MOGADISHU, Somalia – The new leader of Somalia's al-Shabab extremist rebels, Ahmad Umar, is described as a compelling leader who is expected to maintain the Islamic militant group's violent attacks against the Mogadishu government and other targets.
Umar is confronted by a stepped up campaign against al-Shabab by the Somali government and African Union forces that are closing in on the rebels' last major stronghold, the town of Barawe in southern Somalia. In addition the U.S. hit al-Shabab with the airstrikes that killed the group's previous leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, last week.
Umar takes over a group that has seen its control of Somali territory diminish significantly and which has been resorting to terror attacks at home and abroad. Believed to be in his 50s, Umar rose to power in al-Shabab amid a purge last year of critics of the group's leaders.
"He's a man whom they believe can maintain Godane's power grip and creeds," said a Somali intelligence official who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. He described Umar as "charismatic." That's unlike Godane, a recluse who communicated mostly through radio broadcasts.
Umar goes by several aliases, but intelligence officials in Somalia say they know him as Sheikh Mahad Abdikarim, a militant who once governed Somalia's Bakool region on behalf of al-Shabab.
In 2012 the U.S. offered a $3 million reward for information leading to Umar's arrest. At the time Umar was reported to be al-Shabab's intelligence chief.
Umar is said to be highly interested in Islamic studies and is a former teacher of the Quran. And like his slain boss, Godane, he was a member of the Islamic Courts Union, an extremist group that was a precursor to al-Shabab and which ruled many parts of Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu, in 2006 before it was ousted by Ethiopian troops.
Umar became a member of al-Shabab's inner circle during Godane's rule, coordinating the group's intelligence unit when al-Shabab was escalating its attacks across Somalia and beyond, the Somali intelligence official said. Last year al-Shabab assaulted a Kenyan mall in which at least 67 people were killed.
Last year some al-Shabab members criticized Godane and other al-Shabab leaders for enjoying extravagant lifestyles with taxes collected from Somali residents. Chief among the critics was an American jihadi from Alabama named Omar Hammami. Umar is believed to have been part of the team that hunted down Hammami and killed him last September.
Al-Shabab was pushed out of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, in 2011 and the group retreated mostly to the southern parts of Somalia where, Somali military officials say, the group imposed its authority by collecting taxes and beheading those who did not conform to their strict version of Islam.
When al-Shabab announced that it chose Umar as its new leader, it also said that it remains aligned with al-Qaida, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors statements by Islamic militant groups.
Associated Press reporter Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda, contributed to this report.