The unity that allowed the militant Islamist group Al Shabab to gain control of wide swaths of Somalia is in danger of breaking down amid widening famine and the recent loss of key bases in Mogadishu, the capital.
The hunger crisis plaguing southern Somalia is hitting rural areas hardest, where the insurgents drew their greatest support.
Those areas are largely run by moderates who are keener on letting Western food aid into their areas because they are seeing the most casualties from the famine and feeling more pressure from the local communities in which they live, says Rashid Abdi, a Somalia expert at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi.
If they were to split away from the smaller rump of global jihadists – Al Shabab’s most radical commanders – that could loosen the group’s stranglehold on Somalia.
That coupled with a serious loss of revenue from major sections of the capital city that the group has lost control of means “the writing may be on the wall for Al Shabab,” says Mr. Abdi of the International Crisis Group. “There has always been a split among their leaders, and it’s definitely been made worse by the famine situation.”
But the potential split, while weakening Al Shabab, could also make its tactics less predictable. Analysts have expressed concerns of a new, more deadly guerrilla warfare as the front lines become blurred.
A 'change in tactics'
Until recently, Al Shabab was earning up to $60 million per year from extortion on businesses in Mogadishu’s Bakara and Suuq Baad markets, according to a recent report from the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.
But Al Shabab was dislodged from Mogadishu last week by sustained offensives by the African Union peacekeepers, and, to a far lesser extent, troops loyal to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). That dealt a serious blow to the group, says Roger Middleton, Horn of Africa analyst at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.
“Without that, what’s the point of being in Mogadishu?” Mr. Middleton asks. “It’s just a very expensive and dangerous place to be for the kudos of saying you’re controlling the capital. It makes sense to leave if you’ve lost the markets.”
But Sheikh Mohamed Rage, Al Shabab’s spokesman, said the withdrawal from Mogadishu was part of a “change in tactics.”
One aid worker with long experience in Somalia said he feared Mogadishu would now become “more dangerous than ever.”
“They’ll sit outside the city and start sending in small groups to plant IEDs or blow themselves up randomly,” he said, refusing to be named for fear of jeopardizing the security of his staff in Somalia.
“When there was a front line, we knew where we were, to an extent. Now, it’s potentially just chaos.”
A recipe for acclerating Shabab's split
Matt Bryden, a veteran Somalia analyst and co-author of the Monitoring Group report, says the current situation does provide “an opportunity,” however.
The mandate of the transitional federal government (TFG), which is accused of deep corruption and is not popular in Somalia, expires in 11 months.
Several smaller armed groups have successfully repulsed Al Shabab and are beginning to run their territories with some level of success and peace, Mr. Bryden says. While the international community may be tempted to reinforce the unpopular TFG, that's not the right course, he says.
“What they should be doing is distancing themselves from the TFG, and working with other armed groups, and any more moderate split-off from Al Shabab, to create an open political framework ahead of next year.”
This would “accelerate” the separation of Al Shabab’s radical commanders from its more “pragmatic” leaders, he says.
There were some signs Tuesday that the TFG had in fact begun working towards that "open political framework."
The government said it was offering a "general amnesty to insurgent fighters remaining in Mogadishu who give themselves up and renounce violence," according to a statement reported by the French news agency Agence-France Presse.
"We offer an amnesty – put down your weapons and your guns, and come and join the people and your society," government spokesman Abdirahman Osman reportedly said. It was not immediately possible to verify the report.