By Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - The leader of the al Qaeda-aligned Islamist group al Shabaab has urged Somalis to wage holy war against Ethiopia, Somalia's Horn of Africa neighbor whose forces are preparing to lead an African Union offensive against the militants.
Ethiopia fought an ill-fated war in Somalia in 2006-09 but sent troops back in 2011 to fight al Shabaab. In 2013 it became part of AMISOM, a 22,000-strong AU peacekeeping force that includes troops from Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Sierra Leone.
Ethiopian forces have in the past two weeks pushed al Shabaab out of several towns, including Hudur, the capital of the Bakool region in south-central Somalia. Analysts say these advances could presage a planned countrywide offensive.
In a recorded voice message released on Sunday, Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, said Mogadishu's Western-backed government and Ethiopia were acting at the behest of the United States and would be defeated.
"Somalis, your religion has been attacked, your land divided, your resources looted directly and indirectly through the puppet government - our victory lies in Jihad (holy war)," Godane said in a recorded message, pointing to the historic rivalry between mainly Christian Ethiopia and Muslim Somalia.
Godane said landlocked Ethiopia had invaded Somalia in pursuit of access to Somalia's Indian Ocean coastline. The two countries fought a war in 1977-78.
"Ethiopia will fail as it has failed in the past and the Muslims will be much stronger," Godane said.
His last public statement came in September when al Shabaab claimed responsibility for a deadly raid on a luxury shopping mall in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
Somali gunmen tossed grenades into busy restaurants and executed well-heeled shoppers as punishment for Kenya's military involvement in Somalia. At least 67 people died.
"The aim of the (foreign) invasion is to divide the remaining Somalia between Kenya and Ethiopia under the cover of the establishment of Somali states," Godane added, a reference to the creation of a federal Somalia.
Godane in 2013 purged most of his rivals within the al Shabaab leadership after almost two years of wrangling over ideology, strategy and tactics.
Former Somali cabinet minister Abdirashid Hashi, now the deputy director of the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, said Godane's message was an attempt to create an atmosphere reminiscent of the 2006-09 period when many Somalis at home and abroad opposed Ethiopian troops.
But Hashi said al Shabaab's bombing campaigns and killings of civilians had made many Somalis uneasy about the militants.
"With the way al Shabaab have been conducting themselves over the last couple of years, I think it will be very difficult for Godane to create the kind of mood that there was in 2006," Hashi said. "A lot of Somalis are more worried about him and his policies."
(Writing by Drazen Jorgic)