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Fighters and leaders of militant Islamist group al-Shabaab have been quitting the capital Mogadishu in droves as the government and African Union battle to gain ground, residents of insurgent-held areas said.
Al-Shabaab leaders had vowed to launch a massive offensive during Ramadan, and quickly launched an abortive suicide bomber attack which nonetheless claimed the lives of at least two peacekeepers. However, the AU and government have launched their own attacks, and are chipping away at insurgent territory.
About 20 mosques in the northern part of Mogadishu were being used by al-Shabaab’s sheikhs to invoke Allah to help their fighters, but the clashes have forced many sheikhs to move to Lower Shabelle, residents say.
Some commanders are on the front lines to encourage their troops, but morale is low due to recent losses.
“We saw many al-Shabaab preachers leaving from here in Suqa Holaha at the Daba-qaynka mosque, including Sheikh Bali, a well-known al-Shabaab supporter and several of his friends, who seemingly headed to Lower Shabelle before the recent government offensive broke out,” Mahad Ali, a resident in Huriwa district, told Somalia Report.
A former member of the Islamic Courts’ Union, the Islamist regime from which al-Shabaab grew when it was ousted by Ethiopia, told Somalia Report on the condition of anonymity that desertions were on the rise.
Al-Shabaab bases in the areas of Daynile, Suqa Holaha and Tawakal Village in the northern part of Mogadishu are almost empty. Residents in Suqa Holaha said that fighters and supporters were heading to insurgent-held areas outside the capital. Residents in the coastal city of Marka said top al-Shabaab figures had been arriving over the last week
“We were told that some leaders of the al-Shabaab were coming to Marka ... they are big people; the residents are talking about how al-Shabaab has lost the battle in Mogadishu,” one Marka resident, who asked to be called Khalif, told Somalia Report.
Unconfirmed reports say the leaders who left Mogadishu include American citizen Abu-Mansur Al-Amriki and Swedish-Somali Sheikh Fuad Shangole.
Residents in Marka said there had been an increase in the number of small boats arriving at night, and that the situation was “delicate” due to the influx of al-Shabaab fighters and leaders.
Despite the apparent outflow, al-Shabaab had earlier said it was sending up to 2,000 fresh troops to Mogadishu, and attempts at recruitment in Marka and Barawe are continuing, residents said.
Abdulkadir Mohamed Farah, a Somali political analyst, said that recent splits and a feeling of little leadership was creating problems in the group.
“This is al-Shabaab’s most difficult phases, as it feels nervous and under pressure by the AU and Somali military troops as well the pro-government militias,” he told Somalia Report. “Everyone in al-Shabaab, especially top officials, seems to be marching to his own drum and under his own flag.”