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Al-Shabaab leader's fate unclear after suspected U.S. drone strike

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By Michael Pearson, Holly Yan, Omar Nor and Barbara Starr

MOGADISHU, Somalia (CNN) -- He's the man behind 2013's ghastly shopping mall siege in Nairobi, Kenya. He's pledged his terror group's allegiance to al Qaeda. Now, the world wants to know if Al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane is dead after a suspected U.S. drone strike in Somalia.

The strike Monday near the port city of Barawe was so ferocious, "it jolted the entire region," said Lower Shabelle Gov. Abdikadir Mohamed Nur Sidii.

"I never heard such a huge and deafening blast as the result of the airstrike," Sidii said.

Somali intelligence officials said at least four missiles were launched at a convoy of Al-Shabaab senior leaders. The Pentagon would only say it carried out an operation in Somalia, but didn't offer details.

Two U.S. officials who declined to be identified because they aren't authorized to speak on the record said Tuesday that the strike was undertaken because of intelligence showing Godane and his top lieutenants were meeting.

"We had an opportunity that we had been looking for and it presented itself," one of the officials told CNN.

The commanders had been meeting in Barawe -- the group's biggest stronghold in Somalia -- on how to stave off a joint offensive by Somali and African Union troops, Sidii said.

"We can't confirm how many leaders were killed in the attack," he said. "We will confirm later."

The Obama administration has targeted Al-Shabaab leaders in Somalia at least twice in the past year, including an airstrike in January.

Bloody resume

Godane is one of Al-Shabaab's founders and has led the group since 2008, when a U.S. airstrike killed then-leader Aden Hashi Ayrow.

Under Godane's leadership, Al-Shabaab has unleashed a wave of terror across east Africa, including attacks in Somalia and Uganda, a deadly attack on a United Nations compound in Mogadishu in June 2013 and the 2013 siege at Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.

In that attack, terrorists believed to be from Al-Shabaab casually walked into the mall, pulled out weapons and began gunning down shoppers. The gunmen also were accused of torturing some hostages before killing them.

As many as 67 people died in the siege, and parts of the mall were destroyed.

Godane's death would strike a serious blow to Al-Shabaab, CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank said Tuesday.

"Ahmed Godane is a very ruthless figure in the group, he dominates the group," Cruickshank said. "You could see a kind of leadership struggle emerge if, indeed, he was killed."

Group under pressure

Al-Shabaab has been able to continue operating despite military defeats by Somali, Ethopian and African Union Mission troops dating back to 2007.

More recently, the group has been under pressure from Somali and African Union peacekeeping forces, which launched an operation last week to cut off the group's supply lines along the Somali coast.

The militants started withdrawing from Barawe in recent days as Somali and AU forces began advancing on the port city.

On Monday, the African Union Mission in Somalia announced that military forces had retaken several important towns in the Middle Shabelle and Hiiran regions.

Michael Pearson and Holly Yan reported and wrote from Atlanta; Omar Nor reported from Mogadishu and Barbara Starr reported from Washington. CNN's Elise Labott, Brian Walker, Susanna Capelouto and Nana Karikari-apau also contributed to this report.

The-CNN-Wire

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