MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — The al-Qaida-linked rebels who once controlled nearly all of Somalia's capital and sowed fear throughout the southern part of the country are fleeing their last remaining stronghold because they are outgunned and don't want heavy losses, experts said Sunday.
Kenyan troops invaded the southern Somali city of Kismayo early Friday, and the militant Islamist group al-Shabab announced soon after that their forces were leaving the lucrative port town behind. Kenyan forces have not yet moved through the whole town, but a military spokesman said troops met no resistance on Sunday.
After years of bloody street-by-street warfare, African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi pushed al-Shabab out of Mogadishu in August 2011. The AU troops have since taken over towns outside of Mogadishu as well. Kenyan forces invaded Somalia late last year, and have been moving slowly toward Kismayo.
The once-powerful al-Shabab spent years defending its Mogadishu territory, but since being forced out has chosen to retreat from towns when challenged by African Union forces or Ethiopian troops who moved into western Somalia earlier this year.
"The most plausible explanation is that they fear that they'll be outgunned by the coalition force, and as a result are incentivized to retreat," said Abdihakim Aynte, a Somali political analyst in Mogadishu. "We also know al-Shabab, by nature, couldn't engage in conventional warfare, especially in an urban area."
Aynte noted that al-Shabab fought conventional-style battles with Ethiopian troops in 2006 and 2007 "and the result was bloody and nasty."
Col. Cyrus Oguna, the spokesman for the Kenyan military, said that Kenyan troops now stationed in northern Kismayo are making plans to expand south. Oguna said he didn't know how many al-Shabab fighters are left in Kismayo, but that "we can probably say now that the numbers are less than when we got in."
An al-Shabab spokesman said on Twitter that the militants had left town and residents have reported that government and police buildings once occupied by al-Shabab have been abandoned. Oguna said Kenyan forces are prepared for multiple scenarios.
"If they were going to fight, they were going to be fought. If they were going to run away, there were some contingencies to deal with that," Oguna said.
The conventional wisdom on al-Shabab says they will turn into a guerrilla force that attacks using suicide and roadside bombs. Mohamed Sheik Abdi, another political analyst in Mogadishu, said the group will most likely divide up and attack vulnerable targets.
Yusuf Abdi Hussein, a former colonel in the Somali army, said the future political leadership of Kismayo will also dictate what al-Shabab does. The new administration will either empower or thwart their guerrilla attacks, he said.
"Usually Kismayo is contested by rival clans seeking to manipulate the resources and revenues from the port," Hussein said. "Al-Shabab will take advantages of those clan lines and will side with the disgruntled clans to use them against the government and Kenyan forces. They'll also use that issue to illustrate themselves as the only administration that could keep the two rivals living peacefully together."
Al-Shabab tries to impose an ultra-conservative style of Islam and enforce conservative social rules in areas they control. They carry out public punishments like whippings, stonings and executions.
Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.