MOGADISHU, Somalia — A U.S. airstrike in Somalia killed at least six members of the Islamic extremist group al-Shabab, possibly including its leader who was in a car that was hit.
The leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, has no heir apparent and if he has been killed, al-Shabab could ditch its association with al-Qaida and align itself with the Islamic State group, analysts say.
Al-Shabab's top leader was in one of two vehicles hit Monday night by a U.S. military strike, a commander of the Somali Islamic extremist group said Tuesday, but he would not say if Godane was among the six militants killed.
The two vehicles were headed toward the coastal town of Barawe, al-Shabab's main base, when they were hit, Abu Mohammed told The Associated Press.
U.S. military forces attacked the extremist al-Shabab network in Somalia Monday, the Pentagon confirmed.
A witness in Somalia described ground-shaking explosions caused by the strike. Somali government and African Union forces heading to a town in the district heard what sounded like an "earthquake" as the al-Shabab bases were hit, said the governor of Somalia's Lower Shabelle region, Abdiqadir Mohamed Nor.
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. The U.S. strike on Monday targeted Godane and other planners of the bloody assault on the mall, officials said.
The U.S. drone strike 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.
The attack took place 105 miles (170 kilometers) south of Mogadishu, 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 two security experts said 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.
Godane has no heir apparent and there are reports of a rift within al-Shabab over which global terror group to align with, said Matt Bryden, the head of Sahan Research in Nairobi. A struggle for power seems likely, he said.
"Advanced splintering seems like a probable outcome," terrorism analyst J.M. Berger said by email. "If Shabab ends up exiting al-Qaida, there will be global implications for that ... but it's hard to say right now which way that will go."
Godane, 37, was publicly named as leader of al-Shabab in December 2007 and has since exercised command responsibility for the group's operations across Somalia, according to the National Counterterrorism Center.
Last year he was said to be in a feud with foreign militants, including an American jihadi from Alabama, Omar Hammami, who accused al-Shabab leaders of living extravagant lifestyles with the taxes collected from Somali residents. Hammami was killed last September following months on the run after falling out with Godane.
U.S. commanders said they are waiting to determine the outcome of Monday's attack.
After the U.S. strike in a forest near Sablale district south of Mogadishu, masked Islamic militants in the area arrested dozens of residents they suspected of spying for the U.S. and searched nearby homes, a resident said.
"Everyone is being detained," said Mohamed Ali, who lives in Sablale district. "They even searched nearby jungles and stopped the nomads transporting milk and grass to the towns for questioning."
The U.S. has carried out several airstrikes in Somalia in recent years.
A U.S. missile strike in January killed a high-ranking intelligence officer for al-Shabab and last October a vehicle carrying senior members of the group was hit in a U.S. strike that killed al-Shabab's top explosives expert.
The latest U.S. action comes after Somalia's government forces regained control of a high-security prison in the capital that was attacked on Sunday. Seven heavily armed suspected al-Shabab members had attempted to free other extremists held there.
Al-Shabab attacked the mall in Nairobi last year to punish Kenya for sending troops into Somalia against the extremists. Godane said at the time that the mall attack was carried out in retaliation for the West's support for Kenya's Somalia intervention and the "interest of their oil companies."
Al Shabab is now mostly active in Somalia's rural regions after being ousted from the capital by African Union forces in 2011.
Somali military officials last week launched a military operation to oust al-Shabab from its last remaining bases in the southern parts of Somalia. On Saturday the militants withdrew from the town of Bulomarer, located about 110 kilometers (70 miles) south of Mogadishu, after hours of fighting.
Associated Press reporter Jason Straziuso in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.