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The al-Shabaab militia, a hardline Islamic group batting for control of Somalia, have withdrawn from several regions to secure bases in Gedo and Lower Juba due to the favorable public support and favorable geography.
The Lower Juba and Gedo regions are dominated by the Marehan clan, along with the Ogaden, Shiqal, Gal-jecel, Digil and Mirifle clans. All these clans are major contributors to the al-Shabaab militia in terms of leaders, soldiers and logistics. The residents value al-Shabaab for their administration of justice as well as the security they offer, according to residents who spoke to Somalia Report.
Previous to the rise of al-Shabaab, there was a group called al-Itihad which had similar dogma and were fighting for the complete implementation of Sharia (Islamic) law in Somalia, and whose headquarters was in Kismayo, a port city in Lower Juba region. They sought the establishment of an Islamic state, but were mainly defeated in 1998 by the Somali National Front (SNF), with support from Ethiopian troops. Al-Itihad, similar to al-Shabaab, found these two regions suitable since most of the residents of the two regions supported them.
Somalia Report investigated the continuity between the al-Shabaab and former Itihad group by speaking to local residents.
Awil Gabow, a successful businessman and resident, witnessed the capabilities and missions of both groups and shared his recollections.
“In 1996, al-Itihad invaded many towns in Gedo and Lower Juba region," Awil said. "Al-Itihad at that time was led by Hassan Dahir Aweys and Hassan Turkey, who are now senior officials respectively of the insurgent group al-Shabaab. The Islamists of al-Itihad occupied almost all of the six district of Gedo: Balethawo, Garbaharey (headquarters of Gedo), Elwaq, Bardera, Luuq and Dolow," he explained.
"The group claimed they were the only group in the area with the right religious methodology, and they compelled the people to follow in their footsteps. They destroyed the old Sufi practices in the area of Gedo, introduced their own religious methodology and opened many (madrassas) schools and dugsi (Quranic schools) which would offer free tuition as well as provide food, in particular dates, wheat, flour and sweets from Arab countries. They also opened boarding schools for poor and needy children, and in a short time both girls and boys fell under their sway and received prestige for belonging to al-Itihad," said Mr. Gabow.
The group implemented sharia law and dictated what people should wear.
"The al-Itihad militia quickly became popular in the region and most youth dressed up the way they were being told to. Ladies were told to cover all their body with heavy clothes, while men were told to shorten their trousers up to the ankle. They attracted many young men and women in the region, mostly supporters came from families who could not afford their daily livelihood. Al-Itihad came and provided food, which allowed many families to recover from the long famine they had endured since the collapse of the central government of ousted president Said Barre in 1991,” he explained.
“Two years later the old Sufi religious leaders, and the elderly who had fled from the region, went to organise in Ethiopia to eliminate the Islamists who they saw as misleading the youth into the unfamiliar religious ideology of Wahabism (an ideology based out of Saudi Arabia and Egypt). Although al-Itihad was totally eliminated by the SNF and Ethiopian troops, the region still had many youth who remained sympathetic to al-Itihad and al-Shabaab. Those youth provided refuge when al-Shabaab returned to Gedo and the Lower Juba," Mr. Gabow told Somalia Report.
"The residents of both the Gedo and Lower Juba regions support the al-Shabaab militia and generally admire their operations since they only see the good side of the militia. When they took power in the regions, they introduced law and order, eliminated robbery and banditry, senseless slaughter, as well as the rape of women by armed bandits who used to harm people without any repercussions," he claimed.
“Al-Shabaab are good. They made all the people equal before the law, and anybody who wronged another could be punished. Our property is safer now. Al-Shabaab resolved the clan wars in the region of Gedo and Lower Juba by disarming the clan militia and equalising the rights of minority and majority tribes in the region. It is true that no one is perfect and everyone commits mistakes, but the mistakes they commit are much less than the benefits they bring to society and we should admit not only their bad sides, but also their many good qualities," Gardaro emphasized.
Geography of Gedo Ideal for al-Shabaab
The Gedo and Lower Juba are amongst the most fertile regions in Somalia. The Dawa River, one of the two largest rivers in Gedo, flows along the border with Ethiopia. The river separates Somalia and Ethiopia, just a few kilometres north of Baledhawo. The Juba River, one of the largest in the country, flows in the middle of the Luuq district in the Gedo region, then through Burdhuubo and Baardhera, to Bu’ale and Jilib in the Middle Juba region, where the rivers empty into the Indian Ocean at Gobweyn.
