Friday, December 28, 2012
By Majid Ahmed
Somali National Army soldiers rest in the shade of a tree in Jowhar on December 11th after seizing the former al-Shabaab-held town with the help of African Union Mission in Somalia troops. [Stuart Price/AU-UN IST/AFP]
Al-Shabaab is trying to regroup in Somalia's Hiran region after facing a series of defeats and losing a string of strategic towns in recent months, Somali security officials say.
Ahmed Abdullahi, a security official in the Hiran region, said he received information on the movement of some senior al-Shabaab leaders fleeing from liberated areas to Bulo Burde.
"According to what we have been told by Bulo Burde residents, some al-Shabaab leaders such as Yusuf Sheikh Isse, who is in charge of the Middle Shabelle region, and other leaders have been coming to this town," Abdullahi told Sabahi.
"Since the allied forces took over the city of Jowhar, field commanders of the group have been relocating from areas of Middle Shabelle to eastern Hiran," he said, adding that Somali and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces are preparing to move towards Bulo Burde.
"The Somali National Army, with the support of AMISOM forces, have been on alert and ready to liberate the few remaining cities that are under al-Shabaab's grip including Bulo Burde," he said.
Bulo Burde, which lies 240 kilometres north of Mogadishu and 40 kilometres southeast of Beledweyne, is considered to be al-Shabaab's last stronghold in Hiran.
According to residents, hundreds of al-Shabaab fighters are holed up in the city, preparing to defend it after losing control of many towns in the southern and central parts of the country.
The militant group announced last week that it had formed a new battalion called the "Abu Yahya al-Libi Battalion", named for the al-Qaeda leader who was reportedly killed earlier this year in Pakistan.
On December 17th, al-Shabaab displayed members of the new battalion at an event in Bulo Burde in an effort to reorganise its defeated fighters, according to news reports.
However, al-Shabaab's attempt to regroup faces many obstacles due to ongoing internal conflicts among al-Shabaab leadership as well as the group's financial problems, security analysts say.
"Al-Shabaab has lost strategic areas that brought in revenues such as Mogadishu and Kismayo, so it will not be able to obtain the necessary funding to reorganise itself and fund its military operations," said Said Mohamed Ali Mohamed, a retired captain in the Somali National Security Service.
Al-Shabaab will not be able to defend Bulo Burde, Mohamed said. Rather, the fighters will likely retreat to the forests and jungles between the Middle Shabelle and Hiran regions for protection, he said.
"As we have seen in previous months, al-Shabaab fighters have been retreating from all the towns without any resistance as soon as allied forces approach," he told Sabahi.
"Al-Shabaab's withdrawal from strategic cities to rural areas does not mean that they have chosen to disengage from direct combat in order to avoid heavy losses," he said. "What it means is that the group is unable to withstand the attacks and defend the areas it controls so its members are fleeing to rural areas for protection."
Al-Shabaab forces children to take up arms
Local residents in Bulo Burde said al-Shabaab has kidnapped children to force them to carry arms in an effort to ward off attacks from the Somali National Army and AMISOM troops.
"Al-Shabaab has rounded up no less than 150 children from schools and Qur'an classes that have been kidnapped from the countryside and small villages surrounding Bulo Burde," resident Abdinur Dahir, 46, told Sabahi.
"Al-Shabaab leaders including Sheikh Yusuf Ali Ugas, the group's official for Hiran region, and other leaders are now in town," he said. "They urge teachers in Qur'an schools and regular schools to stop their lessons and send their pupils to training camps so they can learn how to use weapons and join the group in their war for jihad, as they claim."
Nasra Abdi, 42, who sells fresh milk in the town market, said she saw members of al-Shabaab in the streets, urging residents to join the group to defend the town against the expected attack from Somali and allied forces.
"This group is the enemy of the Somali people because of their actions against innocent people, especially young children who are forced to bear arms and fight for them," she said.