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As allied forces make territorial gains against al-Shabaab and drone attacks continue from above, al-Shabaab’s hardline insurgents have been moving from their three year old positions. In the world of jihad, it is a normal tactic to withdraw before overwhelming traditional forces enter a city and then return in small groups and lay incessant ambushes. Al-Shabaab fled Mogadishu only to stage sporadic suicide and Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks.
Al-Shabaab took control of Southern Somalia from 2008 until 2011 creating what seemed like a Taliban rule from the border with Kenya to Galkayo in the north. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and African Union Peacekeepers (AMISOM) controlled a tiny coastal green zone hugging the beach side airport of Mogadishu up to Villa Somalia.
There have been four previous flows of foreign fighters. The first reports of al-Shabaab on the move was in 2010 when the US government made a concerted effort to show that drone strikes in Pakistan were pushing al-Qaeda members to Yemen and Somalia.
"As Al Qaeda members continue to resist US and Pakistani forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, some of their comrades appear to be moving to Yemen and Somalia, where the political climate allows them to seek safe haven, recruit new members, and train for future operations," said the report.
There was no proof of this but a general sense that foreigners from the US, UK and Europe were heading to Mogadishu to join al-Shabaab.
Despite studies that showed the relatively small migration of jihadis in or out of Somalia and minor references to al-Shabaab from the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda, it was in June 2010 when the US military began to spread the idea that two men they had killed in Qandala near Kismayo were directly working with Anwar al Alawki in Yemen. The idea was to link the robust United States Central Command (CENTCOM) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) activities in Yemen with a new front in Somalia. In February of 2011, Leon Panetta announced that America would focus anti terrorism efforts in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa. In April 2011 the U.S. captured Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame who was accused of brokering arms deals between Yemen's al Qaeda and al-Shabaab.
In June of 2011, drone strikes began in Somalia. Normally this would be a deterrent to combatants and volunteers, but instead it tends to attract nihilistic foreign jihadis.
The second major movement was an outflow of Somali and foreign fighters back to their original strongholds of of Baidoa, Marka, Kismayo and the camps around Mogadishu A controlled decampment from Mogadishu in August of 2011 when AMISOM soldiers began to box them off. The third was in January of this year when al Shabaab fighters and their families began to move north. The latest exodus may or may not be a true rout but rather an attempt to lure Kenya's untested army into Kismayo. The rumors began with the Somali Council to Yemen, Hussein Hajji Ahmed. He told Shabelle media that 300 al-Shabab fighters were fleeing to Yemen. This story was picked by AMISOM spokesman and linked to a recent news surge caused by the London Conference.
It should be noted that on February 22 the same source told Voice Of America that the group sent 10 ships full of weapons to Somalia, two of which were intercepted by the Yemeni coast guard.
Coming or Going?
In order to determine whether or not al-Shabaab’s senior leaders and foreign fighters are fleeing Kismayo, a port city in Somalia’s Lower Juba region, by boat, Somalia Report sent a team of independent reporters to investigate. Previously, reports of three ships loaded with weapons being met by the three top leaders of al Shabaab were being shopped to news sources (the main source was an unnamed dockworker).
Another local source insists that over 280 senior leaders, including 140 foreign fighters, of the hardline Islamic group, al-Shabaab fled Kismayo on Wednesday night to escape drone strikes and advances on land by the allied forces of Somalia, Kenyan, Ethiopia and African Union (AMISOM), according to the witness and al-Shabaab fighters who spoke to Somalia Report.
Further local reports suggest that al-Shabaab has sent more fighters to the Kalariba island, and to the villages of Sa'moja and Kamjaroon a few kilimeters outside Kismayo and the Buulo-haji villages about 30km southwest of Kismayo. They have reportedly taken major weaponry with them and are preparing for fierce fighting.
Locals say most of the fighters have left. "Most al-Shabaab fighters left Kismayo. If you go around the city, you will see only a few al-Shabaab fighters remaining near the police station, airport and seaport," a resident in Kismayo who asked to be called Mohamed told Somalia Report.
The officials and foreign fighters reportedly left the port cities of Marka and Barawe and flooded into Kismayo over the last several days, many of whom arrived the day before Somali and Ethiopian forces seized the key town of Baidabo in Bay region.
A laborer in Kismayo port confirmed the departure of the militant fighters, marking the third mass exodus since al-Shabaab fled Mogadishu in August of last year.
