Somalia’s al-Shabab militant group has confirmed the death of its leader in a U.S. airstrike and named his successor.
The al-Qaida linked militants announced the selection of Abu Ubeid Ahmed Omar to replace Ahmed Abdi Godane.
U.S. officials confirmed Godane’s death on Friday, saying he was killed in a U.S. military operation earlier in the week.
Somalia’s prime minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed told VOA Somali service his country helped the Pentagon locate Godane and gave approval for his killing.
Somali officials put the country on high alert after Godane was killed. Security Minister Khalif Ahmed Ereg said Saturday that the militants may be planning retaliatory attacks against government facilities.
“The remaining elements of al-Shabab are planning to carry out desperate attacks against school, medical, and government facilities. The government’s troops are ready to prevent such attacks,” he said.
Ereg urged al-Shabab fighters to give up their weapons, saying the government will provide special care to those willing to participate in the amnesty program offered by the government.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday the United States has consistently worked to degrade the operations of al-Shabab. A statement from the White House said Godane’s removal from the battlefield is a “major symbolic and operational loss to the largest al-Qaida affiliate in Africa” and reflected “years of painstaking work by intelligence, military and law enforcement officials.”
Somali Defense Minister General Mohamed Sheikh Hassan told VOA that the fight against al-Shabab is bigger than Godane and vowed his government will continue the operation to drive the group from Somalia.
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said the killing is part of an “international battle” against what he called “the scourge of terrorism.” He said “the people of Somalia greatly value the support of our international allies.”
Godane had led al-Shabab since 2008 and was on the U.S. government’s list of designated terrorists. The State Department had offered $7 million for information “bringing him to justice.”
In a statement on Saturday, al-Shabab leaders reaffirmed its allegiance to al-Qaida and promised revenge for Godane’s killing.
“We, the al-Shabab mujahideen, give allegiance to our new leader,” Sheik Abdiasis Abu Musab, spokesman for al-Shabab’s military operations, said in a recorded statement.
He was speaking in an audio statement posted on Monday on two websites, radioalfurqaan.com and somalimemo.net. Both sites are well-known in Somalia for publishing news about militants.
“The mujahideen built by the martyred Sheik Abu Zubayr (Godane) is a massive force that stands for the defense of Muslims, particularly in east Africa,” he said, adding the fighters were “swords in the hands of our new leader”.
“The enemies who have spread themselves onto the land will soon reap the bitter fruits they have sown,” he said, in an apparent reference to the African peacekeeping force AMISOM which has deployed against al-Shabab in Somalia.
Al-Shabab has previously struck AMISOM nations on their home territory.
Under Godane, Al-Shabab gunmen carried out a dramatic attack on the upscale Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi last year, saying it was aimed at punishing Kenya for its troop contribution to AMISOM. That attack left 67 dead.
The Westgate strike was the most high profile in a series of attacks claimed by al-Shabab in Kenya in the past year.
In 2010, it claimed responsibility for bombings that killed dozens of people in sports bars in Uganda, another African country which has sent troops to Somalia.
“We urge all Muslims, wherever they are, to help the religion, help with your blood, money and prayers,” Sheik Abdiasis said.
Abu Ubeid comes from a branch of Somalia’s Dir clan, whose homeland is in the country’s south. Godane was also from the Dir clan, but a branch that came from the north of the country.
Al-Shabab’s strongholds are in southern and central Somalia, where African forces with the Somali army launched a new offensive to retake territory.
The group, which emerged as a fighting force in 2006, lost control of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, to African forces in 2011 but has continued hit-and-run gun and bomb attacks in the capital and elsewhere.
Some information for this report comes from AP, AFP and Reuters.