By Mike Pflanz Correspondent
Christian Science Monitor
updated 8/9/2011 3:23:34 PM ET 2011-08-09T19:23:34

The unity that allowed the militant Islamist group Al Shabab to gain control of wide swaths of Somalia is in danger of breaking down amid widening famine and the recent loss of key bases in Mogadishu, the capital.

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The hunger crisis plaguing southern Somalia is hitting rural areas hardest, where the insurgents drew their greatest support.

Those areas are largely run by moderates who are keener on letting Western food aid into their areas because they are seeing the most casualties from the famine and feeling more pressure from the local communities in which they live, says Rashid Abdi, a Somalia expert at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi.

If they were to split away from the smaller rump of global jihadists – Al Shabab’s most radical commanders – that could loosen the group’s stranglehold on Somalia.

That coupled with a serious loss of revenue from major sections of the capital city that the group has lost control of means “the writing may be on the wall for Al Shabab,” says Mr. Abdi of the International Crisis Group. “There has always been a split among their leaders, and it’s definitely been made worse by the famine situation.”

But the potential split, while weakening Al Shabab, could also make its tactics less predictable. Analysts have expressed concerns of a new, more deadly guerrilla warfare as the front lines become blurred.

A 'change in tactics'
Until recently, Al Shabab was earning up to $60 million per year from extortion on businesses in Mogadishu’s Bakara and Suuq Baad markets, according to a recent report from the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.

But Al Shabab was dislodged from Mogadishu last week by sustained offensives by the African Union peacekeepers, and, to a far lesser extent, troops loyal to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). That dealt a serious blow to the group, says Roger Middleton, Horn of Africa analyst at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

“Without that, what’s the point of being in Mogadishu?” Mr. Middleton asks. “It’s just a very expensive and dangerous place to be for the kudos of saying you’re controlling the capital. It makes sense to leave if you’ve lost the markets.”

They may also have felt the impact of a drying up of funds from traditional backers including Eritrea and Libya, whose leader Muammar Qaddafi has been besieged by a NATO bombing campaign since March.

But Sheikh Mohamed Rage, Al Shabab’s spokesman, said the withdrawal from Mogadishu was part of a “change in tactics.”

One aid worker with long experience in Somalia said he feared Mogadishu would now become “more dangerous than ever.”

“They’ll sit outside the city and start sending in small groups to plant IEDs or blow themselves up randomly,” he said, refusing to be named for fear of jeopardizing the security of his staff in Somalia.

“When there was a front line, we knew where we were, to an extent. Now, it’s potentially just chaos.”

A recipe for accelerating Shabab's split
Matt Bryden, a veteran Somalia analyst and co-author of the Monitoring Group report, says the current situation does provide “an opportunity,” however.

The mandate of the transitional federal government (TFG), which is accused of deep corruption and is not popular in Somalia, expires in 11 months.

Several smaller armed groups have successfully repulsed Al Shabab and are beginning to run their territories with some level of success and peace, Mr. Bryden says. While the international community may be tempted to reinforce the unpopular TFG, that's not the right course, he says.

“What they should be doing is distancing themselves from the TFG, and working with other armed groups, and any more moderate split-off from Al Shabab, to create an open political framework ahead of next year.”

Story: 'Golden victory'? Islamist forces leave Somali capital

This would “accelerate” the separation of Al Shabab’s radical commanders from its more “pragmatic” leaders, he says.

There were some signs Tuesday that the TFG had in fact begun working towards that "open political framework."

The government said it was offering a "general amnesty to insurgent fighters remaining in Mogadishu who give themselves up and renounce violence," according to a statement reported by the French news agency Agence-France Presse.

"We offer an amnesty – put down your weapons and your guns, and come and join the people and your society," government spokesman Abdirahman Osman reportedly said. It was not immediately possible to verify the report.

This article, "Somalia famine could cause militant Al Shabab group to splinter", first appeared on CSMonitor.com.

