US kills jihadist leaders in airstrikes in Somalia and Libya

The US military confirmed today that two senior jihadist leaders were killed in separate airstrikes in Somalia and Libya over the past several weeks. The two leaders were identified as Abdirahman Sandhere from Shabaab, al Qaeda official branch in Somalia, and Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi, from the Islamic State’s province in Libya.

The Department of Defense confirmed in a press release today that Sandhere “is dead as a result of a US military airstrike in Somalia undertaken on Dec. 2.” Sandhere, who is also known as Ukash, was described “a senior leader of the al Qaeda-affiliated group al-Shabaab.” Two other “Shabaab-affiliated associates” were also killed in the airstrike. However, their identities were not disclosed.

The US military has launched several airstrikes in Somalia against al Qaeda’s branch. Over the past year, the US killed the previous two leaders of the Amniyat, a key intelligence organization within Shabaab.  The Amniyat is instrumental in executing suicide attacks inside Somalia as well as in Kenya and other African nations, conducting assassinations, providing logistics and support for operations, and integrating the group’s local and regional commands. The US killed the last leader of the Amniyat, Yusuf Dheeq, on Feb. 3, 2015, and also killed his predecessor, Tahlil Abdishakur, on Dec. 29, 2014. Additionally, the US killed Ahmed Godane, the co-founder of Shabaab, in an airstrike on Sept. 1, 2014.

Like when reporting the deaths of previous Shabaab leaders, the US military said that Sandhere’s death is “a significant blow to al-Shabaab ” and “an important step forward in the fight against al-Shabaab, and the United States will continue to use the tools at our disposal — financial, diplomatic, intelligence and military — to dismantle al-Shabaab and other terrorist groups who threaten United States, interests and persons.”

Unfortunately the deaths of Godane, Dheeq, Abdishakur, and a number of senior al Qaeda and Shabaab leaders at the hands of the US has done little to disrupt Shabaab’s command and control. The jihadist group has been waging an effective insurgency and still controls territory in Somalia despite the fact that the US began targeting Shabaab’s leadership beginning in late 2006.

Islamic State leader killed in Libya

The Department of Defense also confirmed that Zubaydi, who is also known as Abu Nabil, was killed in an airstrike in Libya on Nov. 13. The US military announced that it targeted Zubaydi on Nov. 14, but his death has not been confirmed until now.

In the Nov. 14 statement, the US military described him as “an Iraqi national who was a longtime al Qaeda operative and the senior ISIL [Islamic State] leader in Libya.” He was also thought to have served as the Islamic State’s “spokesman in the February 2015 Coptic Christian execution video.” The Islamic State’s Libyan branch brutally executed 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians.

The military claimed that Nabil’s death “will degrade ISIL’s ability to meet the group’s objectives in Libya, including recruiting new ISIL members, establishing bases in Libya, and planning external attacks on the United States.”

US continues to rely on tactic of decapitation vs counterinsurgency

The targeting and killing of Sandhere and Nabil highlights the US government’s abandonment of counterinsurgency to fight the spread of jihadist movements throughout the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. President Barack Obama ordered the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq at the end of 2011, and will reduce the number of US forces in Afghanistan to under 10,000 by the end of the year. US troops in Afghanistan are in train and assist as well as a counterterrorism posture, and are not dealing with the Taliban as an insurgent force.

Instead of fighting the jihadist groups on the ground, the US has primarily relied on airstrikes, and in many cases, unmanned aerial vehicles that are more commonly called drones, to target senior and mid-level leaders of the jihadist groups. This tactic has been used against al Qaeda, the Taliban and allied groups in Pakistan since 2007, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen since 2009, and Somalia since 2006.

While the airstrikes have killed some top leaders in the Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other organizations, they have not stopped the spread of jihadist groups across Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. Nor have they denied these groups territory, which is crucial for the group to train fighters, maintain local insurgencies, and plot attacks against the West. Despite years of airstrikes against al Qaeda and its allies, and more recently the Islamic State, the groups still control territory in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, and they are waging active insurgencies in Nigeria, Mali, Egypt, the Caucasus, and elsewhere.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal.

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