The New York Times reports on Shabaab’s withdrawal from the Somali capital of Mogadishu:
The Shabaab Islamist rebels abruptly pulled out of the bullet-ridden capital of Somalia on Saturday, leaving the entire city in the hands of the government for the first time in years and raising hopes that aid groups could now deliver aid to more famine victims unfettered.
Witnesses described truckloads of heavily armed Shabaab fighters driving away under the cover of darkness and the beleaguered residents of the capital, Mogadishu, pouring into the streets to cheer and jeer their departure.
Shabaab’s spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, announced the withdrawal on the Shabaab-run Andalus radio station. Portions of his interview have been published in various media outlets. Below is a more extensive quote sent to The Long War Journal by a Somali official:
“We have withdrawn Mogadishu but we remain in other towns. We aren’t leaving you, we will never abandon you but we have only changed our tactics in Mogadishu. Everyone of you will feel the change in the coming hours in every corner and every street in Mogadishu. We will defend you and continue the fighting.”
The NYT article postulates that the withdrawal from Mogadishu is due to a reported disagreement within Shabaab’s leadership hierarchy. But the Somali official told The Long War Journal that Shabaab could not have pulled off a successful retreat if its leadership was split. Keep in mind that Somali and African Union forces were caught off guard and were completely unaware of Shabaab’s planned pullout. The Somali official said:
I think al-Shabaab’s new move does not constitute their defeat nor a victory by the Somali government and the AMISOM forces but it represents a tactical shift made by al-Shabaab in tandem with the AMISOM’s very recent tactical shift, whose mandate has changed from peace-keeping to a peace-enforcing mission.
It is a human nature that people differ about their proposed approaches but as far as I am informed there is no any split within al-Shabaab’s leadership. Even with the slightest split I believe they would not have been able to complete such a major pullout from a whole town (90% of Mogadishu) undetected.
Despite the withdrawal from Mogadishu, Shabaab still remains in control of much of southern Somalia, including the southern port city of Kismayo and the southwestern city of Baidoa, which was once the seat of power of the Transitional Federal Government. Outside of Mogadishu, the Somali government maintains little control, save in some areas where the pro-government Sufi Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a movement holds Shabaab at bay. The African Union does not have the resources or the mandate to move against Shabaab in the outlying areas.
Keep in mind that Shabaab’s predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union, pulled out of Mogadishu in late 2006 after the Ethiopian invasion. Shabaab then launched an offensive in the provinces, taking over most of southern Somalia. Its forces then re-infiltrated the capital and retook control. It remains to be seen if Rage’s statement is empty words, or a harbinger of more deadly fighting in the capital and beyond.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.