MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) - U.S. airstrikes in Somalia may have killed the leader of the Islamic extremist group al-Shabab, with a militant commander saying Tuesday that he was in a car that was struck and that six people died.
The leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, has no heir apparent. If he has been killed, it would be a "significant blow" to al-Shabab's organization and abilities, said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, who confirmed the strikes targeting Godane.
But Godane's death could also lead the group to ditch its association with al-Qaida and align itself with the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, analysts said. Al-Shabab gained international notoriety a year ago this month when it attacked the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 67 people.
Godane was in one of two vehicles hit by the U.S. military strikes Monday night, said Abu Mohammed, an al-Shabab commander and spokesman. He said six militants were killed, but would not say if Godane was among them. The two vehicles were heading toward the coastal town of Barawe, al-Shabab's main base, Mohammed told The Associated Press.
The U.S. strikes hit Godane after he left a meeting of the group's top leaders, said a senior Somali intelligence official. Intelligence indicated Godane "might have been killed along with other militants," said the Somali official, who spoke on condition of anonymity since he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. launched the operation based on "actionable" intelligence, and the strikes "hit what we were aiming at." But commanders were waiting to determine the outcome of the attack.
The strikes on an encampment and a vehicle were conducted by special operations forces using manned and unmanned aircraft, according to Kirby. They struck using several hellfire missiles and precision-guided munitions.
A witness in Somalia described ground-shaking explosions. Somali government and African Union forces heading to a town in the district heard what sounded like an "earthquake," said the governor of Somalia's Lower Shabelle region, Abdiqadir Mohamed Nor.
The attack took place 105 miles south of Mogadishu in a forested area where al-Shabab trains its fighters, he said.
Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, is al-Shabab's spiritual leader under whose direction the Somali militants forged an alliance with al-Qaida. In 2012 the U.S. offered a reward of up to $7 million for information leading to his arrest.
If Godane has been killed, the leadership upheaval could bring al-Shabab to break away from al-Qaida and instead pledge allegiance to the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, according to two security experts.