The residents of those towns near the rivers enjoy excellent farming and are able to produce fruit, vegetables and grain. The al-Shabaab militia group took full advantage of their location and acquired food easily, which allowed them to live in the forest during the day and attack the towns controlled by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and her allies during the night.
Abdirahman, a farmer living on the outskirt of Burdhuubo, a town in Gedo controlled by al-Shabaab, told Somalia Report about the tactics which the al-Shabaab militia uses in his area.
“I see it’s difficult to eradicate the militia in Gedo and Lower Juba region because the areas have plenty of food which enables the insurgents to live the region for a long period of time. Although there are many forces against them, the TFG, the ASWJ, KDF, AMISOM, Ethiopian troops and also pro-government militia of Ras Kamboni and yet they are still surviving. The areas have many farmers who produce a lot of food that the militia uses. They either buy cheaply or seize whole farms from their owners and feed their soldiers who are engaged in guerilla attacks during the night. Gedo is the second largest province in Somalia, and it’s the only province which has two rivers pass through it. The region is the home of many al-Shabaab militia, and whenever al-Shabaab are defeated by the TFG and her allies elsewhere, the group shifts their power towards the Gedo region where they can easily acquire water and food. The Gedo and Lower Juba have not had any government since the Somali central government collapsed in 1991,” Abdirahman said.
He added that the groups usually hide in the forests during the day in groups of around 50 - 60 young men, well equipped with guns, landmines, bombs and grenades. They often come to the farms and ask for fruits and fetch water from the rivers for cooking. In the evening, they move towards Garbaharey and other towns which are controlled by the TFG and her allies.
Somalia Report also spoke to nomads and herders in Gedo and Lower Juba.
Artan, a shepherd who moves between these two provinces described how al-Shabab survives in these two regions, and how the livestock contributed their existence.
“Every day, I see a group of al-Shabaab fighters coming to the shepherds and telling us they want us to contribute to the war against the infidels, demanding at least one camel, a cow, a bull or a group of goats or sheep. Those who keep horses also should provide a horse for the war. No family will refuse their orders because they will take by force all the family’s property if someone resists paying what was demanded from them."
The al-Shabaab sell some of these animals to finance many of their needs, and slaughter others to feed their soldiers. Some of the camels, donkeys and horses are used to transport goods like weapons and foods in areas where vehicles are not accessible, and also through sensitive areas for the TFG and her allies because they pretend to be nomads. Most recently al-Shabaab fighters were seen riding horseback in southern Somalia two weeks ago.
The Gedo and Juba are rich in natural physical features including mountains, forest and valleys. About 42km northwest of Garbaharay, there is Humballe Mountain, which is the highest mountain in the Gedo region. The mountain is between the towns of Beladhawo and Garbaharey, and are fully covered of forest. There are also many small hills in the Gedo region, including the Waamoyarey hills, the Durwayale and Sengali hills, all surrounding Garbaharay. There are large portions of land from the southeast of Bardere up to the town of Jamame in the Lower Juba region which are heavy forested, where a traveller cannot see beyond 50 meters.
Somalia Report spoke with Adan Yabarow, a resident of Tulobarwaqo who has witnessed the activities of al-Shabaab and spoke about how those hills and mountains shelter both militants and wild animals.
“I have travelled several times the road between Baledhawo and Bardere, via Humbale mountains and Garbaharey. Many times when we passed the mountains, there were a group of al-Shabaab who stopped our vehicle. They usually check what the vehicle is carrying and ask people where they came from and where there are heading to, and if someone on board is suspect, they order him or her to come down," he said.
"They take them to the mountains for further investigation. The militia are staying in the mountain areas where no-one else could live, because the areas have many wild animals including hyenas, lions, warthogs and foxes. The nomads have fled from the mountains and hills areas along with their livestock, fearing the wild animals might kill them. The Damase area of the El-Wak region has a lot mountains and hills with thick forests that provide safe home for the militia. They hide themselves in the forest and hills during the day where strangers of the areas cannot dare to go, and at night they ambush the towns, such as Baledhawo and El-Wak," Adan said.
Another resident named Yalohow told Somalia Report about his impressions of al-Shabaab in the region.
“The Somali ethnic community which dominates the northeastern province of Kenya, and the Ogaden community in Ethiopia have provided many soldiers to al-Shabab via the Gedo region. That also encouraged the al-Shabaab to remain in power in the region for a long time. Any youth who drops out of school from those provinces can easily join al-Shabaab," he said.
The Gedo region borders Ethiopia and Kenya, as well as the Bay, Bokool, Lower Juba and Middle Juba regions of Somalia.