Top Al-Shabab Leader Killed in Airstrike, Pentagon Confirms

PHOTO: Al-Shabaab fighters display weapons as they conduct military exercises in northern Mogadishu, Somalia, Oct. 21, 2010.Mohamed Sheikh Nor/AP Photo
Al-Shabaab fighters display weapons as they conduct military exercises in northern Mogadishu, Somalia, Oct. 21, 2010.

Ahmed Abdi Godane, the top leader of the Somali militant group al-Shabab, has been killed in a U.S. military airstrike in southern Somalia, the Pentagon confirmed today.

U.S. officials are hailing his death on Monday as a significant jolt to the Somali militant group affiliated with al Qaeda that took credit for last year’s deadly attack at a Kenyan mall that killed at least 67 civilians.

PHOTO: Al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, seen in this undated handout photo, was killed in an airstrike in Somalia on Monday, the Pentagon confirmed today.Courtesy US Government
Al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, seen in this undated handout photo, was killed in an airstrike in Somalia on Monday, the Pentagon confirmed today.

"We have confirmed that Ahmed Godane, the co-founder of al-Shabab, has been killed," Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement.

"Removing Godane from the battlefield is a major symbolic and operational loss to al-Shabab," Kirby said, adding that "the United States works in coordination with its friends, allies and partners to counter the regional and global threats posed by violent extremist organizations."

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In a statement White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called Godane’s death "an important step forward in the fight against al-Shabab" that "reflects years of painstaking work by our intelligence, military and law enforcement professionals."

The U.S. will continue to use financial, diplomatic, intelligence and military tools "to address the threat that al Shabaab and other terrorist groups pose to the United States and the American people," Earnest said.

A mix of unmanned and manned aircraft fired Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs on Monday at an encampment in south central Somalia where it was believed that Godane was located. At a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday Kirby confirmed that the airstrike had specifically targeted Godane.

Kirby said the airstrike occurred at 11:20 a.m. ET (6:20 p.m. local time) and was based on "actionable intelligence" that led to the targeting of the encampment and a specific vehicle at the encampment.

Kirby said on Tuesday that if Godane's death was confirmed it would be "a very significant blow to their network, to their organization, and, we believe, to their ability to continue to conduct terrorist attacks."

A senior African counter-terrorism official told ABC News that Godane was targeted during a meeting of senior al-Shabab commanders outside of the coastal city of Barawe. The official said the U.S. airstrike was carried out in conjunction with an offensive by African Union and Somali government forces operating in the area.

African Union officials in Somalia told ABC News that Monday’s airstrike had dealt a significant blow to al-Shabab’s senior leadership.

The airstrike killed a total of 11 al-Shabab militants, including five senior commanders, the officials said, noting the group's new top leader is likely to be Sheikh Mahad Omar Abdikarim, known also as Ahmed Dirie. He was the head of al-Shabab's administration and served as an adviser for the former terror group's leader. Officials describe Dirie as "ruthless."

The mission was conducted by a special operations unit that Kirby would not identify. However, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has conducted previous missions inside Somalia targeting the leadership of the militant group. The military command flies armed Predator drone missions over Somalia from neighboring Djibouti.

The U.S. did not have a regular military presence inside Somalia in the years since the deadly 1993 attack that became known as "Blackhawk Down." But earlier this year a Pentagon official confirmed that beginning in 2007 small U.S. military teams have worked with Somali government forces and the African Union forces known as AMISOM. Since then the number of U.S. military personnel has grown to about 120 as AMISOM’s security needs have grown.

Since 2007 the U.S. has given over $1.5 billion to the African Union and Somali government troops fighting al-Shabab.

While the terror group remains dangerous and has launched several high-profile attacks, most notably last year’s Westgate Mall attack, al-Shabab has been weakened tremendously over the last two years.

Once in control of the Somali capital of Mogadishu and most of southern and central Somalia, al-Shabab now controls only the area surrounding the coastal city of Barawe, which is where the U.S. has conducted much of its recent military missions targeting the group.

Navy SEALS aborted an attempt last October to capture a high-ranking al-Shabab official at a seaside villa in Barawe after they encountered heavy resistance.

In January, a U.S. missile strike killed a top al-Shabab commander said to be close to Godane.