Born Ahmed Diriye, Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah is the current emir of Somali terror group al-Shabaab.“Security Council 751 and 1907 Committee on Somalia and Eritrea Adds Ahmed Diriye to 1844 Sanctions List,” U.N. Security Council, September 24, 2014, http://www.un.org/press/en/2014/sc11579.doc.htm. Abu Ubaidah has led al-Shabaab since the September 2014 death of the group’s previous emir, Ahmed Godane, in a U.S. drone strike.Thomas Joscelyn, “Shabaab names new emir, reaffirms allegiance to al-Qaeda,” Long War Journal, September 6, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/09/shabaab_names_new_em.php.
There is little information available on Abu Ubaidah’s background, but he reportedly comes from the Dir clan and joined al-Shabaab in 2006.Feisal Omar and Abdi Sheikh, “Somalia’s al Shabaab name new leader after U.S. strike, warn of revenge,” Reuters, September 6, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/07/us-somalia-usa-islamist-idUSKBN0H10LK20140907. Godane was also a member of the Dir clan, and he and Abu Ubaidah were reportedly very close.Ludovica Iaccino, “Who is Sheikh Ahmed Umar, Al-Shabaab’s Ruthless New Leader?,” International Business Times, September 8, 2014, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/who-sheikh-ahmed-umar-al-shabaabs-ruthless-new-leader-1464553. Dir is one of the main clans in Somalia and also has members in some regions of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti.World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Somalia: Overview,” Minority Rights Group International, May 2011, http://www.refworld.org/docid/4954ce42c.html.
Abu Ubaidah is a longtime senior member of al-Shabaab and supposedly served as Godane’s deputy. Some sources believe that Abu Ubaidah was a member of the Amniyat, the most feared division of al-Shabaab. Godane created the Amniyat to be the internal police and intelligence arm of the organization in 2013.Jamie Dettmer, "Ahmed Abdi Godane Is Al-Shabab's Osama Bin Laden," Daily Beast, September 5, 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/ahmed-abdi-godane-is-al-shababs-osama-bin-laden;
Frank Chothia, “Ahmed Abdi Godane: Somalia’s killed al-Shabab leader,” BBC News, September 9, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-29034409. The Amniyat is made up of specially trained members who carry out high-level missions such as assassinations and are responsible for exposing rivals and informants within the wider group.Ludovica Iaccino, “Who is Sheikh Ahmed Umar, Al-Shabaab’s Ruthless New Leader?,” International Business Times, September 8, 2014, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/who-sheikh-ahmed-umar-al-shabaabs-ruthless-new-leader-1464553.
Abu Ubaidah is believed to have been a part of the internal purge that occurred in 2013.Ludovica Iaccino, “Who is Sheikh Ahmed Umar, Al-Shabaab’s Ruthless New Leader?,” International Business Times, September 8, 2014, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/who-sheikh-ahmed-umar-al-shabaabs-ruthless-new-leader-1464553. Then-leader Godane sought to ruthlessly consolidate power by killing his rivals within the organization and driving less violent members into exile. The Amniyat reportedly killed more than 200 dissidents during the purge.Ken Menkhaus, “Al-Shabab’s Capabilities Post-Westgate,” CTC Sentinel, February 2014, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/v2/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/CTCSentinel-Vol7Iss2.pdf.
Following Godane’s death on September 1, 2014, analysts believe that Abu Ubaidah was a conservative choice to succeed Godane in order to ensure a smoother transition from Godane’s leadership. Also considered was Mahad Karate, who was appointed deputy emir.Hassan M. Abukar, “After Godane: Al-Shabaab’s new leadership fights internal reform,” African Arguments, October 1, 2014, http://africanarguments.org/2014/10/01/after-godane-al-shabaabs-new-leadership-fights-internal-reform-by-hassan-m-abukar/. Less than a month after Abu Ubaidah’s appointment, the U.N. Security Council added him to its terrorist sanctions list.“Security Council 751 and 1907 Committee on Somalia and Eritrea Adds Ahmed Diriye to 1844 Sanctions List,” U.N. Security Council, September 24, 2014, http://www.un.org/press/en/2014/sc11579.doc.htm. The United States followed in 2015.“Transnational Criminal Organizations Designations; Counter Terrorism Designations,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, April 21, 2015, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20150421.aspx. In November 2015, through its “Rewards for Justice” program, the U.S. Department of State offered a reward of up to $6 million for information leading to the “identification or whereabouts” of Abu Ubaidah.Matthew Lee, “US offers millions in rewards for info on al-Shabab leaders,” Associated Press, November 10, 2015, https://apnews.com/article/c39ed3c1d1df4ea0844523a3f25befb3.
