New al-Shabab Chief Said to Be Experienced But ‘Difficult’

The new chief of al-Shabab, Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah, is an experienced official within the Somali militant group. But experts say he may lack the leadership qualities of his predecessor, Ahmed Godane, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike.

Until last week, Ubaidah was a senior adviser to Godane, who led al-Shabab for nearly seven years and formalized the group’s alliance with al-Qaida.

Al-Shabab expert Roland Marchal, of France’s National Center for Scientific Research, said Ubaidah has served in high-level positions within al-Shabab, but does not have Godane’s charisma.

“There is maybe something missing,” he said. “He is not someone who has the reach, the regional and international connections Ahmed Godane enjoyed, and is, as well, someone who may not have been linked very much to the political economy of the movement. He was very operational.”

Ahmed Mohamud Mohamed knew the newly appointed al-Shabab chief when he ran a Quranic school in the port city of Kismayo in the early 2000s.  

He said Ubaidah is “a difficult, polarizing person who believes in Takfiri ideology,” a belief system that holds non-believing Muslims should be punished.

The new al-Shabab chief is thought to be in his early 40s. He was born in the ethnic Somali region of Ethiopia, but he has lived in Somalia since at least the early 1990s.

Old friends say he received training from Al-Itihad Al-Islam, a Somali salafist organization.

They say he joined al-Shabab in 2007, through Al-Itihad friends who were part of the Islamic Courts Union, a group that briefly ruled southern Somalia.

For most of last five years, Ubaidah held various positions within al-Shabab as it rose to control large parts of Somalia and imposed a harsh form of Islamic law on the population.

In  2008 and 2009, Ubaidah was deputy governor of al-Shabab in the Lower Juba region. He later became the governor of Bay and Bakool regions for al-Shabab until last November, when he was promoted to Godane’s adviser.

Just recently, he was appointed to a new position in al-Shabab’s Interior Maktab, or department, putting him in charge of the group’s domestic issues.

Those who know him personally said Ubaidah is a hardline figure who was loyal to Godane for a long time. That loyalty allowed him to survive when Godane had several potential rivals killed in 2013.

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