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Somali Ex-Militant Leader Runs for Political Office

FILE - Former al-Shabab leader Mukhtar Robow attends a news conference in Mogadishu, Somalia, Aug. 15, 2017.

The former No. 2 leader of Somalia-based militant group al-Shabab wants to become president of the country's South West regional state.

Mukhtar Robow, also known as Abu Mansour, made the announcement to hundreds of his supporters in a welcoming rally Thursday in the South Western town of Baidoa.

"After receiving requests from the people of this region and their intellectuals, I have decided to run for the president of this state in the coming election," Robow said at the rally. "I have accepted the requests and, if God wills, we will win and peace will prevail."

Robow, who once had a $5 million American bounty on his head, will face 10 other candidates in the election November 27. Other contenders include the current head of the South West state and the former Somali parliament speaker, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan.

Robow is an elusive, charismatic militant leader who received training from al-Qaida in Afghanistan and was once a senior commander in al-Shabab. In 2012, the Obama administration offered up to $33 million for information on the location of top members of the group, including him.

But that same year, Robow fell out with the group's emir — Ahmed Godane, killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2014. He retreated to his home region, protected by a personal guard.

With Shabab fighters still trying to kill him, he surrendered to the government last year after secret negotiations.

Robow appeared to be more moderate than many of his former comrades. In 2009, he freed five Somali parliament lawmakers after his militants took over Baidoa, which was then the headquarters of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government.

On other occasions, Robow condemned al-Shabab's attacks on civilian targets. However, Robow has never expressed remorse about his role in the group.

Ali Hasan, a regional parliament lawmaker, says they will elect the regional leader based on the will of the local population.

"We represent the people and in the upcoming election, we will elect whoever the people want us to elect regardless of his background and affiliations," he told VOA's Somali service.

Mohamed Farah Ali, a former militant commander who now works with the Somali government in deradicalizing youth, believes Robow's move could weaken al-Shabab.

"He is a man who knows about the group's secrets: their sources of money, the way they recruit fighters and the tricks they use. Therefore, I think being a leader would turn the tide against al-Shabab insurgents, specially the South West region," Ali said.

"As I am, he is one of the beneficiaries of the government amnesty program and he will help the end of the same group he helped establish."