A former top official of Somalia's Islamist extremist group al Shabaab announced that the organization is in "total collapse," and urged other militants in the group to lay down their weapons during a press conference in Mogadishu Tuesday.
Zakariya Ismail Hersi was an al-Shabaab intelligence chief who claims he has left the group after surrendering to Somali police forces in the Gedo region of southern Somalia late last December. The United States had previously placed a $3 million reward on information leading to his capture.
"I look back to the original aims and objectives of al Shabaab, which many well-intentioned people would have welcomed," Hersi said, according to a transcript posted to Facebook by government media adviser Abdirahman Omar Osman. "Unfortunately, few individuals that had their devious agenda, which I suspect to have foreign influence, have hijacked those aims and objectives."
"I call on and encourage all my friends [in al Shabaab] to seek out a peaceful way of resolving all conflicts and towards reconciliation," he added. "Al-Shabaab, is now in total collapse, and that is why I am here."
Hersi's statement comes amid growing international speculation that al Shabaab's military power in Somalia is diminishing. Last September, a US airstrike killing the group's leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, in what the Pentagon described as a symbolic and debilitating attack.
Another senior official, intelligence and security chief Tahliil Abdishakur, was killed by a US drone missile attack on December 29 last year. Earlier this month, the African Union reported that along with Somali government forces, it had effectively relegated al Shabaab — which has links with al Qaeda — to two small locations in the north and south of the country.
But the group has also successfully waged a handful of guerilla-style attacks against high-profile targets in recent months, demonstrating that it is still a capable threat to the region.
Last Thursday, al Shabaab claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed at least six people, including five police officers, in front of a Mogadishu hotel where delegates from Turkey were meeting in preparation for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's arrival the following day.
In December, militants from the group penetrated Kenya and executed 36 mine workers near the country's northeast border with Somalia, and staged bomb attacks on a UN Convoy and an African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) base in Mogadishu.
"Like with other extremist groups around the world, we often write them off too early," Tom Sanderson, co-director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News. "But it's clear they still have the ability to be an expeditionary group that goes into Kenya and threatens security along the eastern side of Africa."
Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Africa Center at international affairs think tank the Atlantic Council, is skeptical of Hersi's statement. He said that the defector's turnaround likely arose from the $3 million bounty on his head and the threat of vastly improved US intelligence and airstrike capabilities in the region. The man is also at odds with the group's new leader and Godane's relative, Ahmed Omar, Pham said.
"If I was on the outs with the terrorist organization I was associated with because of an internal power struggle, I'd have defected and become a 'man of peace,' too," Pham told VICE News.
Pham also noted that even if al Shabaab's military presence is diminishing, its influence in the region could wade into neighboring conflicts like Yemen, where Shia Muslim Houthi staged a successful takeover of the predominantly Sunni Muslim national government last week. Houthi rebels have long clashed with al Qaeda fighters in a struggle for influence and territory in Yemen.
"During the period when government was much weaker in Somalia, and al Shabaab could claim more territory, it permitted training camps to be set up in their territory by outside groups who shared their sympathies," he said, specifically noting Yemeni fighters affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). "So as AQAP waxes in Yemen, one can expect that the two groups will be helping each other."
"We often draw an artificial line of separation between East Africa and Arabia, but the fact is that there is constant back and forth between the regions," Pham said.
Al-Shabaab has been fighting to establish an Islamic state in the Horn of Africa since its inception in 2006, when Ethiopian military forces intervened to remove Somalia's Union of Islamic Courts. It is estimated to have upwards of 7,000 members.
Check out VICE News' video on The Fight Against al Shabaab:
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