Thursday, 27 September 2012

Brief Thoughts on the Surrender of 250 al-Shabaab fighters at Garsale

On Monday 24 September the Somali government and AMISOM publicly accepted the surrender of over 200 alleged al-Shabaab fighters who had been defending the town of Jowhar and were said to be under the command of a man named Shegow Ahmed Ali. Following the surrender of these fighters more are said to have defected bringing to total to approximately 260 defecting fighters.

Video from Sabahi Online 
From the reports of this event it would appear that this defection was sparked by a conflict between two rival al-Shabaab groups, one led by Shegow Ahmed Ali and the other by Yusuf Kabo-Kutukade that resulted in the death of 8 Islamist fighters. While the defection has been taken by some as a sign that al-Shabaab has now entered a terminal decline there are several matters concerning this event that may instead require a more cautious analysis.

1) Weapons
While the number of al-Shabaab fighters said to have defected ranges at approximately 250 the number of actual weapons handed in by them has been reported as "over 80" by AMISOM and only as high as 89 elsewhereIn the video above the commander of this al-Shabaab fighters actually reports that the weapons surrendered were "83 assault rifles, one pistol and one grenade" for the 242 fighters he claimed had surrendered.

While the number of weapons to fighters seems absurdly low - not even one weapons for every two fighters - there is also a complete absence of any medium or heavy machine-guns, RPG's or any other heavy weapons that a unit of this size may be expected to have.
This then begs the question why this unit was so lightly armed if it was supposed to be participating in the defence of the town of Jowhar? Several possibilities immediately come to mind regarding this:
  • Many individual fighters may have chosen to not surrender their weapons and instead hide them in case they decide to return to al-Shabaab.
  • This group of fighters may be comprised largely of conscripts or second-line fighters that al-Shabaab may not have had the resources, or even considered a priority, to arm adequately.
In either case AMISOM and the Somali government may have received a group of fighters who despite leaving al-Shabaab nevertheless wish to hedge their bets or they represent at best a second-rate unit that the Islamist group did not consider a priority to arm adequately. 

Picture from Sabahi Online 
2) Motivation for the Defection
Shegow Ahmed Ali has been quoted as saying he and his fellow fighters had disagreed with the intimidation, heavy-handed rule of civilians by al-Shabaab. In his criticism he even goes further and expresses disagreement with denouncing other Muslims as apostates and "blowing up innocent people" and as a consequence the group was "not defending the religion (i.e Islam)While the expression of such sentiments from a former al-Shabaab commander will certainly be welcomed they are also rather pro-forma and represent very basic and common criticisms of the group. It may also bear mention that Shegow Ahmed Ali does not seem to have rejected the purported Islamist ideology of al-Shabaab but rather appears to have criticised the group for not having adhered to it more thoroughly. 

However, even according to AMISOM the primary reason behind this defection was an inter-group dispute that lead to a loss of life. There may be other factors in play such as al-Shabaab having failed to pay these fighters, or perhaps as mentioned above failing to provide these men with sufficient arms and ammunition that fostered poor morale and laid the groundwork for this defection.

Defections such as this are known to have occurred within other groups and while certainly being welcome should be treated with a hihg-degree of caution. It will now be necessary for the Somali government to treat these fighters in a manner that will ensure their continued disengagement from al-Shabaab and of their rejection of its violent ideology. This of course is in addition to the careful screening of these fighters that must take place due to the ever present threat posed by al-Shabaab agents seeking to infiltrate the Somali National Army and other security forces.

In time this mass defection may indeed prove to have been a sign of al-Shabaab cracking under the strains of military and financial pressure, however, until the above questions are addressed this event represents at best a cause for cautious optimism.

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