MOGADISHU, Somalia—The defections of two fighters, an American and a U.S. resident, from Somalia’s Islamic extremist rebels highlight tensions within al-Shabab over whether it should remain affiliated to al-Qaida or switch allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS), an al-Shabab commander said Tuesday.
Foreign fighters are being alienated and feel trapped in Somalia over suspicions that they are plotting to switch allegiance to the Islamic State group fighting in Syria and Iraq, Abu Mohammed, a military commander with al-Shabab told The Associated Press. The “ambitions” by some foreign fighters in al-Shabab to join ISIS had led to them to be isolated within the Somali group and even face death at the hands of their erstwhile comrades-in-arms.
An American who had been fighting with al-Shabab left the rebels and was arrested by Somalia’s security forces on Monday. Abdimalik Jones, who said he is from San Diego, was arrested in the southern port of Barawe, said African Union spokesman Col. Paul Njuguna.
Jones claimed he fled al-Shabab because of rifts within the group, said an official with Somali security forces who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. Jones is missing the index finger of his right hand, said the official.
Separately an American resident, a Minnesota man named Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan who joined al-Shabab in Somalia more than seven years ago, surrendered to Somalia’s federal government on Nov. 6, the U.S. State Department said in an email to the AP. Hassan was a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. but not an American citizen.
Hassan had been fighting with al-Shabab but recently went online to urge others to carry out violence on behalf of ISIS. He was among those wanted by the FBI for allegedly providing material support to al-Shabab, and he faces several terrorism charges in the United States.
State Department spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala said Hassan is in the custody of the Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency in Mogadishu. She said the U.S. is discussing the case with the Somali Federal Government, but noted that the U.S. does not have an extradition agreement with Somalia.
In a phone interview Tuesday with Voice of America, Hassan said he has no intention of returning to America.
“Any crimes that I have committed, if there is any, it is done over here in Somalia,” he told Voice of America. “If I am to be going to court, it is going to be in Somalia not in America.”
Hassan, who was speaking from prison, said he wasn’t tied to the Islamic State group. “I am not part of ISIS and I have nothing to do with any other group or any other jihadi movement,” he said.
Hassan said he joined al-Shabab to help defend against the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia, but he left the group in 2013 “because of the oppression that they are doing on the people, the way they are killing people, and the imprisonment of innocent people and the torture without no evidence at all.”
He said that last month, al-Shabab members raided his home and terrorized his family, Voice of America reported. He said that he escaped, but was later arrested by government forces.
The defections of Hassan and Jones show tensions within al-Shabab, according to Mohammed.
“Some mujahedeen fighters are now preferring to fall into the enemy’s hands instead of meeting death in the hands of brothers,” said Mohammed, adding that the friction over ISIS “is messing everything up here.”
Al-Shabab’s leadership declared that fighters acting in contravention with the mainstream stand to be aligned with al-Qaida would represent “Bid’ah,” or misguidance, which would lead to them being killed.
Foreign fighters with al-Shabab would have to give up their desire to join ISIS to escape death, said Mohammed.
“They have no choice,” he said by phone from southern Somalia.
Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence Group, said Hassan used social media to help recruit a new class of jihadists, including some from Minnesota. While news of his arrest is important, Katz said, there are many others who are willing to take his place online.