Tuesday, August 07, 2012
MOGADISHU (AFP) - Sitting in the ruins of what was once Somalia's most exclusive hotel, skinny ex-child soldier Mohamed Abdi Khadar recounts the months he spent fighting with al-Qaida-allied Shebab insurgents.
Convinced by a friend to join up, 14-year-old Khadar was trained for several weeks to fire rocket launchers and other weapons before being sent to attack government and African Union forces he was told were enemies of Islam.
"In the day they used to teach us the Koran, then at night they took us back to Mogadishu to fight," says Khadar, captured in July, his gaze flicking out over the Indian Ocean lapping below.
"Before you start firing you get a little bit scared but when it starts you get ready to hit and then nothing - it is normal."
The extremist Shebab once controlled much of southern Somalia, but in recent months have lost a series of key strongholds to a 17,000-strong African Union force (AMISOM), Ethiopian troops and the fledgling Somali army.
"Whenever we saw the AMISOM tanks we were told to run away," Khadar added, who is now being now being looked after by AU forces.
"Shebab is very weakened -- I think they will disappear," he added.
Somalia's weak Western-backed government -- which has seen its area of nominal control grow from few blocks of Mogadishu last year to the entire city and several other towns -- are keen to talk up the demise of Shebab.
"We have defeated al-Qaida and Shebab massively, capturing most parts of the country," said Somali President Sharif Sheikh Hassan, who heads the corruption-riddled transitional government.
"What is clear is that Shebab is coming towards the end of its era," he added.
Yet the Shebab remain powerful opponents of the government, as well as vowing to continue their battle against the incoming government, due to take over through a UN-backed process by August 20.
The new government -- expected to include many of the old faces who led Somalia through the past eight years of infighting and minimal political progress -- will still face a major challenge.
While the Shebab may be on the back foot militarily, United Nations officials and military commanders warn that they remain a serious threat.
AMISOM commanders say the Shebab could have up to 12,000 fighters and control over roughly 60 percent of the territory in south-central Somalia, although others estimate the fighting force to be far lower.
Continued guerrilla attacks -- as well as reports of new bases in Somalia's mountainous northern Puntland region -- suggest the Shebab are far from beaten, while reported divisions within the group are overblown, analysts say.
"The splits are often overstated, although the group's role in global jihad has clearly divided the leadership," said Ahmed Soliman, a researcher at Britain's Chatham House think tank.
"Leaders... will at some stage need to embrace negotiation with elements of Al-Shebab in order to build durable peace," he added.
A recent leaked UN report warned the Shebab have boosted contact with regional jihadist groups -- including in Kenya, Tanzania and Yemen -- and remain a "serious threat to peace, security and stability" in Somalia and on the "broader international scene."
"There is the real threat of serious rearguard action by the Shebab," said Augustine Mahiga, UN special representative to Somalia.
"Although they are weakened they are still capable of creating great havoc."
But the loss of territory has seen the Shebab's revenues shrink and the numbers of defectors grow.
Sitting in an AU base at Arbiska, 25 kilometres (15 miles) northwest of Mogadishu, Hasan Mushin Afgoi says he was deputy head of Shebab's finance department for the Afgoye region and charged with auditing rebel accounts.
Captured by AMISOM and government forces in May, Afgoye -- once home to hundreds of thousands of displaced people -- was a major economic centre for Shebab.
"We were collecting money from the public transport, the business people, the shops, the farms and those people living in public areas," said Afgoi, eating spaghetti and explaining he was excused from observing the Muslim ramzan fast due to a stomach complaint.
The 27-year-old claims that Shebab made $1.5 million monthly from the region -- likely an exaggeration -- which was used to pay clan elders and fighters.
"It is a big blow to lose Afgoye...they need money to continue the fighting," said Afgoi, who defected three months ago.
But as Kenyan troops in the AU force eye up the Shebab's last remaining key bastion -- the southern port city of Kismayo -- commanders warn that securing stability in the long term requires more than military might alone.
"To defeat insurgents is not by using guns or military means, to defeat insurgents is to call them to come and join the peace process," said Audace Nduwumunsi, commander of the Burundian force within AMISIOM.
"Yes, we can capture all the cities but the Shebab will still remain there -- when we reach a city they melt into the population."
But former child soldier Khadar, once promised a glorious martyrdom by the Shebab, says he has now set his sights on entering school, not heaven.
"My friend told me that if you die for the cause of jihad you will go to paradise where you will be rewarded with beautiful places and women...but I have come to the conclusion that it does not exist," Khadar said.
"Now all I want to do is to go to school."