© 2012 Christian Science Monitor

Video: Islamist rebels withdraw from Somali capital

  1. Transcript of: Islamist rebels withdraw from Somali capital

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: For millions of people starving in the Horn of Africa , a stunning development today and the first ray of hope in months. Islamist rebels who had been blocking desperately needed aid deliveries appear to have pulled out of the Somali capital of Mogadishu . It's a move that could be a turning point in the violence and famine in Somalia . Our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel is there.

    RICHARD ENGEL reporting: At a health clinic in Mogadishu , it's hard to see how malnourished Mirian is, until her grandmother takes off her shirt. Mirian weighs only nine pounds, a little more than when she was born two and a half years ago, but she's getting better. She can drink from a bottle and keep the liquids down. But at this clinic, everyone had some relief today. Al-Qaeda -backed militants unexpectedly left Mogadishu overnight. For three years, a violent militia called al-Shabaab has been hated here. It banned music and gold, and imposed harsh Islamic law . But when the Taliban -style militants banned foreign food relief, it was too much for women like Ido Hasan . She lost two of her children to the famine.

    Ms. IDO HASAN:

    ENGEL: ' Al-Shabaab denied food access to our region. We hate them for that,' she said. African peacekeepers here were stunned this morning to find al-Shabaab out of the city. It could be a temporary withdrawal, the militants could still do suicide attacks, but Somalia 's prime minister told me it's none the less a victory for his government, which yesterday only controls half of Mogadishu .

    Dr. ABDIWELI MOHAMED ALI (Somali Prime Minister): I think the only reason that they left the capital city is because they lost the fight.

    ENGEL: We traveled by convoy with the African peacekeepers through newly taken land, to the old soccer stadium. This was the main al-Shabaab training camp in Mogadishu ; explosives, snipers. This is where the militants made almost all of their videos. Now, the Shabaab appear to have left. Violence in Somalia won't stop. But denying food to starving people may have cost al-Shabaab a key stronghold in Mogadishu that could be difficult to take back. Richard Engel , NBC News, Mogadishu .

    HOLT: Many of you have been asking how to help. We have been compiling a list of charities on our Web site . The address is nightly.msnbc.com.

