The Shebaab group is rapidly losing ground to Somali government and African Union forces in their nearly decade-long conflict, but it has no intention of conceding defeat.
The group is developing new tactics such as urging residents to leave towns captured by the government, a Shebaab official who requested anonymity told DPA from the south-central region of Hiiraan by telephone.
“Our fighters are ready to fight the enemy until our last blood is shed,” he vowed.
The group, which stunned the world with an attack against a Nairobi shopping mall that killed nearly 70 people in September, controlled most of southern and central Somalia and parts of Mogadishu in 2009-2010.
But by the following year, it had lost control of key cities, and a new government offensive has now driven it out of 10 towns. The conflict has cost thousands of lives.
Shebaab’s estimated 5,000 fighters are facing at least 8,000 Somali soldiers and 24,000 AU peacekeepers.
“Shebaab is weakening by the day,” Somali army chief commander Dahir Aden told DPA.
“We have told local residents not to live in towns under the enemy,” the Shebaab official said. The group has cut supply lines and destroyed or poisoned water wells to mount pressure on such towns.
Those who decided to leave after the arrival of government troops include Guure Ahmed, a father of four, who left his home in Bulabarde earlier this year.
Ahmed moved to Halgan 40km north of Bulabarde, not because he is a follower of Shebaab, but because life had become impossible in the town after nearly all shops, schools and mosques closed down as residents distrustful of the government’s ability to maintain peace packed their bags.
In Halgan, which is under Shebaab control, “we live in isolation, cut off from government-controlled areas. The prices of food, water and other essential goods increase day by day”, Ahmed complained.
“Shebaab wants to use the people as a shield,” Aden said. He urged Somalis to return to their home towns where the government would deliver basic services and set up civilian administrations for six months until municipal elections were held.
Al Shebaab (“youth” in Arabic) emerged as a radical offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union, which had vied for power with the fledgling central authorities in the country that was plunged into two decades of chaos when the government collapsed in 1991.
It banned Western cultural expressions such as pop music – and this year the Internet – in areas under its control and introduced punishments such as cutting off hands of thieves and having women accused of adultery stoned to death.
It was seen as a nationalist movement against the 2007-2008 Ethiopian military intervention against Islamists in southern Somalia, and it also earned popularity by bringing law and order into the chaotic country, says Abdi Aynte, director of the Mogadishu-based think tank Heritage Institute for Policy Studies.
Shebaab helped local farmers by banning food imports, and launched small development projects such as digging boreholes or rebuilding bridges, Aynte told DPA. But its credibility was knocked when it rejected Western food aid to combat the 2011 drought and famine and burned Sufi shrines.
The group has further been weakened by internal divisions and the seizure of power by radicals who in 2012 announced its alliance with Al Qaeda. Their measures – such as decapitation of Christians and execution of internal rivals – have alienated more moderate Somali Islamists.
Al Shebaab’s popularity has also been dented by its policy of collecting taxes in money or livestock from local clans and entrepreneurs. “We have to accept their demands all the time,” said a 59-year-old elder from the south-eastern Middle Shabelle region, whose clan paid Al Shebaab the equivalent of $10,000.
As Shebaab has been losing the war against the government, it has increasingly turned to tactics such as suicide attacks, car bombings and targeted assassinations. It even attacked the presidential palace in February.
Prior to the attack in Nairobi, Al Shebaab staged a double suicide bombing in the Ugandan capital Kampala, killing 76 people watching the 2010 football World Cup final on television.
Experts say Al Shebaab increasingly sees itself as a movement with a global mission. “It has received financial and human resources from Al Qaeda for several years, with Al Qaeda trainers coming to Somalia, and it has long had foreign fighters in its ranks,” Aynte said.
“Al Shebaab is far from defeated. It will continue changing tactics and extending its attacks to neighbouring countries,” academic and political analyst Mohamed Sheikh Mohamud said.