"On Wednesday night about 12:00 am (21.00 GMT) local time, nearly 300 al-Shabaab seniors and foreign leaders fled from here using seven speedboats. They blocked everyone else from using the port during that time," said the porter on condition of anonymity.
Other port workers told Somalia Report. that at least 50 speedboats have been docked in the port at different times this week, particularly Tuesday and Wednesday.
“On Thursday at noon, I watched more than 20 speedboats leaving with groups of people,” said a laborer who requested not to be named.
Al-Shabaab reportedly told residents to fend for themselves once allied forces seize the city.
"Al-Shabaab leaders are escaping for Yemen. At least 50 speedboats left Kismayo port over the past 24 hours. Before senior officials fled the city, they told residents and their supporters to defend themselves,” said a local resident.
The problem with this version is that speedboats have limited capacity and range and the sight of 50 skiffs loaded with armed men would be far too tempting a target to U.S. drones that keep a 24/7 aerial vigil of Kismayo port.
An Ambush In The Making?
While it is completely feasible that 300 fighters could move up the coast towards a safe haven in Yemen, it is highly unlikely they could travel unnoticed, refuel without locals noting the influx or even run the anti piracy gauntlet in the Gulf of Aden. It is more likely a strategic redeployment in anticipation of Kenyan advances is more likely.
Somalia Report also spoke to residents in Balcad district who confirmed that more al-Shabaab foreigners arrived Kismayo in recent weeks after they moved from Baraawe, a known base for al-Shabab leaders.
"A number of Al-shabaab militants went from Kismayo by boats. Eight boats arrived in Kismayo port this week and at least three boats went from Kismayo carrying al-Shabaab’s foreign fighters."
Fighters Flee to Nearby Islands, Not Yemen
An al-Shabaab fighter in Kismayo also confirmed the departure of foreign leaders.
"Our Mujahideen brothers left Kismayo town by boat, but they did not flee. They have gone to other islands in the region. I know this. The departure of the foreign fighters will not destroy the power of al-Shabaab," Ahmed, an al-Shabaab fighter in Kismayo, told Somalia Report.
Other residents and fighters also reported that fighters were moving to nearby islands.
"My uncle and my friend who are both al-Shabaab militants and told me that at least 100 foreign fighters have fled through Koyame and Madhabo," said Abdi Khadar.
A local resident in Madhabo corroborated the story.
"Late in the afternoon on Wednesday, four speed boats came to this island. At that time I had just finished fishing and I was on my way home when several al-Shabaab fighters came and they dispersed the fishermen who remained. We started wondering, but after about half an hour we saw several white men boarding the boats who came on foot," said Abass.
Local al-Shabaab officials claimed they were merely regrouping.
"It is incredible for someone who came for jihad to flee. We are still fighting and have the power to defend more areas. We are not fleeing, this is just a military tactic," said a senior al-Shabaab official Mahad Mohamed Omar.
"This is a wrong information about us fleeing. If the Yemeni fighters go to their homes through Kismayo what about our brothers from other countries? Would they use airplanes? Don't believe the rumors. We will die in the same place. This is a rumor meant to demoralize our fighters, but we won't get demoralized" said an al-Shabaab official who spoke to Somalia Report. on the condition of anonymity.
Earlier this month, al-Shabaab fled Kudha island, 70km south of Kismayo, which had been used as an al-Shabaab training base.
Somalia Report also contacted officials from Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) for confirmation.
"It’s not a surprise. We all known that al-Shabaab will be defeated. We hear more al-Shabaab senior leaders have fled for Yemen. Regardless of where they went, this means we have defeated al-Shabaab," said Ahmed Deeq, a TFG military officer in Dhobley district of Lower Juba region.
Hundreds of Islamist fighters abandoned their positions in central and southern Somalia, including their former stronghold of Baidoa.
"Yes, Kismayo port has been a busy place as many fighters leave, but let's not think it is over. Al-Shabaab still has power over large parts of southern Somalia. They are close to collapse because of air offensive by US drones and Kenyan forces, and being in Kismayo you can see the defeat in their eyes," said a Kismayo resident who asked to be called Mohamed.
Was Kismayo Port Closed?
Conflicting reports said the port was closed during the exodus while others said that was untrue. The port was reported closed as they unloaded weapons earlier this week.
"Kismayo port has been closed and foreign al-Shabaab fighters are fleeing Somalia. Al-Shabaab would not allow civilians in the port since Tuesday when two boats carrying weapons came to Kismayo,” said a local resident who witnessed the scene. “After they unloaded the weapons, these two boats carried back al-Shabaab foreigners, but I don’t know where they went.”
