Al-Shabab’s new leader, Ahmed Dirie Abdikarim, did not even wait a day after his selection as the new emir to bomb Mogadishu and kill 12 innocent people. The militant organization announced him as “Ahmed Umar Abu Obeidah” which is a pseudonym, a tactic revolutionaries and jihadists are well-accustomed to using. Former and current members of Al-Shabab know the new emir as “Ahmed Dirie.”
In his early 40s, Dirie hails from the Dir clan and was born in Qalaafe in the Somali region of Ethiopia. He spent many years in Kismayo, the key southern port city that Al Shabab lost to Kenyan forces on Sept. 2012, , where he taught Qur’an to children. Ahmed Dirie is not new to jihadism. When he was in his early twenties, he was a member of the now defunct Al-Ittihad Al-Islami movement. Dirie was a loyalist of Godane, the former emir of the group who was killed by an American drone on September 1.
Dirie’s meteoric rise in the militant group began a few years ago when he became the Al-Shabab leader of Kismayo and then later the governor of Bay and Bakool. Last year, Godane waged a violent campaign to consolidate his power after some senior members of the militant group lashed out at him for his dictatorial tendencies. These critics included two co-founders of the terror group (Ibrahim Jama Me’ad “Afghani” and Abdulhamid Olhaye “Moalim Burhan”) and the American-born Alabama native Omar Hammami. Godane’s response was swift and brutal—he hunted them down one by one and killed them. Mukhtar Robow, another co-founder of the group, and Hassan Dahir Aweys escaped from Godane. After June 2013, Godane consolidated power and became the undisputed leader of the terror group, which had been governed through collective leadership.
Dirie was one of Godane’s henchmen and specifically tasked to eliminate the emir’s rivals, such as the American Hammami. Diriye’s assassins, from the powerful Amniyat branch, initially botched their operations to hunt down Hammami. In April 2013, an Al-Shabab assassin shot Hammami in the neck in Raamacadey, a remote village of the Bay and Bakool region. The American miraculously survived that attempt on his life. However, after several failed attempts to liquidate Hammami, Dirie’s killers finally nailed him on September 12. Consequently, Dirie earned his stripes and the confidence of Godane.
Dirie is neither educated nor has he widely travelled outside the Horn of Africa. In 2002, he is believed to have spent several months in Qatar. It is not clear whether he speaks any foreign language. It is also not clear if he will stay in power for long now that Godane, his mentor, is dead. Some see Dirie as a transitional leader, something the militant group is too accustomed to; several emirs who had led the group ended up being imprisoned or killed. Dirie is not known to have given any speeches that are available online, nor was he ever in the forefront, and, thus known to the media.
There are reports that Dirie was responsible of the killings of several prominent figures in Kismayo such as businessmen, tribal chieftains and journalists. Some reports suggest that it was under his watch when the local BBC reporter, Nasteh Dahir Farah, was assassinated on June 7, 2008. Like his mentor, Dirie is obsessed with secrecy and believes that Al-Shabab leaders should not be seen in public, like the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, who has been elusive but yet influential behind the scenes. Dirie though lacks Godane’s ability to elicit admiration from foot soldiers. Godane was known for his poetic talents.
Dirie’s promotion to emir can result in two possible outcomes. First, it will take him a while to consolidate power because he is still the new kid on the block. Furthermore, it will take some time for the militant group to adjust to him after going through the sudden shock of losing its imperial leader Godane. Godane was no ordinary emir; he was a micromanager who demanded absolute loyalty and obedience. He was also highly secretive and might perhaps have been the only man with all the information of the group. Second, Diriye might be a figurehead, and power might rest with a few well-known and powerful figures who have been passed over for the top job.
In its short history, Al-Shabab had three Dir emirs including Dirie: Ismail Arale (Isaaq-Habar Yonis), Ahmed Godane (Isaaq-Arab) and none from the Hawiye clan, which has a strong presence in the south and the ranks of the radical group. Arale, whose deputy then was none other than Ahmed Madoobe (the current president of Jubaland) was arrested in Djibouti, sent to Guantanamo and later released to Somaliland. Arale has yet to release a statement about his view on Al Shabab.
Dirie’s elevation already generated a minor controversy when the Somali warlord and former jihadist, Yusuf Siyaad “Indha-Cadde,” aired a sentiment. In a recent radio interview, he lashed out at the Al-Shabab leadership for its marginalization of the Hawiye. He singled out Godane as “the one who was never comfortable with seeing a Hawiye man on the top post.” In 2008, the United States government killed the prominent co-founder of the Al-Shabab, Adan Hashi Farah “Ayro,” who was Hawiye. Contrary to popular belief, Ayro was never the emir of the group.
For the Somali public, the systematic terror by Al-Shabab is not likely to abate no matter who is at the helm of the group. Dirie has already proven that he will not let up the violence.
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