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As the allied forces of Somalia, the African Union peacekeepers (AMISOM) and various pro-government militias push the al-Shabaab militant group from key areas in Somalia towards their stronghold in Kismayo, the al-Qaeda aligned organization is rapidly splintering along clan lines and defections are on the rise, according to analysts and defectors who spoke to Somalia Report.
Suge, a Somali political analyst, argues that a number of factors are causing the split and defections: the disorganized administration of the regions they control, disputes over the role of the foreigners in the group, the lack of country-wide operations of the militia, the increased killings of innocent people, clan based politics, lack of funds and supplies, and their pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
More than 1,500 previously loyal soldiers of al-Shabaab have deserted the group, according to Ahmed Carale, a former al-Shabaab fighter who spoke to Somalia Report. Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) officials have claimed that more than 500 youths have deserted, however, the official number remains unknown as some fighters merely go back home without officially surrendering or defecting.
"I abandoned the group because whatever we were fighting for is no longer there, and everything became about individual interests," said Abdul Najib, a former al-Shabaab militant.
Abdul explained that he and his fellow deserters objected to the mass killing of innocent people, the hijacking of trucks carrying aid for civilians, the forceful taking of animals and taxes from people and child abuse in the name of jihad. Examples of killings of innocent people include that of the late district commissioner of the Garboharey town Ahmed Abdille Magan (Harawe), who was killed on the road between Baled Hawo and Garboharey by al-Shabaab. Also included in the list of grievances was the Hotel Shamow explosion, which killed many students on their graduation day. There were also number of aid trucks which were stolen by the al-Shabab militia in the Gedo region while they were heading to Garboharey.
When the Islamic Courts Union (from which al-Shabaab was born) was first instituted and sought to implement Sharia law, there was broad community support, and even some of the diaspora returned. Many people in Somalia admired and supported Islamic rule in the country after the era of warlords, since Muslims believe Islamic Shariah to be the best and supreme law on earth. Some Somalis even came from western countries in large numbers to take part in what they saw as the new dawn in the country.
Shaale, an elder based in Mogadishu, told Somalia Report that people started supporting the group even more after they battled Ethiopian forces who invaded the country in 2006. At that time, Somalis offered support, either financially or by taking up arms to fight with the ICU against Ethiopia, for the common cause of implementing Sharia law in Somalia.
After al-Shabaab splintered off from the ICU and implemented a severe form of Sharia in areas under their control and demonstrating their rampant abuse of power, more and more fighters began defecting.
Abdi Qaliq, a 29 year old former fighter, is one of the youth who joined the militia in early 2009 and took part in many battles in the country. He decided to abandon the group in late 2011 and is now living in Mogadishu.
“I began as a soldier for al-Shabaab in 2007. I first joined them because I was annoyed by the foreigners (Ethiopians) in our country. I did not like them at all because they have personal interests and will never help Somalia attain peace and prosperity. I was given training and was doing well in the militia. I took part in many wars but I was not happy with what was happening around the country," explained Abdi.
"I remember there were many times we waged a war against the TFG and its allies, and when one of us got injured and his clansmen were not near him to support him, the other fighters ran from him, carrying only those whom they knew personally or to whom they were related. That shocked me greatly. I asked myself many times, 'what will happen to me if I get wounded and I am left in the battle field and none of my relatives were in the group with me.' The answer was clear that I would be abandoned and be killed, which was not the end I wanted to see,” he told Somalia Report.
Many youth fighters from the al-Shabaab militia surrendered or defected after they felt guilty and shameful over the killings of innocent people, according to those who left the group.
Farah Gele, a former soldier for the ICU and al-Shabaab, recently put down his gun and is also in Mogadishu, from which al-Shabaab was ousted over the past year by TFG and AMISOM forces.
“I abandoned the militia because as a human being we have to question things. I can’t be told to do something that I know it is wrong, like killing someone unjustly. Killing one person in unjust because it is a grave sin and is punishable in Shariah,” Farah Gele told Somalia Report.
Asked why there are many al-Shabaab soldiers running away from the militia and giving themselves to TFG forces, Farah said, “many soldiers have escaped from militia and those numbers will increase as time goes on because everybody realizes the wrong things al-Shabaab are committing and the evil things they are doing to the people.”
There are hundreds of al-Shabaab soldiers who abandon the group every month, according to claims from former fighters and TFG officials. Some have put down their guns and are leading lives as civilians while others migrated to other neighbouring countries like Kenya and Ethiopia. Others have been welcomed into the TFG as government soldiers.