Photos: Famine strikes Eastern Africa

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  1. Families from southern Somalia wait for food rations at Maalin refugee camp at Hawlwadag district in Mogadishu on Sept.15. Somalia is the country worst affected by a severe drought in east Africa and the Horn that has left some 13 million people in danger of starvation. (Abdurashid Abikar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Somali refugees stand amid graves in a makeshift graveyard at Ifo camp, one of three camps that make up the sprawling Dadaab refugee complex in Dadaab town, northeastern Kenya, on Sept. 5. (Dai Kurokawa / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Somali refugee children sit in a circle with wooden boards inscribed with lines from the Quran, in the outskirts of Ifo camp, Dadaab refugee complex, northeastern Kenya, on Sept. 6. (Dai Kurokawa / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Somalian women queue for food at the Gift Of The Givers makeshift feeding center on Sept. 10 in Mogadishu. Gift Of The Givers is a South African-based disaster relief organization that is providing medical assistance and food aid to the famine-stricken people of Somalia. (Gallo Images / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Tahliil Hussan holds an X-ray that shows the bullet still lodged in his abdomen at the Forlanini Hospital on Sept. 11 in Mogadishu, Somalia. A delegation from Gift Of The Givers Foundation is providing medical services to the famine-stricken in Somalia. (Gallo Images / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A newly arrived Somali refugee boy tries to drink from a cup as he waits in line with his mother at a refugee reception center at Hagadera camp, one of three refugee camps that make up sprawling Dadaab refugee complex in Dadaab town, northeastern Kenya, on Sept. 5. (Dai Kurokawa / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A newly arrived Somali refugee woman sobs as she is confined inside a makeshift cell for not following the procedures at a refugee reception center at Hagadera camp, northeastern Kenya, on Sept. 5. (Dai Kurokawa / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Somali refugees bury the body of 3-month-old Halima Hassan Yarow, who died from malnutrition, at Ifo camp, northeastern Kenya, on Sept. 5. (Dai Kurokawa / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Refugees who have been living on the outskirts of the camps in Hagadera rush to load their belongings onto trucks as they choose to relocate to the newly-opened Kambioos settlement, at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya on Aug. 29. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees regularly logs more than 1,000 new arrivals from Somalia each day as the region's famine crisis continues. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Men make donations to help the people of Somalia in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Aug. 22. A famine has swept across the Horn of Africa, leaving at least 3.7 million Somalis at risk of starvation. (Fahad Shadeed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Weak and malnourished, Hassan Ali Musa, 4, sits with his father Iisa Ali Musa at the Banadir hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Aug. 20. The U.N. estimates that more than 100,000 Somalis have fled to Mogadishu from famine and drought in the countryside. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. People cheer as cooked food is brought out at a feeding center in Mogadishu on Aug. 18. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A famine refugee plays with a soccer ball next to a camp for people displaced by drought and famine in Mogadishu on Aug. 18. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A security guard beats a woman for trying to enter a feeding center at a camp for people displaced by drought and famine in Mogadishu on Aug. 18. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Somalis receive medical treatment at an outpatient hospital run by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in Mogadishu on Aug. 17. More than 10,000 people are treated monthly at AMISOM's three hospitals in Mogadishu. Ugandan doctors there say that increasingly many of the ailments, especially among children, are related to malnutrition. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A security guard stands vigil outside a feeding center in Mogadishu on Aug. 16. The center, which serves cooked meals prepared using World Food Program aid, helps feed thousands of Somalis who have fled famine and drought in the countryside and have settled in makeshift camps throughout Mogadishu. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. An internally displaced Somali woman attends to her malnourished son at the Banadir hospital in Mogadishu on Aug. 16. Somalia called for the creation of a new force to protect food aid convoys and camps in the famine-hit country. (Ismail Taxta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Relatives of Hassan Abdulkadir Adan, third from left (rear), help to lower the body of his 7-year-old son into a grave in a refugee camp in Mogadishu, on Aug. 16. (Farah Abdi Warsameh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A mother mourns the death of her son at the Banadir hospital on Aug. 16, in Mogadishu. The hospital has been overwhelmed by new patients, as sickness spreads through camps for people displaced by drought and famine. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A Somali boy receives a ration of cornmeal in the courtyard of a Somali non-governmental organization in Mogadishu. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    Mulmillo closes the eyes of her two-year-old son Mahmud moments after he died from malnutrition and related complications at a local hospital in Mogadishu on Aug. 15. Mulmillo, her husband and three children fled their village in the Lower Shabelle region of southern Somalia and came to Mogadishu in search of a refuge from severe drought in the region. