US drone strike targets Shabaab’s external operations chief

The US military targeted the chief of Shabaab’s external operations and intelligence branch in a drone strike that took place in Somalia last weekend. The US has not confirmed the death of the jihadist leader. Shabaab is al Qaeda’s official branch in Somalia and East Africa.

The drone strike, which targeted Yusuf Dheeq, was announced earlier today during a press briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby.

“US Special Operations forces conducted a strike south of Mogadishu, using unmanned aircraft and several Hellfire missiles,” Kirby stated. “This operation was a direct strike against the al-Shabaab network, and the terrorist group’s chief of external operations and planning for intelligence and security. His name was Yusuf Dheeq.”

Kirby stated that the US military is “still assessing the results of the operation” and it is unclear if Dheeq “no longer breathes.”

Kirby stated that the strike was launched “in consultation and coordination” with the Somali government, and confirmed the existence of a “cell” of military and intelligence specialists who are tracking and targeting Shabaab’s leadership.

“[T]he cell is still there and still performing a vital function, but we don’t talk about the size of the footprint there,” Kirby stated.

US targets Shabaab’s Amniyat

Dheeq’s death would be “another significant blow to al-Shabaab and their ability to conduct, plan, prepare for and – and strike against targets inside and outside Somalia,” said Kirby.

Dheeq’s responsibilities, as “intelligence and security chief and director of external planning,” Kirby continued, would make him the leader of Shabaab’s Amniyat.

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 assassinated by the intelligence service on the orders of former emir Ahmed Abdi Godane.

The US has targeted top leaders of the Amniyat in the recent past. The US killed Tahlil Abdishakur, the previous leader of the Amniyat, in an airstrike in Somalia on Dec. 29, 2014.

In January 2014, the US killed Sahal Iskudhuq, a senior Shabaab commander who served as a high-ranking member of the Amniyat, in another airstrike. And in October 2013, US Navy SEALs targeted but failed to capture or kill Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, who is also known as Ikrima. US officials described Ikrima as Shabaab’s external operations chief, and said he was in close contact with al Qaeda’s general command in Pakistan and directed attacks in Kenya. [See LWJ report, Weekend attacks in Somalia deal Shabaab a double blow.]

Third US strike against Shabaab’s top leaders

Dheeq is the third senior Shabaab leader targeted by the US since early September 2014. In addition to Abdishakur, the US killed Ahmed Abdi Godane, the previous leader of Shabaab, in another airstrike. Several of the group’s leaders and commanders were also killed along with Godane, who was also known as Sheikh Mukhtar Abu Zubayr.

Shabaab immediately name Sheikh Ahmad Umar as Godane’s replacement. Umar re-affirmed the group’s allegiance to al Qaeda.

“The leadership also renews its pledge of allegiance to al Qaeda and its leader, Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri, may Allah protect him,” the statement reads, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.

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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