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US Citizen Defects from al Shabaab as Group Contends with Competing Islamic State

The man told Reuters that he found the group's ideology "totally wrong," but al Shabaab sources told other outlets that he had recently aligned himself with the Islamic State — an offense that the al Qaeda affiliate punishes with death.
December 8, 2015, 6:45pm
Photo by Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP

Somali officials are holding an American citizen and an American resident who have been fighting alongside the radical Islamist group al Shabaab after the men reportedly defected from the rebel fighters and surrendered to authorities.

News of the two defections, which officials judged to be separate, comes as foreign fighters within the al Qaeda-linked militant group are suspected by their Somali peers of wanting to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State terror insurgency, leading them to feel increasingly alienated and in danger, an al Shabaab military commander named Abu Mohammed told the Associated Press. Foreign fighters who support the Islamic State have even been subject to violence from other members of the group.

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"Some mujahedeen fighters are now preferring to fall into the enemy's hands instead of meeting death in the hands of brothers," said Mohammed. The debate concerning the Islamic State, he added, "is messing everything up here."

Related: Kenya Destroys Suspected al Shabaab Camps as Group Argues About the Islamic State

On Monday, Colonel Ali Dalel Hirsi, a Somali military officer, said that the US citizen — who has been variously identified in press reports as Abdul Malik Jones, Abdimalik Jones, and Malik John — had surrendered to officials "on the outskirts of Barawe town," about 135 miles southwest of the capital, Mogadishu.

Hirsi allowed the US citizen to speak with Reuters on Monday from captivity. The news outlet referred to him as Malik John, and he identified himself as a 31-year-old man who is originally from Maryland. He said he had been fighting with al Shabaab for about four years.

"I decided to leave them two months ago," he said, noting that he had escaped six days earlier. "I hated them because I found their ideology was totally wrong."

He described walking for days, eating bread and corn to survive. "I am physically ok now but not mentally," he remarked.

The AP, which referred to the man as Abdimalik Jones, reported that he told security officials that he was originally from San Diego and that he fled al Shabaab over alleged group in-fighting. Al Shabaab sources told Al Jazeera, who identified him as Abdul Malik Jones, that he had aligned himself with the Islamic State, which is punishable by death.

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"They said they were pursuing him, they wanted to kill him, but he escaped and he handed himself over," said Al Jazeera's Mohammed Adow.

The AP also reported that a man named Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, a permanent US citizen from Minnesota, surrendered to Somali authorities on November 6. The man reportedly joined al Shabaab more than seven years ago, but recently issued an online message urging people to carry out violence for the Islamic State, the US State Department said.

State Department spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala said Hassan is in the custody of the Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency in Mogadishu. Somali federal officials are discussing the case with Washington, which does not have an extradition agreement with Somalia, Jhunjhunwala said.

It was not immediately clear why Hassan's arrest wasn't announced earlier.

Related: Kerry's Surprise Visit to Somalia Part of Obama Administration's Charm Offensive in Africa

Al Shabaab, which formed its alliance with al Qaeda in 2012, has been battling Somalia's Western-backed government and has staged frequent bomb and gun attacks in the capital Mogadishu.

The group has also hit targets in neighboring Kenya since Nairobi joined African Union peacekeeping forces in Somalia. In September 2013, gunmen stormed an upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi and killed 68 people and injured at least 175 others. The siege, which lasted three days, rattled the country and drew international attention.

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Watch the VICE News documentary Somalia: The Fight Against al Shabaab

This past April, al Shabaab-linked gunmen stormed Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya in an attack that left 148 people dead and dozens injured. Since the attack, the government has ramped up internal security efforts to thwart the development of homegrown terrorism connected to the Somali-based group.

The US and other Western powers and countries in the region see the fight against the group as a vital part of the battle to prevent Islamist militancy spreading in East Africa and beyond. Somalia's government has been trying to persuade many al Shabaab fighters to defect by promising amnesties for fighters who leave the group.

The US citizen identified as John and Jones told Reuters that he had heard about the Somali amnesty. "If possible I would like to return my home in Maryland," he said.

Abdul Qadir Mumin, a leader of an al Shabaab faction who was previously stationed in the UK before relocating to central Somalia, pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State in October. He publicized the announcement in a video flanked by a number of other militants.

The Islamic State was originally an al Qaeda-linked group before al Qaeda disavowed their association in February 2014 over an internal dispute.