While the Somali government forces, backed by the US and African union troops, continue their war, there are indications al Shabab might also be struggling internally. Although recruitment of more fighters continues, a growing number are defecting. FSRN’s Mohammed Yusuf recently met and spoke with former insurgents.
Five years ago, 28 year-old Kismayu resident, Mohamed Farah, was with the local clan militia in lower juba southern Somalia. But he joined al-shabab after the insurgent group took over his coastal city. He said he had no other choice if he wanted to stay in his home town.
“In Somalia today, the only life for people is either carrying a gun ready for a fight or running away. If you don’t join either of the warring groups, then you are forced to leave the country.”
After joining the Islamist movement Farah was given the task to command more than one hundred gunmen, and they fought numerous battles in different parts of the country, including the capital Mogadishu. For many young men in Somalia, including Farah, joining warring groups is the only way to survive, and to make a living in a country that’s gone through decades of warfare and poverty.
Others have been targeted at school, including nineteen year-old, Ahmed Ibrahim who lived in a remote village in southern Gedo region. When al shabab came there to recruit fighters, his entire class joined.
“The reason I joined the group was all my friends, classmates and people who were around me, joined al shabab. They become fighters and started carrying weapons.”
Ibrahim fought with al-shabab for three years. When their base was attacked by a militia allied to the government, he was hit in the head by a stray bullet. Ibrahim said he became disillusioned with life in the bush and with al shabab.
“I had to leave al shabab. I came to know them better, after working with them for a couple of years. When you work with them you will get to know them better. Al Shabab has become a group that has isolated itself from the whole country and beyond. They think the whole country belongs to them. And when you work for them you are someone who is not free, you can’t do anything.”
In the areas under al-shabab control, people with incomes and business owners must pay them a tax of about $2000 a year. Those who cannot pay are forced to join the fight against the western-backed government. Many business men who pay the yearly tax have criticised al shabab for failing to circulate the money locally and invest in development.
Thirty year old, Abdullahi Weli was a business man in Bakol region in central Somalia before he joined al shabab. Like hundreds of other business owners, Weli said he didn’t have enough money to pay al shabab’s fees. He eventually couldn’t afford to keep his business open.
“I had a shop, when al shabab reached our area and started taking control. They blocked roads that were used to supply goods to our area especially roads from Mogadishu to Baidoa. I couldn’t get any supplies, and that’s how I lost my business”
Weli said he was unemployed for a year when a colleague who joined al shabab helped to recruit him. He told Weli he’d be taught Islam and paid good money. Weli weighed his options and decided to join. He was taken to a training camp for six months, where he trained with more than three hundred newly recruited al shabab fighters from different parts of the country. Weli said they were taught weapon assembly, its usage and how to put together explosives. No one left the camp except for those who were ready to be deployed to the battle field.
“One day there was a fight in the camp, after that fight, I heard someone firing his gun. He was one of our trainers, and shouting God is great, God is great! Honestly I was shocked; he was not leading us by good example. A lot of things came to my mind, after deep consideration I came to realize the people who we were fighting against – they were fellow Muslims.”
During his ten month stay with al shabab, Weli’s family pressured him to leave the group. Opposition to al-shabab was growing across Somalia and the US and UN-backed government began an offensive to oust the group. Al-shabab’s poor wages were also becoming a problem.
“For ten months of fighting, al-shabab paid me $100. My family and relatives were pressuring me 24 hours a day to leave the group, and there was no way I could convince them I should stay, I had to leave.”
Both Farah and Weli say they are done with the fighting; they just want to return to ordinary life. Ibrahim says he wants to continue his studies.
But their immediate outlook is bleak. They will be sent to North Eastern Kenya and the Dadaab refugee camp, the largest in world. More than three hundred and seventy thousand Somalis are seeking refuge here, in a camp that was built 20 years ago to only house ninety thousand.