The abrupt exit of Al Shabaab, the al Qaida-linked rebel group in Somalia, from its key bases in Mogadishu Saturday morning, Aug. 6 caught Western intelligence and most Somali experts by surprise. As the trucks rolled out of the embattled Somali capital, the radical group's spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage said over a radio station it controlled: “The retreat by our forces is only aiming to counter-attack the enemy. People will hear happy news in the coming hours. We shall fight the enemy wherever they are."
That of course was no explanation for the sudden withdrawal which prompted a huge of relief in Mogadishu.
Al Shabaab, founded in 2006 as the youth wing of the defunct Union of Islamic Courts in 2006, numbers some 7,000 to 9,000 fighters. Its unforeseen withdrawal from bases in Mogadishu to which its leaders have always attached great importance, to strongholds in southern and central Somalia was prompted, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources report, by four developments:
1. The cruel Somali famine has forced hundreds of thousands of starving people to flee the Lower Shabelle and Bakool regions. An estimated quarter of-a-million have reached Mogadishu and are clamoring for food and water in the Al Shabaab-dominated districts. The Islamic militia, barely able to feed its own men, took to its heels to escape the pressure.
Al Shabaab blamed for famine
2. This pressure was laced with recriminations. Many Somalis are blaming Al Shabaab for the famine's severity. Had the extremists not banned the UN World Food Program (WFP) and other Western air agencies in 2009 and allowed them to import food, the famine would not have been so bad.
3. The Al Shabaab recently suffered grave setbacks in battles against African Union Mission in Somalia-AMSOM and the Transitional Federal Government-TFG forces in Mogadishu. Its commanders are afraid the two forces will join up and crush the radical militia if it stays in the capital
4. Some Somali experts say the famine crisis has reawakened the internal debate within the militia over its ties with Al Qaida. For now, the opposition, led by Al Shabaab's southern leaders, Muktar Ali Robow, who comes from famine-struck Lower Shabelle, and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, its elder statesman, has been overruled by paramount chief Ahmed Abdi Godane, who set up the relationship with Al Qaida.
The partial softening of his position may have led to the withdrawal from Mogadishu.
On the other hand, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources point to a more fundamental issue underlying that debate: Should Al Shabaab go all the way and break away from Al Qaida for the sake of pursuing a connection with Saudi Arabia which could bring them food and medical aid.
Some militia chiefs ponder breaking with Al Qaida and turning to Saudi Arabia
The country worst hit by famine in East Africa, Somalia has been wracked by conflict for the last 20 years since the fall of Siad Barre's government.
Twenty years ago, when the Islamist militants were pressed hard by UN and US-backed forces, its men were granted sanctuary in Saudi Arabia. Confined to secret training camps, all their needs were attended to by the Saudis.
In the late 1990s, Saudi intelligence paid for their members to return to Somalia as a military force against Christian Ethiopia.
But when the Saudis discovered them falling under the influence of Al Qaida, they withdrew their support and dumped the Somali extremists.
The Al Shabaab chiefs who are urging reconciliation with Saudi Arabia now are prompted by more than hunger. The loss of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Al Qaida's operations chief in East Africa, who was killed accidentally on June 8 at a government roadblock in Mogadishu, has made the Saudi connection more attractive.
Fazul was very close to Godane, the militia's most vocal Al Qaida enthusiast. His death weakened the case for preserving those ties, especially after Osama bin Laden's death in May dropped Al Qaida into its own crisis.
The Shabaab menace still lurks at Mogadishu's doors
All the same, our sources stress that irrespective of this unresolved debate within Al Shabaab's leadership, the fact remains that the Somali fundamentalists remain closely linked to Al Qaeda and continue to pose a military menace to Mogadishu, even after their withdrawal.
Godane now puts more weight on his strong ties with Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.
Fazul's death weakened the Somali extremists' links in East Africa, especially in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, but has brought them closer to the Yemeni branch of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Using his American origin, Al Awlaki aids the militia's recruitment campaigns among Somali youths in the United States.
Even after departing their main bases in Mogadishu, Al Shabaab retains pockets inside the city and holds onto strategic points nearby, ready to leap into a new offensive for recapturing parts of the capital. They still hold most of the Afgoi corridor to the southwest of the capital, for instance, and the K50 airfield nearby and are able to move forces into the city from the northwestern Middle Shabelle region.
Therefore, celebrations over Al Shabaab's departure from Mogadishu are still premature.