Disgruntled al-Shabaab fighters are increasingly deserting the radical
Islamist group after years of fighting for the movement in southern
Somalia. The deserters are mainly from southern Somalia’s Hawiye clan,
while the movement’s current leader, Shaykh Ahmad Abdi Godane “Abu
Zubayr,” hails from the Isaaq clan in Somaliland, a largely peaceful, de
facto independent state in northern Somalia. Most of the absconders fled
from southern Somalia to neighboring countries while others joined the
troops of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
On December 19, 2010, the TFG presented six al-Shabaab deserters to
reporters at a press conference in Mogadishu. The six, who defected to
government forces on November 19, 2010, included a number of senior
commanders who had led al-Shabaab fighters in clashes against Somali TFG
forces and African Union peacekeepers.
The defectors told local reporters that they joined al-Shabaab with the
intention of safeguarding the rule of law through the holy Qu’ran, but
later realized that the group was not following the teachings of the
Shari’a. They then defected to the side of the government and sought
forgiveness from the Somali people.
In discussing the reasons for his departure from al-Shabaab, former
commander Muhammad Farah Ali said he was forced to kill his deputy
commander when the latter was injured in the fighting and needed
Muhammad Farah described the order as coming from Abu Mansur al-Amriki,
an American al-Shabaab commander. Though Muhammad Farah regarded the
order as unacceptable, he nevertheless carried it out for fear of his
own safety before leaving the group: “If a fighter received a serious
injury, they give an order to finish him because they would not have
time to treat him. But if he received a small injury and was able to
take up the gun again they will treat him.” Muhammad Farah’s account was
similar to earlier reports that senior al-Shabaab commander Shaykh
Mukhtar Robow “Abu Mansur” became infuriated with the movement’s
leadership when he learned one of his deputies had been killed by
fighters loyal to Ahmad Abdi Godane to ensure the wounded deputy would
“die a martyr” (Jowhar, October 8, 2010; Wadanka.com, September 28,
2010; Suna Times, October 9, 2010; see also Terrorism Monitor Briefs,
October 21, 2010).
The six men joined hundreds who had already left the militant force,
such as 19-year-old Deeq Abdirahman, who defected from al-Shabaab last
October. Deeq, who had never received any secular education, was
recruited by the Islamic Courts Union from his madrassa in 2006 to fight
against Somali warlords in Mogadishu. Deeq was eventually one of
hundreds who received special training before joining a special wing led
by Adan Hashi Ayro, an instrumental al-Shabaab commander who was himself
trained at an al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan in the 1990s (Ayro was later
killed by a U.S. cruise missile in central Somalia in 2008).
However, Deeq was forced to flee from Somalia by his former colleagues
in arms and reached Nairobi in November after his relatives raised funds
to assist his escape from al-Qaeda associated elements in Somalia. “They
[al-Shabaab] called and threatened to kill me, saying, ‘We will
slaughter you just as the infidels and people who have converted [from
Deeq began his journey from Mogadishu at the beginning of November,
passing through al-Shabaab checkpoints in southern Somalia as he sought
a safe place. “I decided to be brave because I was not able to get
enough money for the airlines,” he noted.
In explaining why he deserted, Deeq says that he realized that the group
is becoming more aggressive and threatens to kill every person who is
not compliant: “They are all talking about killing people whether they
are innocent or not. If you try to offer your comments you will face
their wrath. The only option they have is killing, so I realized that
their ambitions are not about religion.” According to the young man,
al-Shabaab policy says if a person defects after working with the group
for more than six months, he must be killed because he knows the
Twenty-one-year-old Muhammad Abdi, a junior al-Shabaab official, was one
of those who had less luck in escaping the wrath of the militant
organization, being assassinated only weeks after he deserted the group.
His older brother, Ayanle Abdi, a businessman in Nairobi, said that
Muhammad was killed as the family planned to bring him to Nairobi for
safety. “We were aware of the threat since he left them. They were
accusing him of joining what they call ‘the enemy of God,’” said Ayanle.
Armed masked men shot Muhammad Abdi as he was walking in the Madina
district of Mogadishu in November.
Muhammad Abdi was a secondary school student when he joined al-Shabaab
in 2007 to fight against the Ethiopian forces that ousted ICU fighters
from southern Somalia. “The recruiters met him at his school. They told
him to fight for religion and God and the promise of a salary,” said
Ayanle. The former student then received six months of training in the
southern coastal town of Ras Kamboni, an al-Shabaab stronghold.
Though al-Shabaab is believed to have roughly 3,000 fighters, mostly of
local origin, there are also claims that the movement is increasingly
reliant on foreign fighters migrating to the jihad in the Horn of
Africa. Wafula Wamunyinyi, deputy head of the AU mission in Somalia,
says Somalia is host to more than 2,000 foreign fighters from India,
Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere, who are providing funds and training for
terrorist operations.  According to some deserters and government
officials, such as former deputy speaker of parliament and Minister of
Rehabilitation and Social Affairs Professor Muhammad Omar Dalha, a
number of these foreigners, including al-Qaeda operative Fazul Abdullah
Muhammad (a native of the Comoros Islands) and American native Abu
Mansur al-Amriki, are among those who have taken over the group’s
Al-Shabaab has implored Somali mothers to send their children for
training at al-Shabaab camps. The group has also urged Somali youth to
register at al-Shabaab offices for recruitment into the organization,
which is involved in heavy fighting in Mogadishu and elsewhere in
southern Somalia. The movement is now training hundreds of young men to
replace losses due to combat and desertion.
1. Statement given at a press conference in Nairobi, August, 2010. See
also The National [Abu Dhabi], August 24, 2010.
2. Interview with Professor Omar Muhammad Dalha, Nairobi, December 22,