A video released by Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab on Tuesday included the first glimpse of its elusive leader, a man currently known as “Abu Ubaidah,” although he has used other names in the past.
His face is digitally blurred, but his hands and shoulders are visible and his voice is purportedly heard on the recording.
“Our biggest target today is the Americans, not the apostates. The only reason we have exerted all this effort and undertaken all this preparation today is to attack the American troops. Therefore you must carry out the operation with great efficiency,” Ubaidah said in the video, while giving what amounted to a pep talk to al-Shabaab fighters in late September before they attacked the Ballidogle airport some 55 miles from Mogadishu, a facility used by American troops.
The attack did not go well for al-Shabaab, which lost ten of its fighters and a militarized vehicle in the failed operation without inflicting any casualties on U.S. or Somali government forces. Analysts reviewing the new video said the lesser militants who can be seen listening to Ubaidah’s talk were all killed during the assault on the airfield.
There was some buzz in Somalia before the release of the video that it would show Ubaidah’s face and include a new message from the terrorist leader, but unless another video is forthcoming, it turned out to be merely a video recording of an audiotape circulated by al-Shabaab on September 20 – the first audio recording released by Ubaidah in three years.
In that recording, Ubaidah complained about “an increase in the invasion led by the United States and Britain” and claimed “hostility by Christians against Muslim society has increased.”
“Hostility by Christians against Muslim society has increased. The objective of this hostility is to loot the oil wells in the country and other natural resources such as fish, and to hand our oceans over to Kenya and Ethiopia,” he said.
Ubaidah was particularly angry about Kenya’s dispute of maritime borders with Somalia, which could put the ownership of valuable undersea oil and gas deposits in dispute. He denounced the Somali government as illegitimate for negotiating with Kenya and vowed not to accept any international court decisions in Kenya’s favor.
“We are informing our Muslim nation that the Mujaheddin will never accept, and are against any decision made by the so-called International Criminal Court,” he said.
“We tell the world that we don’t compromise on our oceans and we need our society to be aware that Kenya has already engulfed a large swath of our territory before aiming for the maritime claim,” he added, referring to Kenyan territory that al-Shabaab believes should belong to the ethnic Somalis who live there. This area has been the site of some of al-Shabaab’s most brutal attacks over the past decade.
Abu Ubaidah became active in al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate, under the names Ahmad Umar and Ahmed Diriye. He was announced as the leader of the Islamist terror organization in September 2014, following the liquidation of previous leader Ahmed Abdi Godane by a U.S. airstrike. According to al-Shabaab spokesmen, the decision to make Ahmad Umar the new leader was unanimous and made swiftly after Godane’s death.
The alias “Abu Ubaidah” is taken from Islamic lore, a reference to one of Mohammed’s ten closest companions. The name “Direye” is a reference to his clan, which lives near the Ethiopian border. His formal title is “emir,” implying he is both a military commander and a head of state. He is believed to be in his late 40s or early 50s.
Ubaidah is one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. The U.S. State Department announced a $6 million reward for information on his whereabouts in November 2015. The Somali intelligence service added a reward of $2 million.
“He is believed to subscribe to Godane’s view that al-Shabaab is more than a Somali nationalist movement and instead is one front in al-Qaeda’s global jihad,” the State Department said of Ubaidah. Other sources note that while he might have a global strategic outlook, Ubaidah appears deeply suspicious of non-Somali members of al-Shabaab and may have participated in a bloody purge of foreign fighters in 2013.
Before he joined al-Shabaab in 2007, he was radicalized by other organizations and became a scholar of Islam, teaching classes in the Quran for a time in the early 2000s. He held various “governor” positions for al-Shabaab and became one of its enforcers of sharia or Islamic law. He was also a successful fundraiser for the terrorist gang, appearing at several events attended by Somali businessmen. He was evidently successful at holding al-Shabaab together during tough times after the death of Godane, an event that some analysts thought could cause the terrorist organization to collapse.