U.S. Operations Against al-Shabaab/al-Qaeda: The Targeting of Godane

As Sarah Knuckey’s post explains, CNN is reporting that the latest US drone strike in Somalia targeted Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Al-Shabaab. Sarah asks whether the strike met the new rules that the White House announced on May 23, 2013.

Another question raised by the strike is under what domestic legal authority — under the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) or otherwise — was Godane targeted? As readers may recall, in October 2013, President Obama sent a team of Navy Seals on a kill or capture mission inside Somalia. We had reason to address this very question in that instance, because the media had first reported that Godane was the target of that raid. Here is what I wrote at the time with respect to  application of the AUMF to Godane:

What domestic legal authority did President Obama invoke to send a team of Navy SEALs into Somalia this weekend to capture or kill a member of al-Shabaab, the terrorist organization based in that country and allegedly responsible for the recent Westgate Mall attack in Kenya?

A key question is whether the government’s legal theory is a broad one—that al-Shabaab as such is one of the “associated forces” of al-Qaeda and thus all members are targetable—or a narrow one—that only “two-hatted” individuals who are members of both al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda are targetable?

Indeed, according to the Washington Post, U.S. officials have now stated that the President ordered the assault under the September 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). According to the Post’s Ernesto Londoño, “U.S. officials said both operations were lawful under war powers that Congress granted the executive branch after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks.”

If the Post’s report is accurate, the question is whether the US officials are invoking a broad theory of AUMF authority (al-Shabaab as a group is subject to the use of force) or a narrow theory (only those individuals who are also members of al-Qaeda are lawful targets).

Before this weekend, most indications had been that the narrower theory has been the basis for US attacks on specific members of al-Shabaab. If it turns out to be the broader model, a major new front in the post-9/11 US war footing has opened—and the administration has not informed the American public.

A hint that it might, indeed, be the broader of the two theories is based on one of the few official statements by the DOD over the weekend. The Pentagon Press Secretary confirmed that the US military operation was aimed at “a known al-Shabaab terrorist” (see also here). It is notable that this statement does not identify the target as a member of al-Qaeda.

The key, however, may turn on the identity and organizational affiliations of the specific target of the U.S. operation. So, who exactly was the target?

At first, media reports over the weekend suggested that the target was a leader of al-Shabaab, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, alias Muktar Abdirahman “Godane,” which would not necessarily unsettle the narrower model. According to Daniel Klaidman’s terrific book, Kill or Capture, the administration already determined (in the fall of 2010) that Godane was targetable under the two-hatted theory following his sworn oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda and intelligence reports indicating he wanted to attack the West (pp. 221-22). Indeed, another al-Shabaab leader may have been spared at the time because he had not taken the same actions.

That said, more recent news stories (herehere, and here), primarily relying on statements by U.S. government officials, report that the target was not Godane after all. …


About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016) Follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.