Top Al-Shabab Leader Killed in Airstrike, Pentagon Confirms

Ahmed Abdi Godane's death is a major jolt to Somali militant group, U.S. says.

"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."

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."

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 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.

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