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U.S. Airstrikes Might Narrow Aims Of Somalia's Leading Jihadi Group


It's still not clear whether Hellfire missiles fired by the U.S. yesterday in Somalia hit their intended target - Ahmed Godane, leader of the Islamist group al-Shabab. As NPR's Gregory Warner reports, the death of Godane would be a major blow to the global ambitions of Somali jihadists.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: There's a kind of conundrum that lots of jihadists groups have faced at some point in their growth - not just in Somalia, but in Mali and Nigeria and Iraq - and that is whether to stay locally focused to try to take over or edge out the home government or declare global jihad against the West. Bill Braniff is executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism at the University of Maryland. He says the global approach gets you more access to weapons training and money from al- Qaida. The local approach is more domestically popular.

BILL BRANIFF: Oftentimes al-Qaida will sway a subset of any given group into thinking about this more globally oriented strategy. But there remains a large community of more locally oriented individuals who are instead trying to create a new political environment in which to live in.

WARNER: Ahmed Abdi Godane, the reclusive and bookish leader of the Somali group al-Shabab, falls squarely in the global camp. He declared links to al-Qaida and chose targets beyond Somali borders - World Cup soccer fans in a stadium in Uganda, Saturday afternoon shoppers in a Nairobi mall. As for his fellow Somalis, who were not won over by his grand plans or his athletic recall of Somali and Islamic poetry, those who, in other words, wanted to keep al-Shabab as it began - as a local group, trying to impose their version of Sharia law in Somalia. Godane dealt with them as brutally as he treated, what he called, the infidels.

PETER PHAM: He's dealt with them by literally eliminating them, killing them off for opposing him.

WARNER: Peter Pham directs the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. And he describes Godane's leadership style as authoritarian. He killed off rivals and sidelined traditional collective Somali decision-making structures= in favor of a top-down command approach.

PHAM: Ironically because of the ruthless matter with which he led al-Shabab, he left the organization exceptionally vulnerable to his demise.

WARNER: If yesterday's airstrike did successfully kill Godane, it could mean a number of things for the future of al-Shabab - perhaps not much. Perhaps a leader will just pop up to take his place, although Godane eliminated most of the obvious candidates. And the group's major bases are currently under assault by the Somali Army, backed by 22,000 African troops, paid for by the UN. So many analysts I spoke to say that under this pressure, it's likely that al-Shabab will splinter into some more extremist factions and many more moderate groups that might be willing to negotiate with the Somali government. Ken Menkhaus, at Davidson College in North Carolina, says the Somali government has been unswaying in its desire to negotiate with al-Shabab.

KEN MENKHAUS: And that's a very popular passion among many to most Somalis - not all. That's a much less popular position for some key international actors, including the U.S. government, who are not going to be very interested in seeing a negotiated outcome that could result in some of these individuals, who are designated as terrorists, joining a unity government.

WARNER: That turn of events, of course, could pose its own local-global conundrum for the U.S. government. Does it tolerate a locally-based Somali solution, even one that seems to violate America's own global anti-terrorism agenda? Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.