Kismayo Hasn’t Fallen Yet; Even If It Had, It Wouldn’t Be the End of the Shabab

In the early hours of the morning today, reportedly mostly Somali forces – according to Somali sites – were dropped by Kenyan landing ships on the beaches on the outskirts of Kismayo, the southern Somali port city that is the main target of the Kenyan war against the Shabab.

Some Somali sites report that the amphibious force is in the hundreds, but whatever their number, one thing is clear: they have not taken Kismayo contrary to what most news sites are parroting.

The source of the false news that Kismayo had fallen was a Kenyan army spokesman, Cyrus Oguna who had said that the city had “fallen with minimum resistance”. It is easy to jump the gun when, you know, you are not the one really shooting the gun.

As I have written before, losing Kismayo is not such a big deal to the Shabab: they may actually end up making more from discreet “Jihad donations” that they will collect from businesses in the region once they are forced to fully withdraw than from the port itself.

Kismayo is the second biggest city in southern Somalia, after Mogadishu. Holding it has more of a psychological effect than anything.

The battle for Kismayo is not the decisive battle that would decide the fate of the Shabab in southern Somalia, and it is not their “last stronghold” as some news sites report. The Shabab control another port city, Barawe, and many important towns in south and central Somalia. Simply put: the Shabab can drive from Kismayo all the way to near Galka’yo in central Somalia without going through enemy territory. How is that for a “last stronghold”?

The Shabab themselves don’t seem interested in fighting for Kismayo, but seem to be doing it for their tribal allies from…everyone else except the Ogaden, who are mostly represented by the pro-Kenyan faction of the Ras Kamboni Brigade led by Ahmed Madobe.

Radio Andalus aired a speech by the Shabab military spokesman to the “Ansar” (the pro-Shabab clans), telling them to take positions in the city as had been “agreed upon”, suggesting the group had planned to defend the city in conjunction with the clans.

These clans have more reasons than the Shabab to defend Kismayo: they fear that their rivals from the Ogaden want to rule the city with an iron fist and get back at them for past wrongs. The Ogaden had never really ruled Kismayo alone during the civil war – it was either with the Majerten-Harti Morgan administration or the Marehan-Ayr Jubba Valley Alliance ruling the city, for whom they were sometimes auxiliary forces. Now they have the whole Kenyan army helping them take the city, thanks to their fellow clansman, the Ogadeni Kenyan Defence Minister, Mohamed Yusuf Haji – how convenient for them.

Furthermore, they fought with gusto against the Ahmed Madobe faction of the Ras Kamboni Brigade around 3 years ago, deciding to support the Shabab in an apparent effort to get back at the Ogaden for leading the Islamic Courts Union into Kismayo in 2006 – an event that led to the demise of the Jubba Valley Alliance.

This is the kind of region the Jubba areas is: tit for tat; repeat until the end of time. The Kenyan forces are seen just like any other clan: if they kill someone, his relatives will retaliate.

As for the elusive end of the Shabab: we should have realized by now that that won’t happen without solving the legitimate social and political issues that many of the nationalists and clan-based fighters within the group are fighting for. No clan likes being ruled by clan militias from other clans. The Shabab managed to bring harmony within the clans and solve many of the land disputes in their areas of control.

An administration that is all-inclusive and just is the best weapon against the Shabab.

Conquering Kismayo with the help of an Islamist clan militia flimsily masquerading as a national army will not only strengthen Shabab support, but also sow seeds for the Shabab to regenerate once the foreigners leave, while melting into the friendly countryside to harass the allied military convoys, and slowly taking back more territory in the hinterland from the unpopular RKB.

No, this will not be the end of the Shabab. When will somebody think of a comprehensive plan to end the war?

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About the War for Kismayo

Tonight the Shabab spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamud, spoke through the group’s official radio Al-Andalus, saying that Kismayo will not be given up without a “bloody” battle.

The war for Kismayo has been fought mostly on the airwaves for the past month, and increasingly so in the past week.

If the pro-government and Kenyan media’s reports were anywhere near the truth, the Shabab would have lost Kismayo a long time ago.