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Halima Hassan holds her severely malnourished son Abdulrahman Abshir, 7 months, at the Banadir hospital in Mogadishu on Aug. 14. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A group of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) gather inside a courtyard after being designated to receive food aid from a Kuwaiti based Islamic charity in Mogadishu on Aug. 14. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A Somali boy sings an Irish song to his classmates during class at the Illeys primary school in Dagahaley refugee camp, north of Dadaab, Eastern Kenya, on Aug. 11. (Jerome Delay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A Somali woman stands with several cans of water, ready to be transported by camel, in the town of Dhobley on Aug. 11. (Phil Moore / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Ethnic Turkana children sing and dance at Kalokutanyang Mobile School as aid workers arrive to inspect them in Kalokutanyang, Turkana, northwestern Kenya, on Aug. 9. A local official says that relief food has not reached many parts of the Turkana region where more than half the population is dependent on it, resulting in increasing child malnutrition. (Dai Kurokawa / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A child stands in front of her home at a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, on Aug. 4. (Schalk van Zuydam / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A Somali father with his daughter sits at the head of a line with other refugees at a registration center on Aug. 2, at Dagahaley refugee site, after being displaced from their home in southern Somalia by famine. (Tony Karumba / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Residents of Mwingi District fetch water from a muddy puddle, one of the only sources of clean water in Kenya on Aug. 2. (Ken Oloo/ / Red Cross and Red Crescent via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A woman from southern Somalia holds her malnourished children at Banadir hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia, Tuesday, Aug. 2. (Farah Abdi Warsameh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Somali refugees sit around a makeshift grave for fellow refugee Husein Mahalin, who died at the age of 20, due to illness outside the Ifo camp, one of three that make up the sprawling refugee camp in Dadaab, northeastern Kenya, on Aug. 1. (Dai Kurokawa / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. A young Somali refugee gets vaccinated at a paediatric vaccination center at Hagadere refugee site within the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya's northeast province on Aug. 1. (Tony Karumba / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A young boy from southern Somalia takes cover under a plastic sheet in a refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, Sunday, July 31. Tens of thousands of famine-stricken Somali refugees were cold and drenched after torrential rains overnight pounded their makeshift structures in the capital, Mogadishu. Rains are needed to plant crops and alleviate the drought that is causing famine in Somalia but on Saturday night the rains added to the misery of refugees who live in structures made of sticks and pieces of cloth. (Farah Abdi Warsameh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Warehouse attendants carry bags of goods donated during a drive by the Somali community living in Kenya's capital, to aid Somali refugees in Kenya's northeast province at the Dadaab refugee complex, on July 29. (Tony Karumba / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A newly arrived Somali refugee is forced out of the queue outside a reception centre in the Ifo 2 refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, on July 28. (Thomas Mukoya / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. A severely malnourished Somali child receives Oral Rehydration Salts [O.R.S.] at Mogadishu's Banadir hospital, on July 28. (Mustafa Abdi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Men unload the first airlifted humanitarian food aid at the Aden Abdulle Osman International Airport in Mogadishu, Somalia, on July 27. The World Food Program airlifted 10 tons of emergency supplies to Mogadishu to feed thousands of malnourished children in drought-hit Somalia. Somalia is the country worst affected by a prolonged drought in Eastern Africa -- the region's worst in 60 years -- that has put some 12 million people in danger of starvation and spurred a global fund-raising campaign. (Feisal Omar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Children drink water from the same place as cattle at Liboi, Kenya, on July 27. UNICEF says it is trying to vaccinate more than 300,000 children in Kenya in an emergency program designed to prevent an outbreak of disease as refugees stream into northern Kenya from famine-hit Somalia. (Schalk van Zuydam / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. A doctor examines Mihag Gedi Farah, a seven-month-old child with a weight of 7.5lbs (3.4kg), in a field hospital of the International Rescue Committee, IRC, in the town of Dadaab, Kenya, July 26. The U.N. will airlift emergency rations this week to parts of drought-ravaged Somalia to keep hungry refugees from dying along what an official calls the "roads of death." Tens of thousands already have trekked to neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, hoping to get aid in refugee camps. (Schalk Van Zuydam / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Used food tins are stacked at a field hospital of the International Rescue Committee, IRC, in Dadaab, July 26. (Schalk Van Zuydam / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. A malnourished child from southern Somalia is weighed in Banadir hospital in Mogadishu, July 24. The World Food Program can't reach 2.2 million Somalis in desperate need of aid in militant-controlled areas of