BARAWE Somalia (Reuters) - Military strikes that drove al Shabaab rebels from a strategic Somali port this week and killed their leader last month have dealt the group a hefty blow, but it is far too soon to declare victory say Somalis, Western diplomats and military commanders.
Youths celebrated the routing of al Shabaab from Barawe by playing street soccer for the first time in six years, one of many activities banned by the austere Islamists alongside chewing the stimulant khat and watching satellite television.
But the shadow of al Shabaab, even after its weekend defeat at the hands of African peacekeepers and Somali troops, still looms over residents, all too aware of the group's ability to melt away and return with devastating guerrilla-style raids.
"Al Shabaab threatened us the day they abandoned the town," said Halima Osman, refusing to sell her drinks to government troops marching into town. "If you buy my tea, al Shabaab fighters will behead me or kill me immediately you leave."
Barawe, a conduit for arms and a source of revenues from charcoal smuggling, was al Shabaab's last major coastal stronghold. Its loss on Sunday was the latest in a string of defeats in al Shabaab's heartland in south and central Somalia.
It adds to the challenge facing a group whose charismatic and ruthless leader, Ahmed Godane, was killed in a U.S. missile strike in September. His successor, Ahmad Umar, whose rise is attributed to his loyalty to Godane rather than his own power base, must consolidate his rule as al Shabaab fighters retreat.
But the group, which swept to power in Somalia in 2006, stayed a potent force after it was driven from Mogadishu in 2011 and the latest setbacks are unlikely to halt its campaign that has included attacking the presidential compound, assassinating officials and ambushing the Western-backed African Union force.
Western nations and Somalia's African neighbors worry that as long as al Shabaab can still control even smaller centers or tracts of countryside, it will threaten Somalia's gradual recovery from two decades of war.
They fear it could still use the territory to promote its "jihad" well beyond Somalia's borders.
"Al Shabaab is weakened after Godane's death and Barawe capture," said Abdikadir Mohamed Sidii, governor of the Lower Shabelle region south of the capital, speaking in Barawe.
But he said it still had a large force of well-equipped and experienced fighters, using vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft guns and other arms. "There is thick bush in these areas and al Shabaab plans to fight guerrilla warfare here," he said.
Suicide car bombers and fighters ready to die as they charge into government buildings with guns blazing have kept residents of Mogadishu on edge. Abroad, al Shabaab proved its regional reach with last year's attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that left at least 67 dead and other fatal raids in Kenya since then.
“Al Shabaab is a very resilient organization. It has repeatedly restructured itself, coped with changes in leadership," said one diplomat. "So it would be a mistake to underestimate al Shabaab."
As well as striking Mogadishu, al Shabaab - which means "the Youths" - has cut supply lines to towns that were retaken in this year's offensive by the Western-financed African Union's AMISOM troops and the Somali army, which is slowly being turned from a rag-tag group of militias into a national force.
But modern equipment and foreign funds are not always a match. "Tanks are not made for fighting groups of five guerrillas in the bush," said Hussein Nur, a university lecturer in governance and leadership in Mogadishu.
Some centers became "ghost towns" after being recaptured as rebels stopped aid convoys reaching them, forcing residents to flee in search of food. That undermined the government's promise of a better life under its rule.
"Hungry Somalis may join al Shabaab if AMISOM and the government do not urgently help them," said Major Clement Cimana, spokesman for Burundi's AMISOM contingent, noting the challenge of supplying towns via ruined and dangerous roads.
"It will take much time to reconcile al Shabaab to reach peace," he said. "(The) military may not be the only solution."
Seizing on al Shabaab's setbacks, the government issued a 45-day amnesty in early September for members of the group after Godane was killed, urging fighters to hand themselves in and aiming at drawing in mid- to high-ranking officials.
So far, diplomats say there has been little take up, beyond a few low-ranking members, suggesting it may take more than battlefield defeat to shake the religious convictions behind a group which wants to impose its strict version of Islamic law.
Al Shabaab, with its characteristic defiance, said "the claim by the crusaders and apostates" that it had been weakened would soon be proved wrong, just as it was wrongly counted out when it lost Mogadishu and the southern port of Kismayu.
"The current claims are no different to the previous (ones). Time will prove them again to be baseless, with the disbelievers waging a losing war," Abdiasis Abu Musab, the spokesman for al Shabaab's military operations, told Reuters by email.
Yet, although recent military victories have yet to trigger major al Shabaab defections, it may be slowly whittling away at morale. The new leader Umar cannot boast Godane's battlefield experience nor his appeal that came from Godane's mastery of Somali poetry and reputation as an Islamic scholar.
"There is a possibility that some mid-level people might decide to jump ship as they run out of space,” said Abdi Aynte, director of director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu. "I remain convinced that in the longer run he would struggle to keep the organization cohesive."
Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Heavens