Here are the facts and fictions in the media war:

1) These rounds of battles have been raging for 3 days in the Bibi area (around 70 KM from Kismayo), which is closer to Afmadow than Kismayo. Some pro-government media was reporting that the allied forces had reached 50 KM near Kismayo 2 days ago. And today, government spokesmen were claiming that “the last defense” of Kismayo had been breached. If that is so, then why are you not in Kismayo now?
2) We were told that Al-Andalus radio had been switched off in Kismayo. This is a critical indicator of an inevitable withdrawal, as the Shabab always evacuate their radio stations before giving up a town or city. But it seems that Radio Andalus in Kismayo was indeed off air, but because of “technical issues”, according to the Shabab media.
3) If we were to believe what Chirchir has to say about Shabab casualties (that hundreds of them die whenever they fight the Kenyans – sometimes it is just a couple of dozen, he tells us), then the Shabab have probably lost more fighters than they have in the whole region. Sure, the Shabab also exaggerate the numbers they kill, but they at least show us material evidence of their exploits. Sorry to say this, but they are clearly more convincing than Chirchir, who sometimes backtracks from his comments (such as the one that the Marehan support the Shabab – a mostly correct observation by the way).
4) For weeks, Shabab leaders have been “leaving Kismayo”, anti-Shabab sites tell us. How many leaders did they have in Kismayo to withdraw them for weeks? And how can you have that many “leaders” that they take weeks to withdraw? Besides, Kismayo has been subjected to a lot of air and sea bombardment that it is barely an attractive hideout for a top Shabab leader. But amiirnuur.com (pro-Shabab) tells us yes, Shabab leaders have been leaving the city to go to the frontlines in recent days. I assume these to be the regional commanders and not the top leadership, who undoubtedly are in a safer place.

The Shabab have put up a bigger fight for Kismayo than expected, and don’t seem ready to give it up easily. According to amiirnuur,com, the group has withdrawn all “vulnerable persons”, “offices that don’t have direct involvement in the war”, and seems to suggest that the Shabab may fight even in the city.

The Ras Kamboni Brigade fighters that have fought for more than three years to get their hands on the Kismayo port and its revenue will be disappointed by this: the Shabab appear to not let the Kismayo port reopen, as amiirnuur.com (and SomaliliMemo.net – the same article was published in both websites) says that the war will also have an “economic” front.

Taking Kismayo may cost the allied forces the territory between Kismayo and the border because the Shabab have – according to the abovementioned article and shown by Shabab activity in the region – up to “10 fronts” (jabha in Arabic) – units that are made up of from 70 to 100 guerilla fighters. One such “front” was featured in the Shabab video “Igharat Hayo” (the raid on Hayo). The fighters in that video seemed well trained and war-hardened, and did indeed badly rout the Ras Kamboni Brigade fighters they raided.

In June, I had lauded the allied forces’ lack of sprinting towards Kismayo, while erroneously expecting the Shabab to put up little fight for Kismayo, and completely move to guerilla warfare as they had been doing elsewhere (in the Kismayo battles, they have used both stationary defenses and ambushes to try to slow down the allied forces). This is because the allies simply can not hold the areas outside Kismayo, as all the Somali groups aiding the Kenyans want a piece of the Kismayo cake. This is on top of the fact that they simply don’t have enough men to protect every village and town between Kismayo and the Kenyan border from the Shabab.

The Shabab will lose Kismayo sooner or later, but I doubt the costs will be worth it at this stage.

Update

Somali sites are reporting that there have been a flood of Shabab fighters reinforcing Kismayo from other regions. Meanwhile, civilians continue to leave the city in anticipation of a protracted battle inside the city.

The Shabab are building defenses in Kismayo and mounting machine guns on top of strategic buildings, indicating that they do plan to fight within the city.

It took more than ten thousand soldiers from AMISOM, the Somali National Army and allied militias to dislodge the Shabab from Mogadishu. And even then it took them the greater part of 2 years to make the Shabab withdraw.

If the Shabab activity of surging their troop numbers in the area and building defenses are not meant to cover a sudden retreat from Kismayo – and they have been known to do that (the Mogadishu withdrawal caught the allied forces by surprise despite all the signs) – and go on to fight in Kismayo like they fought in Mogadishu, the Kenyans and their allies may really be in for a big surprise in Kismayo.

