Who Attacked al-Shabab? The Rebel Leader Speaks

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Feisal Omar / Reuters

Members of al-Shabab patrol the streets of Mogadishu on Sept. 10, 2010, during the first day of 'Id al-Fitr

Who attacked Somalia's al-Shabab on Sunday? At about 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 26, a mysterious helicopter opened fire on a meeting of top leaders of the increasingly ambitious al-Shabab rebel organization, which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist group. The group's leader, Sheik Muktar Abdirahman Godane, told TIME in an interview on Monday that he was present at the meeting in the Somali town of Merca and watched as the helicopter, which he said was either gray or olive green, approached from the sea, circled and fired on the house where the meeting was taking place. None of the foreign military powers with ships off the Somali coast have taken credit for the strike. "The helicopter was there for about 20 minutes in the air of Merca, and then it left," Godane told TIME. "We are now investigating the ammunition that it fired."

Godane, who rarely speaks to Western media, said that seven al-Shabab leaders had gathered at a house belonging to one of the group's local members to try to resolve a power dispute that had arisen between Godane and Sheik Muktar Robow, another al-Shabab leader, over strategy and control of the organization. Godane refused to say whether anyone was killed or injured in the attack, which was first reported by the New York Times. (The Times stated that no one was hurt.) Godane said al-Shabab closed off the town after the attack and prevented anyone from leaving, to try to learn if someone in the area had informed on the meeting. Mobile-phone communication was also cut off.

Officials from the U.S. and the European Union, which have warships patrolling off the Somali coast, denied deploying the helicopter. "I can tell you we don't have any troops in that vicinity at all," Major Bryan Purtell, spokesman for the U.S. military's Special Operations Command Africa, told the Associated Press. The African Union also said it was not involved. That is likely, because the A.U. forces in Somalia are notoriously undermanned and underfunded and have no air power at all. "You made me have the laugh of the year," Major Barigye Bahoku told the AP. "There is no way the African Union force can be involved in such a strike. We don't have helicopters — any air capacity whatsoever."

The attack is not unprecedented. In September 2009, an American strike team killed al-Qaeda suspect Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in Somalia. Nabhan was allegedly involved in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. He was also suspected in the bombing of an Israeli hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002 and the failed attempt to shoot down an airliner leaving Mombasa the same day. Still, it would be highly unusual for any military force to send a single helicopter to attack the al-Shabab leadership.

Al-Shabab has been increasingly active over a wider geographical range in recent months and is believed to have forged closer ties to al-Qaeda, receiving funding, training and fighters from the group. At the same time, its chief rival, the U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), has become weaker and weaker, riven by internal squabbling, corruption and mismanagement. Last week, TFG Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke resigned under pressure from President Sheik Sharif Ahmed in what was largely seen as a turf battle. The TFG suffered another serious setback over the weekend when a moderate Islamic group, Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, withdrew its support for the government. The group said it had lost faith in the TFG.

Sharif's government now controls only a few acres of territory in Mogadishu, while al-Shabab's influence has spread; it now controls much of Somalia's south, including the port of Kismayu, where it earns much of its revenue. The group took control of Merca, down the coast from Mogadishu, in 2008.

In the interview with TIME, Godane said al-Shabab was doing well thanks to donations and income. "We get funding from different sources," he said. "A rich Muslim may wish to fund the jihad for the sake of Allah. We have supporters throughout the world." He reserved his harshest words for the U.S., which he said was powerless to get rid of al-Shabab despite Washington's funding of the TFG and its involvement in strikes like the one that killed Nabhan last year. "Only Allah can remove us," he said. "America cannot remove anything. They are enemy of Allah, and they will taste his punishment if they don't ask for forgiveness."