Two of the captured towns, El Saliindi and Kuntuwarey, are along key routes to Indian Ocean ports in the south. The third is outside the Islamists’ stronghold, the large town of Buqda, an economic hub in the centre of the country.
Reports suggest that Buqda was taken peacefully by al-Shebab just weeks after Amisom, the African Union Mission in Somalia whose troops are tasked with neutralising the group, had captured it from them.
Amisom kept a force in town for a few weeks after capturing it but lack the troop numbers needed to keep a military presence in retaken towns. Last week they left to fight another battle elsewhere and al-Shebab simply returned with no resistance.
Anneli Botha, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies who has been conducting interviews with al-Shebab recruits, told RFI the group can never be defeated militarily.
"The military will only be effective in creating some form of stability within a particular area,” she said, addding that they cannot combat the underlying reasons that drive young men to join the group.
Some of the local residents who are not necessarily aligned to the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group’s political aims are welcoming their return. In some places where services are not provided by the government, al-Shebab have stepped in to provide things like education and access to resources. Botha believes that, as long as the government is unable or unwilling to provide such services, the organisation will continue to see rising support.
It has seen rising recruitment across the border among Kenyans. President Uhuru Kenyatta has shaken up the country’s security forces, in a measure that Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery said will "strengthen efforts to combat the threat of terrorism and the creeping threat of violent extremism”.
The measures bring in a new Nairobi police chief and fresh county commissioners along the Somali border. Nkaissery’s predecessor Joseph Ole Lenku was sacked after a wave of attacks and massacres carried out by Shebab rebels. There is mounting pressure from the state house for the interior ministry to get results.
The security shake-up includes a new police chief in Mombasa, where police have been struggling to tackle a Shebab recruitment drive in the Muslim-majority coastal region which has been badly impacting the region’s tourist sector.
The group is looking to overthrow the Western-backed government in Somalia and impose strict Islamic law.