Somali government reports Shabaab’s intel chief killed in US airstrike

Note: this article was updated on Dec. 31 to include the US confirmation of Tahlil Abdishakur’s death.

Somalia’s National Security Agency said that the US killed the leader of the Amniyat, Shabaab’s intelligence service, in yesterday’s airstrike in southern Somalia. The US Department of Defense later confirmed that the Shabaab leader was killed.

“In a joint operation last night by the Somali national security and the United States, al-Shabaab intelligence chief Abdishakur, also known as Tahlil, who replaced the recently arrested former chief, was eliminated,” the National Security Agency claimed in a statement that was released earlier today. The agency also said that two other Shabaab members were killed in the airstrike, but their identities were not disclosed, Al Arabiya reported.

Shabaab has not commented on yesterday’s airstrike, nor has the al Qaeda branch announced the death of a senior leader.

On Dec. 31, the US military, which announced yesterday that it targeted a “senior leader” of the jihadist group near the town of Saakow in southern Somalia, confirmed that Abdishakur was indeed killed.

“The Department of Defense has confirmed that Tahlil Abdishakur, chief of al-Shabaab’s intelligence and security wing, was killed in an airstrike on December 29th,” the Department of Defense said in a statement. “Working from actionable intelligence, these forces successfully struck with several Hellfire missiles a vehicle carrying Tahlil.”

The US military said that he “‘was responsible for al-Shabaab’s external operations” and his “death will significantly impact al-Shabaab’s ability to conduct attacks against the government of the Federal Republic of Somalia, the Somali people, and US allies and interests in the region.”

It is unclear if Abdishakur was the actual leader of the Amniyat; the identity of the emir of Shabaab’s intelligence branch remains murky.

Just two days prior to the US airstrike, Somali officials claimed that security forces captured Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi, whom the US had identified in June 2012 as being the leader of the Amniyat. But in 2013 the United Nations had claimed that Mahad Mohamed Ali, who is also known as “Karate,” was the emir of the intelligence division. [See LWJ report, Captured Shabaab official previously identified as group’s ‘chief of intelligence’.]

Shabaab later denied reports that Hersi was the head of its intelligence division, and claimed that he has not been a member of the group for well over a year. Press reports suggest that Hersi had a falling out with Ahmed Abdi Godane in 2013.

The Amniyat is a key organization within Shabaab. It 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. A top Amniyat official known as “Hassan” is said to have received direct instructions from Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri on training operatives in Africa. [See LWJ report, UN warned of Shabaab ally’s ‘new and more complex operations’ in Kenya, and Threat Matrix report, Zawahiri’s man in Shabaab’s ‘secret service’.]

The Amniyat is also responsible for protecting Shabaab’s emir, and in the past has carried out executions for the group’s leader. American Shabaab commander Omar Hammmani, senior Shabaab leader Ibrahim al Afghani, and other leaders were executed by the intelligence service on the orders of former emir Ahmed Abdi Godane.

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

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