Earlier last week Muktar "Godane" Zubeyr, al-Shabaab's transnational figurehead, sent a message to his remaining followers and Somalia's many clan elders. Widely interpreted as a sign of desperate bravado, Zubeyr urged al-Shabaab fighters to embrace martyrdom as soldiers from the African Union (AU) and Somalia's Transnational Federal Government (TFG) besiege them from multiple fronts. His appeal will largely fall on deaf ears; al-Qaeda's foreign cadre has reportedly fled to Yemen and al-Shabaab's nationalist members don't plan on dying for Zubeyr.
Clan elders have no use for him.
Interestingly, the response of al-Shabaab's nationalist leadership has trumped any message circulated by the self-admitted follower of Osama bin Laden. Days after the U.S. State Department included Zubeyr and other al-Shabaab commanders in a new, multi-million dollar "Rewards For Justice" program, Fuad "Shangole" Qalaf mocked President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by offering camels and chickens for information on their whereabouts. Considering the ongoing power struggle between Zubeyr and al-Shabaab's local core, along with the certain scent of propaganda, Qalaf may have been using the platform to challenge Zubeyr's authority. The subsequent reaction from al-Qaeda's #1 cheerleader in Somalia would then fall into place as a counter-challenge.
Qalaf's declaration has since been eclipsed by Mukhtar "Abu Mansur" Robow, who just delivered a weekend sermon at a Burhakaba mosque: “If they [U.S government] can harm me, I tell now that I am here in Burhakaba town and also I can move freely in Somalia... The Mujahidin, like me are not giving any attention to the calls of the Americans and their allies. We do not hide ourselves we publicly say we are here.. try if you can.”
Located in Robow's home province of Bay, Burhakaba offered an ideal setting to project the remaining ounces of al-Shabaab's waning power. The town also symbolizes the dangers of targeting him in a drone or JSOC strike. Unlike the isolated Zubeyr, who hails from Somaliland, Robow still possesses some influence with his centrally-based Rahanweyn clan and is using his local connections to stay alive; surfacing in Burhakaba dismisses prior reports that Robow fled to Somaliland ahead of Kenya's advance on Kismayo. The group's leading nationalist clearly abides by a concept of anti-American jihad, but he derives his ideology from nationalist sources such as America's 1992-93 intervention and Ethiopia's U.S.-supported occupation. Like bin Laden himself, Robow opposed an open alliance between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda because he wanted to avoid complete isolation with the outside world.
He also counts himself as an ally of Zubeyr's heated rival, Hassan Aweys, whose Hizbul Islam was cannibalized in 2010 after years of infighting. Both Robow and Aweys would like to remove Zubeyr from Somalia's power equation and return to a nationally-driven jihad.
The present status of al-Shabaab is equally jumbled and fixed. Ousted from the group's throne by a joint movement of al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda fighters, Zubeyr temporarily ceded power in December 2010 to a mutual friend of Robow's: Ibrahim al-Afghani. However al-Afghani disappeared after surviving a 2011 drone strike and supposedly quit his position, according to one of al-Shabaab's intelligent agents. Robow has now regained control over the group's local network while Zubeyr allegedly took command of al-Qaeda in East Africa, and at the very least pledged his allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Thus killing Robow would empower Zubeyr's tenuous influence over the group, a mistake that foreign powers shouldn't induce.
Literal interpretations shouldn't be ruled out either and, as unlikely as the possibility is, Robow sounds like he's asking to be brought into custody. Aweys is already suspected of cutting an undisclosed deal with Washington in order to dodge its bounty program, a scenario that could hint at a future political use.
Either way, the Obama administration cannot lethally target Robow unless al-Shabaab's leadership is eliminated in unison - Robow would be far more useful in Somalia's conflict if captured alive. He and Aweys are the only individuals who can open a channel between the TFG's impending successor, and may be the only military figures with the power to order a ceasefire. For two decades Somalia has endured a cycle of failed governments, doomed resolutions and recycled insurgencies. The wisest course of action would eliminate Zubeyr first, then attempt to squeeze Robow and Aweys into reconciliation. Lethal force would be applied as the last resort, in the likely event that Robow and Aweys reject the Western-backed government, but a sincere political effort should be undertaken first.
Although the AU's force has seized numerous territories from al-Shabaab over the last two years and holds a commanding conventional position, negotiations may yield the difference between quicker defeat and another multi-year phase of guerrilla warfare.