By the way, Radio Andalus is back on the air in Kismayo. Apparently there was a technical problem as the Shabab media said yesterday.

The above is an indicator that the Shabab don’t plan to retreat from Kismayo – at least not in the coming days.

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Election in Mogadishu and No Attack

Tonight was a historic night in Somalia: presidential elections were held in Mogadishu for the first time in more than 40 years.

But there is something else that is also very important because it did not happen: there were no major Shabab attacks in Mogadishu or near the election venue, as I had expected they would try to carry out some as they tried to attack the venue where the constitution was being approved several weeks ago.

This suggests the Shabab are losing their ability to carry out mass-casualty attacks deep in government-held Mogadishu. They settled for hand grenade attacks in areas very far from the election venue near the Mogadishu Airport.

Perhaps more important than the above two is the fact that the grossly corrupt and incompetent members of the outgoing government lost the elections in a very humiliating manner to an academic newcomer to the political scene.

This despite reportedly bribing Members of Parliament to vote for them, and ironically making them take an oath on the Quran that the MPs would not renege on their promise to vote for them.

While this reflects badly on the MPs no matter what they did (breaking their promise to vote for the corrupt outgoing officials means they broke their oath with God as their witness; keeping their words would still make them bad as they took bribes and used God as their witness – how pathetic!), the outcome favoured the Somali nation. The end of transition can now be considered as an end of transition because most of the bad apples during the transition have been thrown away.

Sure, the Shabab have vowed to continue fighting no matter who won, but the new president is not hated by the Shabab anywhere near how Sheikh Sharif is hated.

An Islamist who despised Sharif and was campaigning for a candidate who did well told me that he was campaigning “for change”. I learnt from him that almost all the other candidates decided to support Hassan Sheikh so as to block Sharif from getting reelected.

Not being Sharif and not having a history of war gives the new president an edge.

However, to really be able to weed corruption out of government and increase security, he has to slowly get rid of the Sharif loyalists in the security forces, and not reappoint any of the corrupt officials from the outgoing government. This will take time, but without doing this, we will just have a new president but no change in

The international community should pressure the new government to form an independent anticorruption watchdog with teeth. Otherwise, news of disappearing funds will continue being the norm.

If this government becomes as bad as the outgoing one, it is a plus for the Shabab. And they really need it to fail to show that democracy always fails.

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Touring the Resilient Bakara Market with a Former Shabab

I went on a tour of Bakara Market in Mogadishu recently with a former Shabab member who I knew since his early teens. Let us call him Ali.

I last visited the market in mid-2011 when it was still held by the Shabab and it was being pounded by AMISOM and TFG artillery. I had taken one of the last public transport minivans out of Baar Ubah at the northern part of the market to KM4 on the side of the city held by the government. Such a trip would normally be ten to fifteen minutes, but we had to take a long detour, and it was several hours.

The Shabab fighters in Bakara market were bent on defending the market. And with its dense concrete buildings, they could have fought for continuous months of battles before eventually losing it.

However, due to many factors, the Shabab decided not to fight for long and withdrew after some time.

Nevertheless, the market was very badly destroyed, and after withstanding two dozen years of war and no doubt thousands of dead, Bakara Market was closed for the first time even before the Shabab withdrawal. Almost all traders had moved to Shabab-held Elasha Biyaha; nothing suggested that the market would be back to its former glory.

As we walked around Bakara with Ali, he told me not to worry about harassment from government security operatives. He told me that the guy who commanded the security forces in parts of the market was in his “pocket”. He told me of one time when he was detained; they ended up apologising as his man came to the rescue.

However, he kept stopping me from taking certain streets because he was sure we would get in trouble. He couldn’t have everybody in his pocket.

Almost every street was reminding him of something. The street behind Hormuud reminded him of the hundreds of rounds of AK-47 he shot in a few minutes as the allied forces took Hawlwadag junction. The medicine market reminded him of olden days when his foes in the Islam Courts would hang out with him in the market.

Bakara is full of life, full of business. Despite years of destruction, it is back to its former busy self. It is the embodiment of resilience. It represents Mogadishans’ hard work for a better life, dignity, and getting up no matter hard the fall.

Hard can barely start to describe the last fall of Bakara Market.