According to analyst Hassan M. Abukar, Abu Ubaidah heads a faction within the group that closely follows Godane’s policies of ruling through the consolidation of power and brutal suppression of opposition.Hassan M. Abukar, “After Godane: Al-Shabaab’s new leadership fights internal reform,” African Arguments, October 1, 2014, http://africanarguments.org/2014/10/01/after-godane-al-shabaabs-new-leadership-fights-internal-reform-by-hassan-m-abukar/. Abu Ubaidah reportedly commands a set of regional commanders who manage al-Shabaab’s presence in southern Somalia, Mogadishu, Bay and Bokool, Puntland and Somaliland, and Juba Valley.Abdi O. Shuriye, “Research: Al-shabaab’s Leadership Hierarchy and its Ideology,” Horn Affairs, May 7, 2012, http://hornaffairs.com/en/2012/05/07/research-al-shabaabs-leadership-hierarchy-and-its-ideology/. Abu Ubaidah has also appointed a Shura council of 10 members who oversee al-Shabaab’s regional commanders.
In November 2019, Abu Ubaidah appeared in a video naming the United States as the group’s primary target and demanded supporters attack Americans wherever they could. Though Abu Ubaidah’s face was obscured, it was the first time that he had been seen on camera since succeeding Godane in 2014. The footage of Abu Ubaidah in the video was reportedly shot before September 30, 2019, when al-Shabaab attempted a raid on Baledogle Airfield, a base used by U.S. forces in Somalia.Harun Maruf, “Al-Shabab Chief Partially Seen on Video for First Time,” Voice of America, November 5, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/africa/al-shabab-chief-partially-seen-video-first-time.
In August 2020, Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) announced via its Twitter account that al-Shabaab temporarily transferred power to Abu Ubaidah’s deputy, Abukar Aden, due to the emir’s health concerns.“Al-Shabaab leader hands over power to deputy amid “ill-health” speculations,” Garowe Online, August 29, 2020, https://www.garoweonline.com/index.php/en/news/somalia/al-shabaab-leader-hands-over-to-deputy-amid-ill-health-speculations. NISA also claimed that a “bitter power struggle” ensued as al-Shabaab’s deputy emir Mahad Karate clashed with Abu Ubaidah’s supporters over the alleged nomination of a new leader.Japheth Ogila, “Change of guard for Al-Shabaab as leader falls sick,” The Standard (Kenya), August 31, 2020, https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/africa/article/2001384609/change-of-guard-for-al-shabaab-as-leader-falls-sick.
In a video released on March 27, 2021, Abu Ubaidah called for called for attacks on American and French interests in Djibouti. He also lashed out at Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh, accusing him of turning Djibouti into a “military base from where every war against the Muslims in East Africa is planned and executed.”“Al-Shabaab calls for attacks on U.S, French interests in Djibouti,” Africa News, March 29, 2021, https://www.africanews.com/2021/03/29/al-shabaab-calls-for-attacks-on-u-s-french-interests-in-djibouti/.
The U.N. Security Council Committee added Ahmed Diriye to its list of individuals and entities subject to travel ban, asset freeze, and targeted arms embargo on September 24, 2014.“Security Council 751 and 1907 Committee on Somalia and Eritrea Adds Ahmed Diriye to 1844 Sanctions List,” U.N. Security Council, September 24, 2014, http://www.un.org/press/en/2014/sc11579.doc.htm.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury designated Ahmed Diriye as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist on April 21, 2015.“Transnational Criminal Organizations Designations; Counter Terrorism Designations,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, April 21, 2015, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20150421.aspx.