U.S. Strike Kills a Top Somali Militant

Tahlil Abdishakur, a key member of al-Shabab, died in an American drone strike just weeks after masterminding a bloody attack in Kenya.

A disabled Somali boy holds a poster stating that he will never support terrorism in his country during an anti Al-shabab rally in Mogadishu on February 23, 2014. AFP PHOTO / Abdifitah Hashi Nor (Photo credit should read ABDIFITAH HASHI NOR/AFP/Getty Images)

The Pentagon said Wednesday that a Dec. 29 drone strike in Somalia killed Tahlil Abdishakur, head of al-Shabab’s intelligence and security wing, just months after another strike killed the militant group’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, in September.

In a statement, the Pentagon said Abdishakur’s death in southwest Somalia “will significantly impact al-Shabaab’s ability to conduct attacks against the government of the Federal Republic of Somalia, the Somali people, and U.S. allies and interests in the region.”

The U.S. military fired Hellfire missiles from a drone at a vehicle carrying Abdishakur, who the Pentagon said was responsible for the group’s external operations. Abdishakur was suspected of masterminding a recent attack in Kenya that killed 36 non-Muslim miners in the town of Mandera in early December, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing a Somali defense official.

Al-Shabab, Arabic for “the youth,” evolved from a local group with grievances against Mogadishu’s fragile Western-backed central government into a regional one capable of striking outside the country’s borders. In 2013, the group’s gunmen launched a four-day attack on the Westgate mall, an upscale shopping center in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, that left 67 people dead. In 2010 the group carried out a bombing in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, that killed 78 people who were watching a World Cup football game.

The group has also openly threatened to target the West. In 2009, it struck a formal alliance with al Qaeda to target Western interests. Three years later, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that al-Shabab had become a franchise of the terror group. U.S. military and intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that al-Shabab and other militants operating throughout Africa are sharing weaponry, funding, and bomb-making prowess.

Drone strikes against militants like Abdishakur have become the signature weapon of the Obama administration’s shadow war against extremist groups around the world. The administration believes that the tactics offer a way of eliminating individual militants operating in areas where it would be too dangerous or politically sensitive to send American ground forces. The United States also argues that drones are more precise than other weapons, though many outside groups believe that strikes by the unmanned planes have killed hundreds of civilians.

Somalia also has a special resonance for Americans after a U.S. commando operation in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu, in October 1993 to capture two militiamen went disastrously wrong when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and a pilot was captured. The battle resulted in the deaths of 18 American troops and led to horrifying images of U.S. corpses being dragged through the streets of the city. The failed mission was turned into a best-selling book, Black Hawk Down, and a popular movie.

Somalia is among the top three countries, after Pakistan and Yemen, where U.S. special operations forces and other intelligence agencies have carried out hundreds of drone strikes and other covert military operations against militant groups since 2001, according to data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

In addition to carrying out commando raids and drone strikes, the CIA also operates a secret facility in Mogadishu that’s used to train the country’s counterterrorism forces, according to the Nation. The magazine said the CIA also runs an underground prison inside the compound.

Abdishakur is only the latest in a long line of al-Shabab leaders killed in U.S. strikes. Godane, who was killed in a Sept. 1 drone strike, rose to the helm of the militant group after his predecessor, Aden Hashi Ayro, was killed by the United States in 2008. Ayro died after his compound was struck by Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from a U.S. Navy ship.


Gopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News. Twitter: @g_ratnam