I remember how, in 2010 and early 2011, buildings would be fixed immediately after being shelled. Buildings were constructed to accommodate the security situation: heavy concrete roofs replaced corrugated iron roofs in most parts of the market. As such, most of the casualties in mortar attacks were in the streets or in the roofless vegetable market.

Like all Mogadishans, Ali is happy with Mogadishu’s newfound security and growth.

Mogadishu’s relative calm does not mean that the Shabab have lost support, but rather that the people of Mogadishu are simply fed up with war. They don’t care who rules the city as long as they get peace and stability.

The government forces still rape and kill, but mostly at the frontlines in cities outside Mogadishu. The people of Mogadishu are deeply unforgiving – they support or join the enemies of their oppressors. The government seems to be avoiding antagonising them.

Right now, they don’t care that the people that bombed their main market are in charge as long as the crimes don’t continue.

We built a prosperous market when half of it was still burning; we would build the burning half when the fire stopped. Imagine what we would do now that there is no fire.

Unlike the seaside buildings that western journalists photograph to show the destruction of Mogadishu, Bakara’s buildings were more important centers of commerce that – unlike the ghost buildings in Shingani – were continuously used during the civil war. Not highlighting the progress and rebuilding of Bakara Market is a crime against the truth; focusing on ghost buildings to give a false image of Mogadishu is unfair, to put it lightly.

The videos and pictures below represent Mogadishu today. Peace, some stability, and a more shadowy Shabab, having some security officials in their “pocket”, going deeper underground.

The first one has sounds. This is more or less how Bakara sounds like:

Walking from Qaran on Adan Adde street to the new Hormuud Building near Hawlwadag:

Walking from Hormuud to Suqa Dahabka in the Abdalla Shideye area:

Pics of Bakara:

Abdalla Shideye

Hormuud

Old Hormuud Building

Retaking the Shabab label: Shop in Bakara:

Masjidka Daawada street:

Rebuilding

Suqa Dahabka

More pics and snapshots of the videos:

http://s1252.photobucket.com/albums/hh580/somalianalyst/Bakara/

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The Shabab Committing Petty Crimes?

Today I came across an article claiming that the Shabab is resorting to petty crimes, robbing people, carjacking, and randomly shooting at travelers in Bay/Bakol regions, the group’s support base.

The truth is none of these stories seem plausible for a number of reasons:

First, the Shabab would not do anything to hurt its public image, especially that it is now heavily reliant on civilian support as it increasingly resorts to guerilla warfare. Also, the regions of Bay and Bakol support the Shabab perhaps more than anywhere else; the Shabab activity this Ramadan is many times more active in Bay and Bakol regions than in Mogadishu.

Why would they want to antagonize their hosts in that region?

Second, the petty money made from randomly robbing the population is barely enough to fuel the Shabab: an AK-47 bullet is .5 USD; a PK bullet is more than a dollar; and an RPG round is more than 100 USD in the black market in Somalia (mostly bought from traders who buy from government forces). For the Shabab to fund their attacks from robbery they would have to steal more than is in the pockets of impoverished nomads; they probably use thousands of AK-47 and PK rounds, and at least a dozen RPG rounds in a typical ambush. More expensive ZU and Dshka are also used in some attacks, especially in cities. One attack would therefore cost in the tens of thousands of USD.

How many days’ worth of highway robbery can bag that amount?

True, the Shabab is partly funded by money collected from Somali businesses all across the country, even in territories not in their hands. This system of tax collection has given rise to corruption in the past, with security operatives resorting to taking protection money from individual businessmen even without the knowledge of the Shabab leadership (remember “The Takers”?).

If indeed there are fighters in Bay and Bakool robbing the locals, they are most likely bandits trying to make use of the fluid security situation in the region, or less probably rogue Shabab fighters.

The Shabab may have harsh interpretation of Shariah, but that interpretation is harsh especially to robbers and highwaymen who get their hands and feet chopped off, and sometimes crucified.

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Shabab Retake El Buur: glimpse of what awaits the Kenyans in Kismayo

On Sunday, the Ethiopians withdrew from El Buur in Galgaduud, central Somalia, after holding it for only a little more than two months.