Somalia, meaning refugee camps in nearby Kenya and Ethiopia are likely to continue seeing thousands of new refugees each week. (Farah Abdi Warsameh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A general view of the Dadaab Refugee camp in eastern Kenya on July 23, where the influx of Somali's displaced by a ravaging famine remains high. 12 million people are struggling from the worst regional drought in decades, affecting parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti and Uganda. (Tony Karumba / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Somalian refugees disembark a bus in the registration area of the IFO refugee camp which makes up part of the giant Dadaab refugee settlement, July 23. The refugee camp at Dadaab, located close to the Kenyan border with Somalia, was originally designed in the early 1990s to accommodate 90,000 people but the UN estimates over 4 times as many reside there. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. An aid worker using an iPad films the rotting carcass of a cow in Wajir near the Kenya-Somalia border, July 23. Since drought gripped the Horn of Africa, and especially since famine was declared in parts of Somalia, the international aid industry has swept in and out of refugee camps and remote hamlets in branded planes and snaking lines of white 4x4s. This humanitarian, diplomatic and media circus is necessary every time people go hungry in Africa, analysts say, because governments - both African and foreign - rarely respond early enough to looming catastrophes. (Barry Malone / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. A dust storm blows as newly arrived Somalian refugees settle on the edge of the Dagahaley refugee camp, which makes up part of the giant Dadaab refugee settlement, July 23. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. A Somalian refugee helps to dig a latrine on the outskirts of the IFO refugee camp which makes up part of the giant Dadaab refugee settlement on July 23. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Somalian refugees wait in the registration area of the Dagahaley refugee camp, part of the Dadaab refugee settlement on July 23. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. Somalian refugees' documents are checked at the entrance to the registration area of the IFO refugee camp, on July 23, in Dadaab, Kenya. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. A mother washes her malnourished child in the Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Boders) hospital on July 22, in the Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Drought-stricken camels drink water from a tank near Harfo, northwest of Somalia's capital Mogadishu, July 20. The United Nations declared famine in two regions of southern Somalia, and warned that this could spread further within two months in the war-ravaged Horn of Africa country unless donors step in. (Thomas Mukoya / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. Farhiya (centre) holds her 7-year-old sister Suladan by the hand as they follow their mother and brothers at the reception center of the Dolo Ado refugee camp near the Ethiopia-Somalia border on July 19. Refugees are being housed at the transit center while a new camp is being set up by the Ethiopian goverment and international aid organizations. Thousands of Somalis have fled in recent months to neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya in search of food and water, with many dying along the way. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. Somalis fleeing hunger in their drought-stricken nation walk along the main road leading from the Somalian border to the refugee camps around Dadaab, Kenya, on Wednesday, July 13. More than 11 million people in the Horn of Africa are confronting the worst drought in decades and need urgent assistance to stay alive, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. A woman from southern Somalia struggles to build a makeshift shelter from tree branches at a new camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, on July 13. (Mohamed Sheikh Nor / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. Osman Ali Aliyow Mursal digs a burial plot among other graves for his four-year-old son, Aden Ibrahim, as men prepare to pray over the boy's body, wrapped in a plastic mat, on the outskirts of Ifo II Camp, outside Dadaab, Kenya, on Tuesday, July 12. Doctors were unable to save Aden, who died of diarrhea-related dehydration after four days of inpatient care. U.N. Refugee Chief Antonio Guterres said Sunday that drought-ridden Somalia is the "worst humanitarian disaster" in the world, after meeting with refugees who endured unspeakable hardship to reach the world's largest refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. Aden Salaad, 2, looks up at his mother as she bathes him in a tub at a Doctors Without Borders hospital, where Aden is receiving treatment for malnutrition, in Dagahaley Camp, outside Dadaab, Kenya, on Monday, July 11. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  56. Somali refugees line up for food rations at a receiving center in Dagahaley Camp, outside Dadaab, Kenya, on Saturday, July 9. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  57. A Somali child from southern Somalia holds his brother as they wait outside a ruined building before making their way to the internally displaced persons camps in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Friday, July 8. (Farah Abdi Warsameh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  58. A malnourished child is held by her grandmother at Wajir District hospital, Wajir town, Kenya, on July 6. (Sayyid Azim / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  59. A refugee from Southern Somalia carries her baby and her belongings, as she makes her way to a camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Monday, July 5. (Farah Abdi Warsameh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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