Did Shabaab’s leader say the terror group is losing ground?

On July 7, Voice of America reported that Shabaab’s top leader, Ahmed Abdi Aw Mohamed (who is better known as Sheikh Mukhtar Abu Zubayr and Godane) conducted a radio interview with a Somali station and said the al Qaeda-linked group was losing ground due to an ongoing offensive by African Union and Somali forces. Excerpts from the VOA report are reproduced below:

Speaking on a radio station that is friendly to the Islamist insurgents, Shabab commander Ahmed Abdi Godane admitted the group had experienced significant losses, including the deaths of several senior officials and commanders, in recent fighting…

The rebel commander also expressed concern over spies he believed had infiltrated al-Shabab, weakening it from within by sowing discord among the movement’s leaders. Godane said the group was working out ways to eliminate the spies from Shabab’s ranks.

There are two main reason to be skeptical of the report. First, Zubayr does not conduct media interviews. Second, it would be surprising for Zubayr to make such statements even if Shabaab were suffering setbacks in Somalia (a topic worthy of debate in itself).

And that skepticism may be warranted. A Somali official who wishes to remain anonymous has told The Long War Journal that Zubayr said no such thing. And in fact, Zubayr never even conducted the radio interview. The official said that the statement is part of an information operation designed to bolster the appearance of Somali and African Union success against Shabaab.

This wouldn’t be the first time that statements that have been attributed to Zubayr have turned out to be false. In September 2010, TIME Magazine published a similar fabricated interview with Zubayr by another Kenyan journalist in Nairobi. But Abdurahman Warsame, a journalist who works for Al Jazeera English and whose blog No Longer At East is a must read for those interested in Somali and the region, cast doubts on the TIME report. Warsame, like the Somali official, noted he has detected attempts by Somali officials to exaggerate the effects of operations against Shabaab. Below is a lengthy excerpt from Warsame’s post:

But what caught my attention was Time magazine’s improbable claim that they have interviewed Mukhtar Godane, the Amir or leader of Al-Shabab. This is a man who is reclusive and secretive even by Al Shabab standards, and gives no media interviews – a Mullah Omar of sorts. So for the man not to only give an interview but to choose to speak to Time magazine is very difficult to believe. It’s more like Obama giving an interview to Taliban radio.

Simply, the interview is a fabrication.

Last week a Somali website, Somaliweyn.com, had a picture on their website which they claimed was for Godane, again people who’d met him say it isn’t him. It’s understandable that there’s an obsession with reaching leaders like Mukhtar Godane, Mullah Omar or OBL but if you can’t get them you shouldn’t make up an interview.

It’s dangerous to report from Somalia so Western media outlets like Time rely on fixers, often young Somalis with little journalism training who send information that’s often difficult to verify (I know: American journos made up stories too).

But I wonder how much checking Time did at all.

Update 1:

There are other reasons for my skepticism about the interview. For example, the article repeats speculations about an Al-Shabab internal struggle almost word for word from other sources. For example, the government published a propaganda statement about how it’s pushing back Al Shabab because of their in-fighting. There were a lot of similar speculations in the Somali media but of little substance.

There is another reason for my doubts: The interview claims that Al Shabab leader told them they were meeting to solve a dispute between him and his deputy. Al Shabab are very secrative about their internal affairs so for the top leader to volunteer such information is hard to believe.

Update 2:

Abu Mansour, the deputy leader of Al Shabab denied that there is any dispute between him and Godane. The clip of his denial is in VOA Somali (in Somali). More on this in English from Mogadishu Man blog. In the sermon Abu Mansour says there is no dispute at all within the ranks of Al Shabab. I think Time needs to retract and apologize for this fabricated interview.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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