This was the Shabab’s main base in central Somalia, and it was from there that the Shabab would attack places such as the Sufi ASWJ stronghold of Dhusamareb once every couple of weeks, loot the armoury there, and withdraw.

It was in the heels of such a raid on Dhusamareb in which the Shabab reportedly looted a large cache of weapons that the Ethiopians followed the Shabab to their base in El Buur.

At that time, I had warned that the Shabab would wage guerrilla attacks on the Ethiopians and the various proxy forces accompanying them, and simply reoccupy the area after the Ethiopian’s inevitable withdrawal.

That is exactly what happened: allied convoys were regularly ambushed, and their positions raided at night. Somali sites reported last week that up to two dozen ASWJ forces – who are from a non-local clan, by the way – were killed by the Shabab and their allied clan fighters.

The Shabab success in the area and their ability to melt into the countryside was helped mainly by the fact that the Shabab fighters operating in the area represent the local clans, unlike the Ethiopian proxy forces who are from clans living closer to the border and are rivals to the local clans.

This Ethiopian error is being repeated elsewhere – about a thousand kilometres to the south of El Buur, in the Kismayo area – by the Kenyans.

The Kenyans are doing the two mistakes the Ethiopians did in capturing El Buur: using as proxy an Islamist militia that doesn’t give the local population any sense of change, and not including all the relevant clans in the operation.

The Kenyans are using “local” clan militia from the Ogaden- Darod in their push towards Kismayo. If only that were the case: the Ogaden are divided between the Shabab and the pro-Kenyan groups (maybe tilting a little bit towards the latter). Also, Lower Jubba is among the few regions in Somalia with clan representation from almost every Somali major clan in the “4.5”.

Lower Jubba has other Darod clans such as the Marehan and Harti (both pro-Shabab vis-à-vis the Ogadeni Ras Kamboni Brigade); and also Hawiye, Dir, and Rahanweyn clans that are well represented within the Shabab and have given them pledges of allegiance.

Sure, elders can easily – and often do – change their allegiance to support whoever is in charge of the area. But given that the Ras Kamboni Brigade is clan-based and is on bad terms even with TFG members from other clans, it is very unlikely that the non-Ogaden clans would give them their allegiance.

The Ras Kamboni Brigade is almost as extreme as the Shabab, and their initial problem with the Shabab was the latter’s refusal to share power with them. Yes, they now say they regard them as heretics and so on, but this is posturing meant to get them support.

Imagine an Islamist group that is almost decimated by its brothers in arms, mercilessly killed and forced across the border into a non-Islamic country. Such a group would most certainly do whatever it can to survive, even if it means sucking up to the hated non-believers.

This is exactly what many members of the Ras Kamboni Brigade have done; others surrendered to the Shabab or joined them, sometimes grudgingly.

If the Kenyan army and its proxy militia, the Ras Kamboni Brigade, made a push for Kismayo today, the Shabab would put up little face-to-face resistance and concentrate on guerrilla attacks on the allied forces; Kismayo would fall without a major battle.

To get a picture of what may come next, look at eastern Galgaduud in central Somalia: the Shabab will retake all the towns and villages without foreign superior military presence, and harass allied supply convoys. The Kenyans may be forced to rely on the sea for resupplying their forces in Kismayo.

And one day, be it exactly 11 weeks later like the Ethiopians in El Buur or 104 weeks like the Ethiopians in Mogadishu, the Kenyans will withdraw.

When that happens, the Shabab will ride back into Kismayo as they rode back into El Buur yesterday, Mogadishu (in 2009), and Kismayo (in 2008).

Perhaps staying put and not charging into Kismayo now is not a bad idea after all.

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Afgoi Down, What Next?

Today AMISOM forces with the help of TFG forces (and their allied clannish militias) managed to capture the strategic town of Afgoi, which lies around 25 kilometres to the northwest of Mogadishu.

After fighting the allied forces for a couple of days in Daynile in North Mogadishu, the Shabab seem to have capitulated to the numerically and militarily superior forces, and withdrawn in a rather unceremonious manner.

Shabab leaders are rumoured to have withdrawn to Marka, which lies about 90 kilometres to the southwest of Mogadishu.

