On February 22, an airstrike carried out by U.S. Africa Command killed a senior al-Shabaab leader, Bashir Mohamed Mahamoud (a.k.a. Bashir Qorgab) (Radio Muqdisho, March 7). As a senior operational commander in the Somali militant group, Qorgab is believed to have been involved in the planning of the attack on the military base Camp Simba and its Manda Bay airstrip used by U.S. and Kenyan forces. The attack killed one U.S. army soldier and two contractors, and destroyed six aircraft. Though the airstrike occurred on February 22, the Somali and U.S. governments did not confirm it was Qorgab who was killed until March 7 (Radio Muqdisho, March 7; SABC, March 9).
Somalia’s state radio, Radio Muqdisho, reported that the strike took place in the town of Saakow, in Somalia’s Middle Juba region, killing both Qorgab and his wife, who was also a member of al-Shabaab (Radio Muqdisho, March 7; Jerusalem Post, March 8).
Qorgab was born sometime between 1979 and 1982, and was a senior al-Shabaab leader for over a decade, having been one of ten members of al-Shabaab’s executive council, as of 2008. On April 13, 2010, the United States placed Qorgab on the list of specially designated global terrorists. The U.S. State Department’s Reward for Justice program offered $5 million for information that led to his arrest in June 2012, pointing to the fact that he led a mortar attack against the then-Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu in June 2009, and was involved in coordinating activities with al-Qaeda, as of 2007 (U.S. Treasury, April 13, 2010; Rewards for Justice, June, 2012; Standard Media, June 8, 2012).
Most recently, he led three units of al-Shabaab fighters, two of which were operating inside of Kenya, according to USAFRICOM spokesperson Col. Chris Karns. These include a unit of the Jaysh al-Ayman, an elite group of al-Shabaab fighters active in the southeastern Lamu county of Kenya, in the area of Manda Bay. A Somali intelligence official reportedly said that the Jaysh al-Ayman were responsible for the Manda Bay attack, though it could also have been done by one of al-Shabaab’s commando units. Qorgab previously trained the Jughta Ulus, an al-Shabaab commando unit (All Africa, March 9; The Star, March 9).
At the time of his death, Qorgab was purportedly involved in a dispute within al-Shabaab’s leadership. Somalia’s intelligence agency, the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), reported last month that Qorgab was removed from al-Shabaab’s executive council alongside another senior commander, Mahad Karate. Al-Shabaab leader Abu Diriye (a.k.a Ahmad Umar; a.k.a. Abu Ubaidah) allegedly removed them for advising against the continued targeting of civilians in Mogadishu (Twitter.com/HSNQ_NISA, February 3; Garowe Online, February 4).
Additional information indicates that Qorgab and Karate’s expulsions were a result of financial disagreements and inter-clan conflict with Diriye. Karate was the head of finances and intelligence for al-Shabaab. Karate’s and Qorgab’s clans disputed the expulsions, and Karate in particular was accused of hoarding resources on behalf of his Hawiye clan, which is the largest in Somalia. Diriye has been attempting to wrestle further control of the group from Karate, something which has proved difficult due to deep clan allegiances. Diriye has allegedly responded to this by reaching out to smaller clans, in order to form a larger conglomeration to challenge Hawiye influence (Daily Nation, March 27).
That Qorgab’s death happened so soon after his expulsion, approximately two weeks, will likely stoke al-Shabaab’s infighting. The group is currently riven with “allegations and counter-allegations of espionage,” according to an intelligence report (Daily Nation, March 27). Qorgab’s killing coming in the midst of an inter-clan struggle within the group will likely foster continued mistrust between Diriye and other leaders.
The airstrike that killed Qorgab also comes in the context of a rigorous air campaign by the United States against al-Shabaab in Somalia. Recently, commentators have pointed out that U.S. airstrikes in the country have kept pace with those in Syria and Iraq in 2020, and the United States launched an average of one airstrike per week in 2019 (Garowe Online, March 10). These constant attacks have hamstrung al-Shabaab operations, making them dysfunctional within the villages they occupy and forcing some operatives to hide in urban areas, where there is a less likely chance of an airstrike (Garowe Online, March 26).
Despite the leadership disputes, inter-clan squabbles, and U.S. airstrikes, al-Shabaab has maintained its ability to conduct small and large-scale attacks, mostly in Mogadishu. However, Qorgab was a veteran commander of the group, leading al-Shabaab fighters since the early days of the Somali civil war’s current phase. His death highlights the multiple challenges, both internally and externally, the terrorist group faces in maintaining its operational capacity into the future.