The matter of defection has affected the top leaders of the al-Shabaab including Hassan Dahir Aweys who accused other al-Shabaab leaders of shedding the blood of innocent people in the name of Jihad. Some reports from inside al-Shabaab, especially from soldiers in the Bay and Bakool regions, said that the al-Shabaab phenomenon only exists in southern Somalia and the militia have no plans to operate in the northern part of the country. This has raised many questions among the al-Shabaab soldiers and the leaders of the insurgents.
Abdiyare, a member of the Bay al-Shabaab militants told Somalia Report that some members of the al-Shabaab have raised questions to the top leaders about expanding the group’s activities to Somaliland, a break away region in the north part of Somalia. He complained that their suggestions went neglected by the al-Shabaab senior officials who finally admitted that Somaliland region was peaceful and the al-Shabaab will not interfere there. This has angered many officials including Hassan Dahir Aweys and all the other less radical officials like Sheikh Abdifatah Mohamed Ali, the former treasurer of the disbanded Hizbul Islam, within the al-Shabaab hinting that there exists an individualistic agenda behind the war and the conflict in the southern part of Somalia.
“I really don’t understand why the officials refuse to extend the group’s activities to the all corners of the country. When al-Shabaab was making an alliance with the Galgala forces in Puntland, it was fine and everyone wanted the group’s activities to reach Puntland, but when it came to Somaliland it was opposed by the top officials. Why? What makes Somaliland exceptional? I really can’t understand but there is something fishy I am sensing which will cause a rift and division in the militia if something is not done about is as soon as possible," said Arabey, a member of the al-Shabaab militia.
Tribalism and clan loyalties within al-Shabaab is reportedly the biggest worry of the soldiers in al-Shabaab. Although the al-Shabaab has many followers from all walks of life and from different tribes and even nations, tribalism is still an issue driving many loyal soldiers from the group. Tribalism exists in the al-Shabaab militia when a group dominated by a certain clan is operating in a region where the people of that region mostly don’t support the al-Shabaab. These forces execute people from the other clans, take their property and harass them just because they are not part of the al-Shabaab and their men are not in the group or have few soldiers in the militia. This had caused many clans to contribute hundreds of men and join the al-Shabaab with the agenda of safeguarding their tribe and their property from the other members of the al-Shabaab who would otherwise cause problems for these clans and their property.
Shuuke is one the many who joined the al-Shabaab not to fight for the al-Shabaab dogma and beliefs, but to safeguard his tribe’s interest. He added that men from their tribe operate in both in al-Shabaab and the TFG. The men remain in regular communication despite which group they joined because they are united by their blood relations. When a member of their clan is held by either party, men from his tribe stand up for him and makes sure he is not killed and make attempts to save his life.
“The problem in Somalia is now clear with everyone. For one to survive and live a life without fear in the country, one ought to have his men on every side to make sure one gets maximum respect as a tribe from both sides. As for us, the Rahawayn, we have many soldiers in both the TFG and the al-Shabaab. All the other clans have done the same although there are some whose men in the two sides are not on good terms and will execute each other if they find any of them," Shuke told Somalia Report.
The involvement of foreign forces operating among and sometimes dictating policy for al-Shabaab has been another major factor in defections. Most of the al-Shabaab fighters refuse to take orders from foreigners who sometimes demand the fighters to commit suicide when they themselves refuse to do so.
“I cannot take orders from someone who doesn’t understand the nature of our people and I can’t just kill people because he ordered me to kill a fellow Somali. To me that makes no sense at all. It is even worse when foreigners make key decisions and define the do’s and the don’ts for us,” said Ahmed Dhalo, another former al-Shabaab fighter who spoke to Somalia Report.
The continuing rift between the al-Shabaab members was also sparked by the group's allegiance with the terror group al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab officials like Hassan Aweys are against giving its loyalty to the Al-Qaida group. "Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda are merely a small part of the larger Islamic group and Al-Qaeda's ideology should not be viewed as the sole, righteous path for Islam," Aweys was quoted as saying by Sabahi Online.
Adding to the defections and split are the allied advances which have forced the group to use precious ammunition and supplies.
“Things are tough these days. The whole world is against us and it is true we can’t withstand all the pressure. I and many others deviated from al-Shabaab because we didn’t want to fight a losing battle any longer," Sharmake, a former al-Shabaab member told Somalia Report.
Despite the defections, surrenders, and internal squabbles, the group remains formidable and united against TFG, AMISOM, and Ethiopian troops and local militias, vowing to hold onto their main base in Kismayo. The group was been equally effective at conducting guerrilla warfare and hit and run attacks against allied forces throughout southern Somalia.
(Editor's note: The exact number of Shabaab defectors or those who surrendered is unknown as the TFG, AMISOM, police, security forces, al-Shabaab and other news sources all cite different numbers.)