Moqokori, Somalia – As the clock ticked past 11am and birds nestling on the short dry shrub trees chirped away, a large group of young men in camouflage uniforms and black face-wraps appeared from nowhere and marched towards an open clearing in the bush, their feet kicking up dust in the soft, sun-baked brown soil beneath.
Totalling more than 150 men and only their eyes visible, they made no eye contact or small talk among themselves as they lined up.
The men are part of al-Shabab’s Special Forces gathered in this rebel base in southern Somalia to undergo final training before they dispatch to nearby towns in preparation for taking them over from African Union (AU) and Somali government troops.
The training base is about 10km outside the strategic town of Moqokori in the Hiiraan region, a town the al-Qaeda-linked group retook after Ethiopian troops withdrew last month.
It is a pattern that has been repeated many times recently across south and central Somalia.
Ethiopia has more than 4,300 soldiers in Somalia as part of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) – a UN security council-mandated mission to combat the armed group.
The East African country also has thousands of other troops that are not part of AMISOM in Somalia.
Recently, the Ethiopians have been abandoning their bases in towns in southern Somalia; 10 towns in the last four months, four of them in the past four weeks, without notice or explanation.
“Jihad,” shouts the group’s commander under the watchful eyes of two of al-Shabab’s most senior and well-known figures.
“Strength, honour,” the fighters shout back, drawing admiring looks from their leaders.
This group of fighters – which includes medics, mechanics, explosives experts and suicide bombers – have been handpicked from al-Shabab’s many battalions as the group seeks to retake territories it lost to Somalia’s internationally recognised government and AMISOM.
Morale among the fighters appears sky-high as news reaches the training base of Ethiopia withdrawing from towns and al-Shabab taking them over without firing a single bullet or losing a fighter.
“The reason they [Ethiopia] invaded our country, the reason they came to Moqokori, was to harm the Muslim population,” Sheikh Ali Mohamud Raage, the group’s spokesman, a tall, bulky figure with red eyes and a greying beard, told the gathered fighters who were now sitting on the hot sand.
“They came here to mistreat and degrade our people and to stop them from worshipping Allah. But God chose you to defend His religion and the honour of the Muslim people,” Raage said, as shouts of “God is great” from the fighters filled the midday air.
Ever since the rebel group was pushed out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, in 2011 by Somali and AU troops, they have been on the back foot, losing major towns and cities across the Horn of African country. The group has also lost several senior leaders in recent years.
However, the armed group’s fortunes appear to be changing in central Somalia this year. Since January, Ethiopia has faced deadly street protests at home.
With no sign of the wave of unprecedented violent protests stopping or slowing down, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency this month in an effort to halt the demonstrations from spreading across Africa’s second most populous country.
Horn of Africa observers believe events back in Ethiopia are the reason why Addis Ababa is cutting down its troop numbers in Somalia.
“Ethiopia said it was in Somalia to preserve and protect its country from external threat,” Abdullahi Boru, a Horn of Africa expert, told Al Jazeera. “But Ethiopia is facing a domestic threat now – the largest threat since the overthrow of the Derg regime.
“For the government, there is a change of priority. Ethiopia is a large country, and every boot is needed in Ethiopia to stem the domestic threat. The Oromo and Amhara protests are a bigger threat to the government than al-Shabab.”
The protests in Ethiopia and the unexplained troop withdrawals have come as a timely boost for al-Shabab, and the group’s leaders are trumping it as a victory.
“They ran away in the middle of the night because they were too scared. They did not tell even the non-believers that used to work with them. Their country is falling apart. Their people are protesting because they do not want their government. But we will hunt them down until they leave all of our country,” Sheikh Hassan Yakub, al-Shabab’s governor of the Galgaduud region, told the assembled fighters outside Moqokori.
Addis Ababa denies the latest troops’ withdrawal has anything to do with events back home.
“We are pulling out because for a long time our country has shouldered a heavy financial burden having troops in Somalia and it is time the international community took over,” Getachew Reda, Ethiopia’s communications affairs minister until earlier this month, told Al Jazeera.
“We do not need our army to deal with any domestic issue. Our troops leaving towns in Somalia is not related to anything happening domestically in our country. It is purely an economic decision. We have done a lot to help our Somali brothers stabilise our country, but we cannot continue taking the financial burden. And I expect our troops to pull out of other towns,” Reda said.
The minister also denied the troops that had been withdrawn were part of the African Union mission.
“The troops are not part of AMISOM. We have a significant number of troops in Somalia as part of an agreement signed with the Somali government,” Reda added.
The African Union mission said Ethiopia’s move would not make its operation in Somalia any easier.
“The withdrawal of troops will, of course, bear more responsibilities on our troops and how we carry out our mandate. It is not an ideal situation, but we can manage with our current troop numbers,” Joe Kibet, the spokesman for AMISOM, told Al Jazeera.
As the sun set behind the arid plains, the al-Shabab fighters and their military vehicles rolled into Miqokori attracting the locals, young and old, to come out of their homes.
As the troops made their way through the town and Ethiopia continued to threaten to pull its troops out of more towns, the locals were left to wonder whether their own, which changed hands more than twice in the past month, will experience a lasting peace.