September 8, 2012

al-Shabaab Defections Inching Closer To Reality

For months the following rumor has been just that, but timing is beginning to push it into the realm of plausibility.

A slew of intelligence released by the Kenyan government is marching the African Union's Mission In Somalia (AMISOM) to the southern port of Kismayo, bringing its forces to the edge of the military and information battlefields. Kenyan troops are reportedly preparing their final advance on Kismayo and will enjoy significant air/naval cover as they encounter any resistance from al-Shabaab. To their south, Ugandan and Burundian units await orders to move out of their advance position at Harbole, located between Afmadow and Kismayo. This information has been offered freely with the intention of deterring an organized counterattack and broadcasting Kenya's achievements to the world, a tactic that is yielding success on both levels.

Government propaganda aside, independent and civilian reporting correspond to the account of Kenya Defense Forces spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna. Following last weekend's battles around Afmadow (Miido and ), al-Shabaab's local commanders had allegedly expected a pause in AMISOM's activities and found themselves surprised by the bloc's advance towards Kismayo. Losing two locals commander in an airstrike further disrupted the group's immediate decision-making, and the defection of 200+ fighters in Afmadow appears to have broken any semblance of resistance in Kismayo.

"We have information that the insurgents are fleeing towards the south by boat and by road. There is a lot of movement because they know that Kismayu must fall," Oguna said, who added that AMISOM is conducting aerial surveillance of their movements.

At this point an observer may begin to finally believe in the rumors that anticipate a split between al-Shabaab's nationalist and transnationlist leadership, which may or may not include a rebranding effort. Interestingly, two interlocking developments have been posited as the motivation behind a name change to Munadamat Ihyaul Somaliya. While Kenya's government attributes this possibility to al-Shabaab's military disarray, other sources claim that the leaking of Munadamat Ihyaul Somaliya is itself responsible for renewed hostilities between Sheikh Mukhtar Robow and Sheikh Moktar Ali Zubeyr Godane. Robow, al-Shabaab's leading nationalist personality, has been attempting to disconnect from Zubeyr's transnationlist agenda for several years, yet he still distrusts Zubeyr's efforts to rebrand al-Shabaab on his own terms.

Zubeyr's deputy, Abdullahi Yari, also stands accused of only distributing funds to al-Shabaab's foreign fighters, a common grievance.

Tensions are boiling after the two sides again failed to reach a consensus on the insurgency's future. Beyond its usual problems, Zubeyr's faction has grown even more suspicious of Robow and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys in light of alleged contacts with the Somali National Army. The elder Aweys in particular is considered the most likely candidate to defect, having battled Zubeyr as an outright enemy before being coerced into joining al-Shabaab. He was likely left out of the State Department's "Rewards for Justice" program to keep him politically eligible, while Robow hopes that his clan ties will preserve his useful to Mogadishu.

Local analysts also suspect that Zubeyr "formally" merged with al-Qaeda in order to tarnish al-Shabaab's nationalist leadership, thereby disqualifying them from negotiating.

They may have to move fast if they truly expect to rid themselves of Zubeyr's authority, as each side is suspected of plotting assassinations against the other. Whatever they decide, Robow and Aweys will eventually be forced to choose between a rebranding campaign against the new government, and crossing over in exchange for favorable terms. Inactivity is not an option.

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