TFG forces, backed by allied moderate Islamist militia and the African Union peacekeeping force AMISOM, have in recent months made significant gains, taking key insurgent positions in the capital Mogadishu and and strategic towns near the Kenyan and Ethiopian borders. One former al-Shabaab fighter, now working as a security officer for the TFG, said he knew of dozens of people who had defected or wanted to defect.
"I came from al-Shabaab with over 80 fighters," the 23-year-old told Somalia Report in a small house near Villa Somalia within the government-controlled zone of Mogadishu. "The reason for this is clear: the militants illegally kill and harm you, there is no freedom there."
Al-Shabaab sources contacted refused to issue any other comment other than to deny that their fighters were defecting in significant numbers.
Richard Bailey, media chief for the AMISOM support team, said the National Security Agency is now handling dozens of defectors each month, and that this number is steadily increasing as an under-pressure al-Shabaab resorts to more brutal tactics to force its fighters to go forward.
"There has been a dramatic increase (of defecting fighters) ... over the past few months since al-Shabaab started increasing the brutality of the way they recruit, train, and handle their fighters," he told Somalia Report.
"A fighter knows he cannot go backwards; we have seen incidents of defectors being shot by their own people either for disobeying orders, trying to retrieve a body, help a friend or run out the back," he added. "There are numerous occasions where you take a building and will find somebody who ... is waiting waving a white flag."
Hardline foreign fighters from Afghanistan, Yemen and other hotspots are said to be the most brutal, and are a large part of the reason Somalis are considering swapping sides.
"I am happy fighting these foreign al-Qaeda fighters who have come to my home," the defector said. "Many al-Shabaab fighters have been crossing over and more will come: for example, Doodshe is a senior office in charge of 35 fighters who controlled the main checkpoint in Afgoye, Lower Shabelle region. Today they work with the government."
He said that dozens of foreign fighters formed into a group called Abu Yahya al-Libi, named after a top al-Qaeda leader, were based in the Badmadow training camp near insurgent stronghold Kismayo. He could not give exact names, but said that these people had trained many groups and individuals, including Alabama-born Omar Hammani (also known as Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki). Hammani was reportedly killed during fighting in early March, but no body was found and the death remains unconfirmed.
The strategic port town of Kismayo fell into insurgent hands in late 2008, and is a key long-term target for the TFG. Rumours are flying around that the TFG is now planning to send down a force to attempt to wrest back control of the port, which is a key insurgent supply route.
The former fighter said the TFG had promised to pay every person who defects $250 per month, although he acknowledged he had not received any money yet. Organizing regular payment has proven to be a problem for the government, and had previously led to many forces going the other way to Al Shabaab, which could guarantee them a wage. The insurgents are reportedly now facing a shortage of funding, however.
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