News / Africa

Some Al-Shabab Defectors Still a Security Threat

Somali government soldiers trained by the European Union Training Mission team march during their passing out ceremony at Bihanga army training camp, 368 km (230 miles) west of Kampala, February 1, 2013.
Somali government soldiers trained by the European Union Training Mission team march during their passing out ceremony at Bihanga army training camp, 368 km (230 miles) west of Kampala, February 1, 2013.
— Somali militant group al-Shabab is losing ground and its ability to carry out al-Qaida-inspired tactics like suicide bombings appears to be waning.  But for the last few months the group has increasingly turned to sympathizers and "defectors," who have joined the Somali national army and the intelligence service, to carry out attacks against government officials, security forces and civilians.

For the last two years, the Somali government has taken in hundreds of al-Shabab fighters who have defected for various reasons.

Some say they were tired of living in the bush and fighting and others say they became disillusioned with the so-called Jihad or holy war.

But after an alleged al-Shabab defector blew himself up outside the Somali prime minister's office last week, killing two people and wounding three, security officials are now questioning whether these former fighters can be trusted.

Prudent approach

Abdi Hassan is a former commander who works as a military consultant for the Somali national army.  He says the army has tried to minimize the risks and is aware not all defectors are genuine and honest.

He says most of the defectors seem to be tired, but there are still some individuals who have, what he calls, the disease of terrorism.  He says the government must put an end to the planned terror attacks.

An al-Shabab defector, who didn’t want to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told VOA he realizes security officials and forces are suspicious of him.

The defector says now he knows the reality and he says what he was told about the al-Shabab group and what he experienced is different.  He says there is no Jihad or holy war here.   He says people think differently when it comes to the issue of defectors.  He says it's very understandable for people to suspect us, but the reality is, I am someone who is clean and honest.

Defectors welcomed

Another former fighter who defected seven months ago and goes by the name of Abu Omar says he was surprised by the welcome he received when he defected and he doesn’t think of hurting people in the Somali government.

He says he was welcomed both by the Somali national army and his family and he is very happy.  He says there are some who have defected and are still used by the militants to attack the government and its people.   But Omar says for him, he doesn't think he will do such a thing and he says those who are thinking of attacking the government should stop it and clean their hearts and minds.

An asset in fight against al-Shabab

The Somali government sometimes depends on defectors to give useful information about the activities of al-Shabab.

The government says treating defectors well and integrating them into the society is one way of encouraging other fighters to leave the group and take part in peace building in the country.

 Al-Shabab Timeline

  • 2006 - Launches insurgency to take control of Somalia and impose strict Islamic law
  • 2008 - U.S. declares al-Shabab a foreign terrorist organization
  • 2009 - Seizes control of parts of Mogadishu and the port city Kismayo
  • 2010 - Expands control across central and southern Somalia, carries out deadly bombing in Kampala, Uganda
  • 2011 - Blocks drought/famine aid from areas under its control
  • 2011 - East African leaders declare al-Shabab a regional threat; Ethiopian, Kenyan troops enter Somalia to pursue the group, which is driven out of Mogadishu
  • 2012 - Declares itself an al-Qaida ally, loses ground in Somalia, abandons strategic coastal stronghold Kismayo
  • 2013 - Attacks Mogadishu court complex, killing more than 30 and attacks mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 69 people

The military consultant Hassan notes former al-Shabab fighters have played a role in destabilizing the group, and helping the government achieve some of its security goals.

Hassan says it is time to put defectors in military camps and rehabilitation centers, with the goal of eliminating any traces of the terrorist mentality.

Hassan says the defectors have brought some success to the army and they have also thwarted some attacks and they have also minimized the internal damage.  He says there was a time that it was a must to trust all the fighters because of the security situation - but now, he says, it is important to give training to the defectors, to educate them, and to take them away from the city and into special centers where they can gradually re-enter Somali daily life.

For now, as the country enjoys relative political stability, security officials will have to work hard to separate the genuine and honest defectors from those who still have links and sympathies with the terror groups.

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