Although some workers claimed the port was closed during the exodus, others said that was simply not true.
"The port has not been closed once in the last few days. I work in the daytime from 8:00 am to late in the day at 6:00 pm and I have not seen any official fleeing through this port. At this time as I talk to you now, they are offloading spaghetti," said dock worker, Awey Yarow.
Other workers also reported the port remained open.
"This port has been in operation. It hasn’t closed. I work from 6:30 pm and I work all night. I have not seen any foreign fighters fleeing this port," said Ahmed Farey.
"I don't think some speed boats left here because this port is always open for commercial purposes and al-Shabaab militants believe it's highly guarded by the Kenya’s air forces. Even as a laborer I am afraid when I hear the sound of an airplane and worry we’ll be bombed," added Ahmed Farey when asked about the possibility of the foreigners using this port.
"I work in the morning hours and I have not seen any fighters fleeing this port. I am just hearing about this for the firs time from you," said Ali Arbow.
Long Trip to Yemen
Foreign fighters, in previous departures, typically did not make straight for Yemen from Kismayo. Instead, they traveled in small and faster boats from small islands along the coastline near Kismayo and make their way north to Puntand on larger charcoal dhows. From Puntland’s Bari region, they blend in with the mass of refugees making trips on board smuggling boats to Yemen. Smugglers have not yet reported any foreign fighters coming through their region this week.
An independent journalist in Kismayo who asked not to be named confirmed to Somalia Report that Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Cali (Abu Mansur), Sheikh Hasan Dahir Aweys, Sheikh Ibrahim Afgan and other range officials were among those who reached Kismayo, which confirms Somalia Report’s previous report that the leaders were present during the unloading of a weapons shipment two days ago.
“I saw more than 25 vehicles, including luxury cars with a black windows. Then I tried to confirm who had been traveling in those cars and I personally witnessed Sheikh Dahir Aweys and Mokhtar Robow as well as Sheikh Ibrahim Afgan and many more others,” said the journalist.
According to journalist, other al-Shabaab officials in the city welcomed the delegation at the region’s headquarters, a house called K2, where most of high range officials of al-Shabaab usually come together.
A dispute between al-Shabaab's foreign fighters and senior Somalis leaders broke out after foreigners Bilal al- Barjawi and Abdullah Fazul were killed, sparking some to believe that al-Shabaab had spies amongst its ranks.
On Sunday November 13, 2011, al-Shabaab top leaders (Somalis and foreigners) met in Balcad district and the foreigners told Somalis they were planning to flee the country, surprising the Somali leaders.
In January of this year, another mass exodus was reported after fighters fled Barawe District of Middle Shabelle region (which was the base of al-shabaab’s top leaders).
"Since the end of last month, Kismayo has been full of fighters who fled central Somalia. The people in Kismayo think al-Shabaab wants to defend Kismayo, but the situation is different. They are losing against the allied forces and scared of drone attacks so they are only coming here to flee, not to defend it," said a Somali journalist in Kismayo who spoke Somalia Report on the condition of anonymity.
Back to Hussein Haji Ahmed, Somalia's legal council and de facto ambassador to Yemen. His initial estimate of 500 fleeing al Shabaab fighters merged with al-Qaeda, as told to Somalia Report, was downgraded to 300 for VOA.
"At least 500 al-Shabaab foreign fighters, including Somali leaders, have reached Yemen after they fled Somalia. This comes after they finally merged with al-Qaeda, which has strongholds in Yemen so the foreigners can feel safe here," said the official.
Pirates Sell Speedboats to al-Shabaab
In the second direct connection between al-Shabaab and pirates, the first being the sale of the two Spanish MSF hostages, pirates based in Harardhere the coastal city of Mudug have been selling a number of speedboats to al-Shabaab, according to sources among pirates who spoke to Somalia Report.
“Yes it’s true. 15 days ago senior al-Shabaab officials, including Sheikh Afrah, arrived in the city and met with some investors of the pirates asking to buy speedboats,” a pirate who asked not be named told Somalia Report.
“I don’t know how many boats were bought and sold, but I can confirm that there was definitely bargaining happening between al-Shabaab officials, the investors of the pirates and junior leaders of the pirates themselves,” he added.
A quick poll of Kismayo residents told Somalia Report they believe fighting will be minimal to non-existent when allied forces eventually seize the city because the al-Shabaab fighters are gradually fleeing. If recent history is a lesson, Kenyan, TFG and militias can expect a short period of settling in and then targeted attacks against their fixed locations.