TEHRAN, Young Journalists Club (YJC) -As an undercover operative for Somalia’s al Shabaab militia, Nasteh spied on the insurgent group’s senior commanders to ensure their loyalty and planned bombings and assassinations in government-controlled territory.
But late last year, the government officials he once hunted became his handlers after the 26-year-old joined a slowly growing stream of defectors to the U.N.-backed Somali administration.
A Western-backed push by Somali officials to encourage al Shabaab defections has lured commanders, the former head of intelligence and a major regional warlord, security officials and defectors told Reuters, offering a rare window into secretive efforts to undermine the al Qaeda-linked insurgency from within.
Senior defectors provide operational intelligence - such as how al Shabaab makes armored vehicle bombs - and insights into its leadership.
Most importantly, the government says, those defectors sow suspicion among al Shabaab’s leaders and encourage further defections by contacting former comrades.
The message: defectors are welcomed, not punished. One former commander relocated abroad with his family; another now holds a senior position in the security services. Many have simply returned home, Somali officials say.
Others, like Nasteh, are becoming intelligence assets after saying they are disillusioned with the Islamist insurgency, accusing it of un-Islamic practices.
“They were killing clerics,” he told Reuters during an interview via video link from a safe house, naming three Islamic scholars he said were killed by the movement. “They were killing without consultation, it was just the guys at the top deciding.”
The amnesty has angered some Somalis, who say those who commit crimes should be punished. Critics say the government has failed to penetrate the insurgency’s core - the top three defectors had all fallen out of favor with Shabaab’s inner circle.
The stakes are high: al Shabaab, which wants to overthrow the Somali government and impose Islamic law, has killed hundreds of civilians across East Africa and thousands of Somalis in a decade-long insurgency.
The full effect of the defections is unclear, although al Shabaab was needled into denouncing one former top commander, Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansur, as an apostate after he publicly urged his clansmen to fight the insurgency. Robow joined the government in August.
Government officials say only negotiation can end Somalia’s 26-year-old civil war - especially given the ragged state of the military.
“Those [defectors] who have been rehabilitated can be ambassadors back to their communities,” said Abdirahman Osman, a former minister of information who is now Mogadishu’s mayor. “We know military pressure helps, but it is not the end game.”
Defections start with a phone call - from an al Shabaab fighter to his soldier cousin, or a former student to his teacher. Somalia’s clan relationships mean everyone knows someone on the other side.
“Their only request usually is not to go to jail. Most don’t need to be resettled or sent anywhere,” said one Somali who helped bring over defectors and asked not to be named.
The Shabaab member is passed to someone working with the government - often known to them personally - and told he’ll be welcomed if he rejects the insurgency, renounces violence, and accepts the Somali government. Clan elders act as guarantors.
The defector then plans his escape, which can take months. Al Shabaab has tried to prevent defections by requiring senior members to get travel passes, two defectors told Reuters, forcing some to take circuitous routes through the bush.
“I didn’t tell my wife ... I didn’t eat. I barely slept. I left all my books, threw away all my SIM cards that they knew,” said a former district level head of education, describing his week-long escape by motorbike.
Deserting is irrevocable, Somali officials say, because Shabaab jails or executes defectors. So far, they say, none of the 45 mid- and high-level defectors have reneged on their agreement. Twenty-two of those came across since January 2017.