MOGADISHU, Somalia — The movement of Islamist fighters out of towns in southern and central Somalia in recent days, along with comments by government officials and insurgents, suggests that rifts have developed within the leadership of the country’s most powerful militant organization, the Shabab.
The disputes appear to involve clan loyalties and differences over strategy and policy, according to people affiliated with the group’s second in command, Sheik Muktar Roobow Abu Mansor. Among other things, the group’s leadership is divided over whether to allow international aid groups to work in territory held by the Shabab and the role of foreign jihadists within the group.
In addition, the insurgents suffered losses during fighting last month with government forces, which were supported by African Union soldiers. Somalia’s information minister, Abdirahman Omar Osman, said a disproportionate number of the deaths and injuries involved fighters from Sheik Mansor’s clan.
“The Shabab lost hundreds of fighters in the Ramadan offensive mainly from Abu Mansor’s clansmen,” Mr. Osman said. This led Sheik Mansor to challenge the Shabab’s leader, Sheik Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, according to Mr. Osman.
But Sheik Mansor, speaking on Friday to hundreds of followers after prayers in a mosque in Mogadishu, the capital, denied that there was a rift among the Shabab’s leaders. He dismissed the reports of dissension as a disinformation campaign by the government, and he encouraged supporters to stay together. “The victory is close,” he said. “We will continue our fight, and that’s the end of the lies from our enemies.” “The jihad does not belong to any specific person,” he told his followers, “but is a worship, and I urge you to stick to it.”
But some senior Shabab leaders acknowledged that a rift had developed within the leadership, but they differed over which senior leaders were at odds and the causes of the disputes.
They said Sheik Mansor was somewhat more moderate than some of the Shabab’s leaders. “For this reason, he does not obey the rules and regulations set for the group,” said a Shabab official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to antagonize the group’s leaders. But the official contended that the person with whom Sheik Mansor was at odds was Muktar Abu Muslim, a member of Sheik Mansor’s clan.
Sheik Muslim is thought to be an ally of the Shabab’s leader, Sheik Zubeyr, who is from a different clan. The Shabab have expelled dozens of international aid organizations from the areas they control in southern and central Somalia, accusing them of spying and working to spread Christianity. Some of Sheik Mansor’s supporters said that he wanted the Shabab to permit the return of aid organizations, and to limit the role of foreign jihadists in the group’s leadership.
These supporters said that he had withdrawn his fighters from some towns as a show of power. Residents in the town of Beledweyne in central Somalia said many fighters had left in recent days, although they had not completely withdrawn. “There are fighters leaving the town on pickup trucks and heading toward the west,” said a resident who provided only his last name, Mose.
It is not yet clear how serious the rift within the insurgency is or what its consequences are likely to be. “This could create new groups and alliances, which could prolong Somalia’s turmoil,” said Muhammad Bashir Hassan, who was a colonel for more than 30 years in the army of a former government. “But it could also be an advantage for the groups fighting against the Shabab, including the government.”