MOGADISHU, Somalia, Aug. 11 (UPI) -- The Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab, increasingly a target for covert U.S. operations, was reported Thursday to have replaced its longtime leader, Ahmad Abdi Godane, with a seasoned military commander who advocates global jihad.
If the reported elevation of Ibrahim Haji Mead, aka Ibrahim al-Afghani, is correct, it would put the veteran of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Kashmir squarely in U.S. gun sights at a critical time.
Washington fears an alliance between al-Shabaab and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia.
U.S. counter-terrorism chiefs deem AQAP to be the most dangerous jihadist group for the United States in the world.
Washington has been stepping up clandestine operations by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command in recent months and several senior jihadists have been reported killed, part of a series of reverses suffered by the al-Shabaab.
It's likely U.S. forces will seek to exploit the group's change of leadership and the internal rivalries that played a key part in bringing it about.
The reports that Afghani is overall leader of al-Shabaab remain unconfirmed.
Afghani, like Godane, hails from the powerful Isaaq clan and the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor questioned whether the new leadership will mark a significant shift in the group's ideological direction or its military capabilities.
But the reported command change follows persistent signs of serious differences within the group regarding his leadership since September 2010 between Godane, aka Abu Zubair, and clan chieftains who are more nationalist in ideology than the hard-liners bent on global jihad.
These differences centered initially on a failed al-Shabaab offensive last year against the beleaguered Western-backed Transitional Federal Government, whose ragtag army is bolstered by a 9,000-man African Union "peacekeeping force" known as Amisom.
Stratfor observed that "elements within the group, especially those with more nationalist ideologies, have grown increasingly critical since September when a failed offensive on Mogadishu left hundreds of militants dead."
The nationalist factions that provided fighters for the push, particularly the Rahanweyn clan of rival commander Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansour, were incensed when it became known that Godane, who had planned the offensive, ordered Abu Mansour's wounded clansmen shot rather than given medical aid.
There were also reports at the time that Godane pushed rival clans into the forefront of the fighting rather than his own people.
Those heavy losses and last week's surprise retreat by al-Shabaab from Mogadishu, most of which it had controlled since 2007, in the face of a major offensive by TFG and Amisom forces intensified dissatisfaction with Godane's leadership.
Al-Shabaab was forced to abandon the Bakara Market, Mogadishu's commercial heart and a key source of revenue in the form of "taxes" imposed on merchants.
Meantime, the Americans have been developing their intelligence-gathering capabilities in Somalia, as they have in Yemen, and it's likely they'll try to hit al-Shabaab while it's reeling.
U.S. security specialist Jeremy Scahill says the CIA has in recent months established a clandestine counter-terrorism center at a fortified compound at Mogadishu's Aden Adde International Airport.
He reported in July that the CIA runs "a counter-terrorism training program for Somali intelligence agents and operatives aimed at building up an indigenous strike force capable of snatch operations and targeted 'combat' operations against members of al-Shabaab.
"As part of its expanding counter-terrorism program in Somalia, the CIA also uses a secret prison buried in the basement of Somalia's National Security Agency headquarters where prisoners suspected of being al-Shabaab members or having links to the group are held."
Scahill reported that there are usually as many as 30 CIA officers in Mogadishu. They're aided by French intelligence agents.
The Americans also fear that an al-Shabaab-AQAP alliance could result in the Islamists securing control of the Bab-al Mandeb Strait at the southern end of the Red Sea.
This is a vital maritime artery between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean through which much of the oil heading west from the Persian Gulf passes.
U.S. authorities also worry that such an alliance, which leaders in both groups appear to have been seeking, would give AQAP access to 40-50 American citizens of Somali extraction in al-Shabaab who could be used to penetrate homeland security to carry out attacks in the United States.