Yesterday the TFG brought before the media 9 children that it claimed had defected from Al-Shabab. They claimed that all the children were under 15 (apparently, the TFG is OK with children above 15 being used as fighters, since they have hundreds of such children in their military) and had been recruited from Waberi district from a Madrasah by a man who has now fled the area. The children are said to have been taken straight to the front lines by Al-Shabab after the nameless man took them to the Shabab area. It is not mentioned what route the children took on their way to the government side, but it is not likely they crossed the front lines if they are indeed defectors (real defectors go behind the lines, change into civilian cloths, take civilian buses to Elasha, then to the TFG area).
Looking at the children one wonders if they are really defectors from Al-Shabab. They look more like street children than former terrorists. Their story would have had some credibility had it been suggested that they had taken at least a month’s worth of training before being taken to the front lines. To insinuate that Al-Shabab has under-15-year olds without any military training at the front lines in Mogadishu is an insult to the TFG and AMISOM more than it is to Al-Shabab. Failing to break an army of lightly armed “deceived” children goes a long way to show one’s incompetence. It would be wise for the TFG to just give up on this style of propaganda.
It is likely that these children are just the latest in the long line of impostor defectors that have been flocking to the TFG ever since Sheikh Sharif took power. Many of them are Shabab Loyalists that join the TFG to gather information or facilitate operations inside government-held territory. These are Shabab-sanctioned and therefore are not afraid of retribution against them or their property in the Shabab area. Others claim to be Al-Shabab to reap the rewards promised by the TFG to whoever defects from Al-Shabab. Such people include low-level members of Al-Shabab who mostly claim to have been holding high positions in the military or the security, and people who had nothing to do with the organization but just want to dupe the TFG to give them the promised rewards.
It was in December 2010 when men claiming to have been high ranking commanders of Al-Shabab were paraded by the TFG to the media. One claimed that he was the commander of Al-Shabab from Sayidka to Dabka. He claimed that he had lost 200 men, including 50 whose bodies had become “pudding” and were carried in polythene bags. He went on to proudly take credit for all the gains Shabab made during last Ramadan in that area. Apparently this impostor did not research very well before ‘defecting’: Shabab did not launch the offensive on the Sayidka area. It was Hisbul Islam. Shabab only coordinated with them their attacks on the other fronts. Besides, the commanders of Al-Shabab who had been in the Dabka area are well known and none had defected.
I was shocked at how naïve some of the TFG intelligence officers were in believing them. The only intelligence department of the TFG that realized that they were lying was a little-known agency that is run by members of the former ICU. These come directly under the president, and are more effective in information collecting and assessment than the secular-led NSSA.
Perhaps the most prominent ‘defector’ that joined the TFG is Mohamed Sheik Abdullah – better known as “Pakistani”, who ‘defected’ in late 2009. He claimed to have been the leader of Shabab’s Lower Shabelle Guerilla Army (Jabhada Shabelaha Hose). He also claims to have personally known Al-Shabab Emir, Abu Zubayr. He must have been pretty charming to have befriended and met Abu Zubayr because all the other regional commanders of Al-Shabab have never even seen him. Surprisingly, everything he said about Al-Shabab are things the TFG has been saying all along and openly available information (that Al-Shabab has hundreds of foreign members; that they are run by foreigners; and that Nabhan was the leader of Al-Shabab’s foreign members). But he also added a little fiction to give the impression that indeed he had defected from a fanatical terror organization: he claimed that there was a coin-tossing competition to select would-be suicide bombers.
Unfortunately, even the ICU members of the TFG could not realize that he was not for real. This was perhaps he was naming a lot of names they were familiar with. The fact that the vast majority of his info was publicly available did not seem to raise their suspicions. One would expect such a person to have vital information that may lead to the potential killing of high-level Shabab operatives, but all he had was open source information. This did not stop him from rising in the ranks of the NSSA, where he still works.
The truth about Pakistani is that he used to help the commander of the Lower Shabelle Guerilla Army of Al-Shabab with buying supplies from the cities during 2008 when Al-Shabab was still at the hit-and-run stage. In early 2009 he started working with their Islamic Propagation department (Da’wa), and was apparently arrested for defaulting on debt. He was released on guarantee in mid-2009, and ran to the government side of Mogadishu. He resurfaced in late that year claiming to be what he wasn’t. If only they had interrogated him and asked him to tell them how Al-Shabab executes a guerilla attack. But again, perhaps it was the deputy prime minister’s rumored support of the man that minimized any scrutiny of his claims. It is not clear what their relation is, but they are both from Lower Shabelle region.
Hopefully, Sheikh Sharif’s overhaul of the NSSA will lead to purging of impostors like Pakistani. But that may not happen anytime soon because Sharif is struggling to stay in power. It seems it is that time of the year when two branches of the TFG clash over interpretation of the constitution. This time it is the Executive and the Legislative. We might see more ‘defections’ to the different factions of the TFG in the coming weeks. Every faction will be trying to prove that it is the one that can convince the most Shabab to defect to the government. With no large population to recruit from on their side of Mogadishu, the TFG relies on defectors who come with military or security experience. One can just wonder how many of the defectors are Shabab Loyalists; how many are genuine; how many are exaggerating their experience and rank; and how many are outright impostors. With the lack of proper vetting procedures in the TFG intelligence and bitter factionalism in their ranks, I wouldn’t be surprised if the vast majority of defectors were impostors or Shabab Loyalists.
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