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There have been rumors in the past week that Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the former leader of the disbanded Hizbul Islam, has defected from the the Islamic group Shabab and joined Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
The rumors appear to have come as a result of the Sheikh’s silence in the past few days, and are false according to a senior nationalist Shabab member who spoke with me.
Such rumors may be intentionally planted by quarters of the TFG security who want to pinpoint his location or want to know about his situation. Remember when Abu Mansur Al-Amriki did not appear in public for some time we were told that he had been executed?
While it is highly unlikely that Sheikh Hassan Dahir has defected to the TFG, he has been having problems with the Shabab ultimate decision makers known as the General Leadership.
In late April, the Sheikh blasted the Shabab General Leadership for banning the creation of new Jihadi groups or Islamic movements in Somalia. He went on to blame the Shabab leadership for intimidating internal dissent, claiming that he was 'sacrificing' himself by speaking out.
Although he expressed his dissatisfaction with the Shabab leadership’s decisions, he made it clear that he supported continuation of hostilities against the TFG its allies.
In mid-April, the Shabab had claimed that they found a huge cache of weapons during a routine patrol in Sinka Dheer near Elasha Biyaha (a former stronghold of the disbanded Hizbul Islam), a claim rejected by Sheikh Hassan who believed that the actions were part of a systematic effort to confiscate “Muslim” weapons.
Shortly thereafter stories started surfacing that the Sheikh and like-minded elements within the Shabab (mostly ex-Hizbul Islam and non-Shabab Islamic Courts Union members) were going to declare the creation of a new Jihadi group on the same day when the Shabab banned the creation of a new Jihadi group in the country.
It is likely that the Sinka Dheer weapons may have been under the guardianship of someone who supported the Shabab nationalist’s break from the core Shabab.
Given the Sheikh’s unhappiness with the Shabab General Leadership’s decisions and the direction they are taking the group, it is not implausible that he had a hand in the rumoured attempt to create a new Jihadi group.
It is this history of the Sheikh with the Shabab leadership that attract attention and make people believe that the rumors could be true.
However, it isn’t easy for Sheikh Hassan Dahir to just pick up and leave the Shabab: he is a UN designated terrorist.
Unfortunately, this UN designation of Aweys as a terrorist did not stop him from travelling around the world in 2006 when the ICU was ruling much of southern and central Somalia, nor did it stop Eritrea from hosting him and funding the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia, in which he was on of its leaders.
What it has done is reduce any chance of the rumoured defection of Sheikh Hassan being a reality.
While the Shabab nationalists are wary of the group’s powerful internationalist faction’s ideas, they see them as necessary allies in the short-term. Their distrust of foreigners (a natural Somali tendency) makes them easy prey to the internationalists who make it look to them as if the Somalis’ non-Muslim neighbours and their brothers from farther away are in Somalia to destroy the fabric of the Somali culture, contract them with HIV, and change their religion.
To the sometimes politically naïve Shabab nationalists, this may look like a reality, especially when their leaders are in almost every terrorist list in the world, giving them a feeling of isolation and making their internal rivals within the group look like good guys compared to the wider world who consider them outlaws.
This discourages Shabab leaders who may want to defect to the TFG, apparently deciding to stick to their ways rather than join a UN-supported government that may not be very keen on having designated terrorists onboard.
If the Shabab nationalists were guaranteed amnesty and their leaders removed from international terrorist lists, then they would have an incentive to at least start talks with the TFG and the international forces engaging them on the battlefront.
They are currently in a difficult position, banned from creating their own group that does not have ties to Al-Qaeda, and at the same time are ironically in international lists of Al-Qaeda linked individuals.
While a defection to the TFG by a major nationalist Shabab leader (who may be toothless anyway; the nationalists don’t have a lot of decision-making power) is not impossible, such an incident is not likely to happen in the near future.
And, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys has not defected to the TFG now. For this to happen in the future, a lot has to change; change that is sadly not on the horizon.