200,000 people died, Al Shabab fighters, at his orders, blocked food supplies to starving people and diverted rivers from famished farmers.
Godane also has taken Al Shabab’s violence international by organizing suicide attacks in Kenya and Uganda.
US commandos have winnowed down the leadership of Al Shabab, killing other leaders in airstrikes over the years, while thousands of African Union troops have pushed the group out of the capital, Mogadishu, and many of its strongholds.
Al Shabab is not nearly as powerful as it once was, when it controlled vast areas of southern Somalia and nearly overran the government. However, Al Shabab still controls some towns and villages, and in recent days, it has stepped up assassinations of Somali officials in Mogadishu.