Abu Mansoor Mukhtar Robow, an elusive, charismatic militant who was once a senior commander of Al Shabab in Somalia, surrendered to government forces on Sunday in a surprise move that could weaken the country’s Islamist militants.
More than any deep change of heart, Mr. Robow may have turned himself in simply to save his skin. According to Somali security officials, hard-line elements within the Shabab — in which Mr. Robow had been a stalwart before falling out in 2013 with its leader at the time — had turned against him, wiping out many of his soldiers.
For the past several months, Mr. Robow — who once had an American bounty on his head — had essentially been on the run from his own group, setting up a base in Abal Village, in southwest Somalia. In the last few days, government officials had been trying to help him and his forces escape.
“We contacted him many times, and we understood each other,” said Moalim Ahmed, the mayor of Hudur, a small town in the area where Mr. Robow operated.
Mr. Robow arrived in Mogadishu by plane on Sunday afternoon.
Somalia has suffered various degrees of bloodshed and chaos since 1991, when the central government collapsed and warlords took over. In the mid-2000s, a grass-roots Islamist group rose up to restore order, and Mr. Robow, who is believed to be around 50 now, was one its leaders.
He always seemed more moderate than many of his comrades, and enjoyed sitting for interviews with Western reporters and speaking of his dream to turn Somalia around.
“We don’t have a problem with Americans,” he said during a visit by this reporter to Somalia in the fall of 2006.
“Look at you. You’re here, we’ve been protecting you all week — maybe you didn’t even know it,” he said then. “We want peace; we crave it more than you could ever understand, to get out of this darkness, to stop killing each other, to stop being the laughingstock of the world.”
After Ethiopia invaded Somalia in December 2006, the Islamist group that briefly controlled Somalia went underground, and Mr. Robow with it, orchestrating hit-and-run attacks on Ethiopian forces and Somalia’s weak government.
Insurgent fighters banded together under the name Shabab, which was one of the Islamist factions in Somalia at the time. Mr. Robow became a Shabab spokesman and a top field commander; at one time he was thought to be the No. 2 or No. 3 in the organization.
The American government, however, considered Mr. Robow a terrorist and offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. The Trump administration quietly dropped that award, officials said in June, apparently because Mr. Robow had entered into secret talks with Somalia’s government.
Mr. Robow’s defection from the group shows the Shabab may be more divided and at war internally than it has been for years. Still, it remains a regional menace, sending hit squads across Somalia and terrorizing neighboring Kenya.
It’s not clear if Mr. Robow will be given a position in the Somali government or placed under house arrest or possibly even put on trial. He had not been an active militant for several years, though he still commanded a sizable force of loyal young gunmen who were in his clan.
Somali officials indicated on Sunday that they had not decided yet what to do with him.