The secretive head of al-Shabaab is reportedly critically ill, giving rise to speculation that the Somali Islamist group is re-organizing itself ahead of his possible demise. Ahmed Umar has been emir of the al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa for nearly four years, but now reportedly bedridden for more than six months, the installation of a new leader could be imminent (Daily Nation, April 20; Tuko, April 23).
Splits Within the Shura
Details of Umar’s ailment are scarce. While it is possible he was badly injured in an attack, a Mogadishu-based source familiar with the militant group’s activities told the Terrorism Monitor that Umar is suffering from a serious kidney problem that affected first one and now both kidneys, and has left him fighting for his life.
Umar’s current location is unclear, but some reports say he is in the town of Jilib, in southern Somalia, where al-Shabaab maintains a stronghold. Others indicate the ailing leader may have fled to an undisclosed hideout in Gedo region, near the Kenyan border, following intensified bombardment by international forces (Daily Nation, December 14, 2017; Mareeg, December 7, 2017).
Since the advent of Umar’s illness, the group has acted to save its leader’s life, paying doctors and providing costly treatments that are depleting the group’s financial resources. A consequence of this has been a failure to release funds to pay its fighters at battlefronts in parts of southern Somalia (Tuko, April 23).
Umar’s condition is allegedly causing concern among the group’s top leadership, at a time when al-Shabaab is pinned down by troops with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Sources say the situation is so critical that Umar’s deputies in the Shura, al-Shabaab’s executive council, have been meeting to discuss his possible succession. That has led to heated exchanges, splitting the council into different factions (Tuko, April 23).
At the moment, the Shura, which has a mandate to make important decisions regarding targets, finances and the group’s ideological direction, is composed of eight members, among them Umar’s deputies Mahan Karate, who heads the Amniyat, al-Shabaab’s intelligence wing, Maalim Osman, the infantry commander, and Ali Dheere, the group’s spokesman. It is believed the three do not see eye to eye on the matter of succession.
The deputies are concerned that a leadership vacuum would result in reduced operational capacity and the further loss of territory. Under Umar, the group has lost key areas and strategic towns in southern Somalia, which are crucial to revenue collection, recruitment and arms replenishment. It has also faced a split, with key leaders defecting to the government (The Star, July 1, 2017).
Controversial Rise to Power
A ruthless hardliner, Umar—who is also known as Abu Ubaidah or Ahmed Diriye—took over as al-Shabaab’s leader on September 6, 2014, replacing the former supreme leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike on September 1, 2014 (Daily Nation, September 5, 2014).
Prior to this, Umar was a little-known cleric, an alleged member of the Amniyat, the secret intelligence group Godane formed to expose and eliminate dissident within the group. He was allegedly a close confidant of the late leader, who attempted to shape al-Shabaab into a regional jihadist group, and is believed to have participated in the bloody purge of dissenters ordered by Godane.
Umar is believed to be in his mid-40s and was known to be a hardliner within the movement (WardheerNews, September 10, 2014). He was born in the Kalafe area of the Ogaden region before moving to southern Somalia, where he helped establish Islamic schools. He also served as al-Shabaab’s governor for the Bay and Bakool regions (Somali Current, September 6).
His ascendancy to al-Shabaab leadership was controversial. The Shura’s decision to appoint him following Godane’s death had not been unanimous, and it was clear that some Shura members disliked him and considered him uneducated (Intelligence Brief, June 20, 2016).
While analysts expected Umar to instigate a fresh wave of violence, an uncomfortable silence followed the weeks and months after his appointment. This sparked speculation that the poorly educated cleric lacked the leadership skills to re-energize al-Shabaab (Sabahi, October 31, 2014).
However, after nearly four years at the helm, his death would leave the militant group in a precarious situation with no obvious successor. Possible candidates include Mahad Karate, who the Shura by-passed when they picked Umar in 2014, Ali Mohammud Rage, alias Ali Dheere, and Hussein Ali Fiidow.
Karate (a.k.a. Abdirahman Warsame) is al-Shabaab’s deputy leader and continues to play a key role within the Amniyat. Like Umar, he is believed to be in his 40s. He hails from the Eyr sub-clan of the Habar Girir, an influential clan that was the backbone of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), from which al-Shabaab splintered.
The U.S government designated Karate a terrorist in 2015 and put a $5 million bounty on his head. He allegedly played a key role in the 2015 Garissa University attack, in which 148 students were killed (The Standard, November 11, 2015). In 2016, Karate, whose name is spelled variously as Mahad Mohammed Karatey or Mahat Karetey, was erroneously reported to have been killed in a strike by the Kenyan military (New Vision, February 18, 2016).
Sources describe Karate as battle-hardened and a religious hardliner, factors that boost his chances. He also worked as a deputy to Godane and now Umar, and both leaders came to trust him.
The other significant militant in the race is Rage, who is from the Hawiye Mursande clan and, like Karate, is a deputy emir for al-Shabaab. There was speculation that he too had been killed in a Kenyan–Somali commando operation in 2014 (Terror free Somalia, March 6, 2014). Months later, the rumors were disproved.
Hussein Ali Fiidow, a deputy who oversees al-Shabaab’s governorates, is another possible successor. Fiidow is thought to be in charge of the group’s finance and administration. He is influential and a rival to Umar. With the high number of recent defections to the government, some al-Shabaab members suspect that Fiidow is plotting a coup against Umar (Daily Nation December 14, 2017). He is thought to have recently attempted to eliminate the leader, forcing Umar to flee with his supporters (Mareeg, December 7, 2017).
An Opportunity to Strike
With Umar potentially incapacitated, it appears a leadership change within al-Shabaab is likely. While the group faces significant challenges that constrain its operations, the loss of strategic territory, the death of its commanders through airstrikes, defections and reduced revenue sources, a change of leadership could revitalize what remains one of Africa’s deadliest militant groups.
That may mean increased attacks in Somalia as any new leader seeks to prove himself, with attacks potentially spreading to other East African nations—a growing al-Shabaab presence already exists in Kenya’s Boni forest.
However, a change in leadership will also open a window of opportunity for international forces, which may be able to capitalize on the period of confusion and division that a leadership change will inevitably bring.