Disgruntled al-Shabaab fighters are increasingly deserting the radical Islamist group after years of fighting for the movement in southern Somalia. The deserters are mainly from southern Somalia’s Hawiye clan, while the movement’s current leader, Shaykh Ahmad Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr,” hails from the Isaaq clan in Somaliland, a largely peaceful, de facto independent state in northern Somalia. Most of the absconders fled from southern Somalia to neighboring countries while others joined the troops of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
On December 19, 2010, the TFG presented six al-Shabaab deserters to reporters at a press conference in Mogadishu. The six, who defected to government forces on November 19, 2010, included a number of senior commanders who had led al-Shabaab fighters in clashes against Somali TFG forces and African Union peacekeepers.
The defectors told local reporters that they joined al-Shabaab with the intention of safeguarding the rule of law through the holy Qu’ran, but later realized that the group was not following the teachings of the Shari’a. They then defected to the side of the government and sought forgiveness from the Somali people.
In discussing the reasons for his departure from al-Shabaab, former commander Muhammad Farah Ali said he was forced to kill his deputy commander when the latter was injured in the fighting and needed treatment abroad.
Muhammad Farah described the order as coming from Abu Mansur al-Amriki, an American al-Shabaab commander. Though Muhammad Farah regarded the order as unacceptable, he nevertheless carried it out for fear of his own safety before leaving the group: “If a fighter received a serious injury, they give an order to finish him because they would not have time to treat him. But if he received a small injury and was able to take up the gun again they will treat him.” Muhammad Farah’s account was similar to earlier reports that senior al-Shabaab commander Shaykh Mukhtar Robow “Abu Mansur” became infuriated with the movement’s leadership when he learned one of his deputies had been killed by fighters loyal to Ahmad Abdi Godane to ensure the wounded deputy would “die a martyr” (Jowhar, October 8, 2010; Wadanka.com, September 28, 2010; Suna Times, October 9, 2010; see also Terrorism Monitor Briefs, October 21, 2010).
The six men joined hundreds who had already left the militant force, such as 19-year-old Deeq Abdirahman, who defected from al-Shabaab last October. Deeq, who had never received any secular education, was recruited by the Islamic Courts Union from his madrassa in 2006 to fight against Somali warlords in Mogadishu. Deeq was eventually one of hundreds who received special training before joining a special wing led by Adan Hashi Ayro, an instrumental al-Shabaab commander who was himself trained at an al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan in the 1990s (Ayro was later killed by a U.S. cruise missile in central Somalia in 2008).
However, Deeq was forced to flee from Somalia by his former colleagues in arms and reached Nairobi in November after his relatives raised funds to assist his escape from al-Qaeda associated elements in Somalia. “They [al-Shabaab] called and threatened to kill me, saying, ‘We will slaughter you just as the infidels and people who have converted [from Islam].’”
Deeq began his journey from Mogadishu at the beginning of November, passing through al-Shabaab checkpoints in southern Somalia as he sought a safe place. “I decided to be brave because I was not able to get enough money for the airlines,” he noted.
In explaining why he deserted, Deeq says that he realized that the group is becoming more aggressive and threatens to kill every person who is not compliant: “They are all talking about killing people whether they are innocent or not. If you try to offer your comments you will face their wrath. The only option they have is killing, so I realized that their ambitions are not about religion.” According to the young man, al-Shabaab policy says if a person defects after working with the group for more than six months, he must be killed because he knows the organization’s secrets.
Twenty-one-year-old Muhammad Abdi, a junior al-Shabaab official, was one of those who had less luck in escaping the wrath of the militant organization, being assassinated only weeks after he deserted the group. His older brother, Ayanle Abdi, a businessman in Nairobi, said that Muhammad was killed as the family planned to bring him to Nairobi for safety. “We were aware of the threat since he left them. They were accusing him of joining what they call ‘the enemy of God,’” said Ayanle. Armed masked men shot Muhammad Abdi as he was walking in the Madina district of Mogadishu in November.
Muhammad Abdi was a secondary school student when he joined al-Shabaab in 2007 to fight against the Ethiopian forces that ousted ICU fighters from southern Somalia. “The recruiters met him at his school. They told him to fight for religion and God and the promise of a salary,” said Ayanle. The former student then received six months of training in the southern coastal town of Ras Kamboni, an al-Shabaab stronghold.
Though al-Shabaab is believed to have roughly 3,000 fighters, mostly of local origin, there are also claims that the movement is increasingly reliant on foreign fighters migrating to the jihad in the Horn of Africa. Wafula Wamunyinyi, deputy head of the AU mission in Somalia, says Somalia is host to more than 2,000 foreign fighters from India, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere, who are providing funds and training for terrorist operations.  According to some deserters and government officials, such as former deputy speaker of parliament and Minister of Rehabilitation and Social Affairs Professor Muhammad Omar Dalha, a number of these foreigners, including al-Qaeda operative Fazul Abdullah Muhammad (a native of the Comoros Islands) and American native Abu Mansur al-Amriki, are among those who have taken over the group’s leadership. 
Al-Shabaab has implored Somali mothers to send their children for training at al-Shabaab camps. The group has also urged Somali youth to register at al-Shabaab offices for recruitment into the organization, which is involved in heavy fighting in Mogadishu and elsewhere in southern Somalia. The movement is now training hundreds of young men to replace losses due to combat and desertion.
1. Statement given at a press conference in Nairobi, August, 2010. See also The National [Abu Dhabi], August 24, 2010.
2. Interview with Professor Omar Muhammad Dalha, Nairobi, December 22, 2010.