The importance of Afgoi lies in the fact that it is a crossroads town that connects, via its bridge across the Shabelle river, Lower Shabelle region to Bakool region, and Lower Shabelle region to Mogadishu.

Now the Shabab will find it much harder to supply their guerrilla units involved in hit and run attacks on AMISOM and TFG bases encircling Mogadishu.

They will, however, have a chance to move a lot of their bomb-making equipment in Elasha Biyaha on the outskirts of the city into Mogadishu proper, as allied lines become more fluid due to the restructuring of their lines and the huge influx of people back to the city from the Afgoi corridor (population estimate: half a million people).

Since allied forces have not moved north to reach the road that connects Afgoi with Balcad (still in Shabab hands), the Shabab will continue to attack outer bases of the allied forces from the north and east of Mogadishu.

The residents of Afgoi have reportedly started leaving the city en masse. Not everyone who is leaving is a Shabab supporter: some people are afraid of having two armies fight over them; others are just afraid of TFG forces thanks to 3 years of Shabab indoctrination, and others may be afraid that the old injustices would be reinstituted.

Afgoi was ruled for a decade and a half by non-locals from central Somalia. These people did everything to the locals and stopped just a little from totally enslaving them. Farmland was grabbed at will, and the blood of a local was not worth the blood of a mouse.

Several years ago I was in Bulo Marer in Lower Shabelle (still in Shabab hands) when I was told of a local who had just been shot dead by a guy who was going about his daily life as if nothing had happened. Apparently the local had “sweet-talked” to a girl from his clan. No discussion: just a bullet to the head of the local.

Many of the militias who accompanied AMISOM to Afgoi are central Somalis from the former administration of Lower Shabelle. Many of them are no doubt notorious for various crimes in the region. I wonder of the murderer from Bulo Marer is one of them (if he isn’t one of the dozens killed by the Shabab when they took the region).
For the TFG to successfully portray itself as an alternative to the Shabab, it should not let clan militias from other regions ever rule peoples of other regions.

The Shabab have succeeded in showing themselves as being sensitive and supportive to these wronged, formerly-unarmed peoples of southern Somalia.

They have in turn been rewarded with apparently genuine pledges of allegiance and hundreds of recruits from them (I am being conservative in my estimate: they may be thousands).

To gain the trust of the locals, rule of law should quickly be re-established in the former Shabab territories and injustice never allowed to reign in the land.

Possible Shabab response
The Shabab may very likely respond with a major suicide attack or an increase of their nightly assassination and hand grenade attacks.

I would not chew Khat outside my home after sunset (yes, the Shabab security department rules many streets of Mogadishu after sunset) or drive to work early in the morning if I was a TFG official.

The road between Mogadishu and Afgoi will very likely be an IED zone. Try guarding more than 20 kilometres of road from night diggers (the guys who lay the IEDs).

Somali forces will be the first targets of the Shabab. Not only do these move around more freely and drive in cars that are not armoured, they are seen as being the “eyes of the enemy” by the Shabab.

Possible Shabab policy changes
The popular Sheikh Nur Moalim has called on all Somalis to join the war against the foreign forces and their allies (the TFG). He has said that the war should not be considered as a war on a particular set of people (the Shabab), but a war on all Somali Muslims. He may be supporting the unbanning of non-Shabab Islamist groups.

If the Shabab listen to him – an almost zero chance of that happening – they may reverse their ban of non-Shabab Jihadi groups in Somalia.

This ban has apparently backfired on the Shabab, with many in the group opposing the ban – some of whom were suspected of planning to announce the creation of a new group with no ties to Al-Qaeda. The drones have excellent convincing powers, if you ask me.

Also, the fact that the Shabab don’t want any other group to fight does make it look like this is their war and theirs alone (which it is).

What next?

This capture of Afgoi is a great victory for AMISOM/TFG, but until there is real advance towards the north and east, there is a long way to go in tightening the security belt around Mogadishu.

Any advance towards Marka or Wanlaweyn to the north of Afgoi (as the rumours say will be the case), without first capturing Balcad to the north of Mogadishu or even Cel Macan to the east of Mogadishu, will not help in securing Mogadishu.

On the contrary, AMISOM may end up stretching itself toward the wrong direction, only to be faced be a resurgent Shabab rising with the sun from the east.

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