Somalia's al-Shabab is on the defensive, but its leader is still at large
Friday, June 07, 2013
Just moments after hearing that his brother had been arrested, Bashe
Abdi Godane saw the convoy of police cars descending on his mother’s
Seven vehicles roared down the dusty street in the noonday
sun. Dozens of masked gun-wielding police commandos leaped out of the
cars, blocked off the area and scaled the cracked walls to ransack the
frail woman’s modest brick home.
Their target was her son, Ahmed Abdi Godane, the shadowy and
reclusive leader of Somalia’s biggest terrorist group, al-Shabaab. But
after the police arrested two of his brothers and seized a batch of
wedding videos from the house where Mr. Godane was born and raised,
officials admitted they had found no evidence that the terrorist leader
was in touch with his family here.
Across Somalia, the noose is
tightening on al-Shabaab. The radical Islamic militia, which once
controlled almost all of Mogadishu and southern Somalia, is on the
defensive these days as it steadily loses ground to Western-backed
Even here, in the breakaway region of Somaliland in the
northwestern corner of the country, authorities are imprisoning some of
the militia leader’s family members without charges or trial.
police raid, launched within days of a U.S. demand for action in
Somaliland, showed how an anti-terrorism campaign can have an unintended
spillover in neighbouring regions, far from the main suspects. Eager to
prove their anti-terrorist credentials and to curry favour with Western
powers, Somaliland’s leaders were susceptible to dubious requests for a
heavy-handed crackdown on family members who were apparently
unconnected to the al-Shabaab leader.
Mr. Godane, educated at an
Islamic school in Pakistan, was one of the founders of al-Shabaab, and
he led the militia into a crucial alliance with al-Qaeda in 2008 when he
pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. He is said to be uncharismatic,
releasing his statements in audio messages posted on jihadi websites. Rejecting the nationalist wing of the militia, he has vowed to keep pursuing jihad until the entire Horn of Africa is under an Islamic government.
decline over the past two years is linked to the growing size and
muscle of the Western-financed military offensive against it. Under
relentless attack from invading Kenyan troops in southern Somalia and an
African military coalition in Mogadishu, the extremist militia has lost
huge swaths of territory in the south and centre of the country. It has
been pushed back from the Kenyan border and out of the key cities of
Mogadishu and Kismayu, forcing it to switch to hit-and-run guerrilla
At the same time, al-Shabaab’s leadership is reportedly
plagued by bitter rifts over tactics and ideology. The United States has
placed a $7-million bounty on Mr. Godane’s head, along with smaller
bounties for other leaders of the group. And now even his family is not
safe from pressure.
The raid was conducted in early May, just days
after a meeting in Washington between the Somaliland president, Ahmed
Silanyo, and a senior U.S. State Department official, Wendy Sherman, the
Undersecretary for Political Affairs. According to a U.S. statement
after the April 25 meeting, the two officials discussed “the need to
combat al-Shabaab” among other issues.
But despite the U.S.
demands, the police were unable to prove any contacts between Mr. Godane
and his family in Hargeisa, according to Hirsi Ali Haji Hassan, the
Somaliland minister of presidential affairs.
“We were suspicious,
but we didn’t find evidence,” he said in an interview. “You have to
check everything. We are still investigating.”
As part of the
crackdown on the family, two brothers of the terrorist leader have been
detained for weeks or months without being charged with any offence. One
brother, Ali, was arrested in Hargeisa the day of the police raid.
Another brother, Mukhtar, was arrested four months ago and remains in
custody in a Hargeisa prison, according to Bashe Abdi Godane, a third
Bashe, a 54-year-old unemployed labourer, said his
elderly mother was so frightened and traumatized by the police raid that
it left her unable to talk.
Mr. Hassan acknowledged that no
charges have been laid against any family members. They can be kept in
custody for 90 days without charges, he said.
The family has not
seen Ahmed Godane since the 1990s, and it does not share his extremist
views, Bashe said. If the authorities want to capture him, they could
easily find him with Western surveillance technology, he said.
“I don’t know where he is, but even the White House knows where he is,” Bashe said in an interview.
don’t have any correspondence with him. Why they are jailing us, I
don’t know. They are always investigating us, and we are innocent. I
don’t have any idea about al-Shabaab or what they are doing or what they
He says he can’t get a job in Somaliland because employers
refuse to hire him when they discover he has the same surname as the
leader of al-Shabaab. He’s been unemployed since returning from
construction jobs in the Middle East in 2007.
“I’m frustrated,” he
says. “Everywhere I go, when people hear my name, they get excited
about it. They’ve closed every job to us.”
Khader Aden Hussein, a
member of the Somaliland parliament, says the police raid on the Godane
family will spark a backlash. “It was badly handled,” he said. “I don’t
think anyone is happy about it. Just because you are someone’s brother,
you don’t put him in jail.”