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Ahmed Abdi Godane
Ahmed Abdi Godane

What happens after you kill a terrorist?

Last Friday, the Pentagon confirmed that American airstrikes in Somalia the week before had succeeded in killing Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader and co-founder of the al Qaeda-linked Islamist group al-Shabab. “Removing Godane from the battlefield is a major symbolic and operational loss to al-Shabaab,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement.

The symbolic loss may be bigger than the operational loss, however. Targeted airstrikes or special-operations raids aimed at “taking out” leaders of terrorist organizations are arguably the most critical component of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy. The popularity of removing militant organizations rests on the following assumption: removing an extremist group’s leadership degrades the group as a whole or diminishes it – thereby rendering it less violent or causing it to collapse altogether. Whether this assumption is correct is by no means a settled question. Systematic studies of leadership decapitation do not have one unequivocal conclusion as to the effect of removing the leadership on an organization’s ultimate survivals. Whereas some organizations persist, others do not seem to turn a corner and endure under a new leadership.

So what kind of an organization is the suddenly leaderless al-Shabab? Kenneth Menkhaus, a political-science professor at Davidson College who has studied the group, says it’s possible that the group has become more decentralized since an African Union-led offensive beginning in 2011 drove al-Shabab out of major cities in Somalia. If far-flung cadres in the countryside have been operating autonomously, Godane’s death may not change the organization much at the local level.

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In fact, as Menkhaus notes, “Shabab has already experienced decapitation” and managed to recover. After a U.S. airstrike killed the group’s then-leader Aden Hashi Ayro in 2008, “Godane stepped in and it was business as usual.” Indeed, it was after Ayro’s death, and while Godane was consolidating his position, that al-Shabab carried out its highest-profile attack outside Somalia: the assault on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, which killed almost 70 people. Al-Shabab has already named Godane’s successor, and the Somali government has cited intelligence that the group could be planning attacks on educational and medical institutions.

Al-Shabab’s longevity could also depend on an amnesty that the Somali government offered to fighters in the wake of last week’s airstrike, Menkhaus says. The amnesty could take advantage of any internal fissures that have opened up over the group’s future direction in the wake of Godane’s death. Widespread defections could be yet another blow to al-Shabab.