Now Is the Time to Engage Al-Shabaab. Religious Leaders and Clan Elders Can Help.
Beneath its expansionist rhetoric, the Somali jihadi group al-Shabaab has abandoned its transnational goals to focus on local issues. For Somalia, this is might actually be good news. With the Somali government’s seven-year war against al-Shabaab stuck in a bloody stalemate, this re-orientation creates new opportunities for negotiations. The Somali government should take advantage of this, using religious leaders and clan elders to engage al-Shabaab.
My own interviews with former members of the group have added to the evidence showing that al-Shabaab is increasingly oriented toward domestic Somali politics. Over the past five years, al-Shabaab has formally accepted Somali’s political borders, and begun dispensing public services to win Somali hearts and minds. The group has also signaled its willingness to engage in niqaashno (debates) with Somali religious leaders. What’s more, it appears that both al-Shabaab and Somali authorities have already begun using senior clan elders to mediate truces and humanitarian aid delivery.
To take advantage of this trend, the Somali government should encourage religious leaders to engage al-Shabaab in niqaashno that call into question the religious legitimacy of the group’s more radical views and actions. To prepare the ground for direct peace talks, the Somali government should also use senior clan elders to initiate informal backchannel discussions with al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab’s Shift From a Transnational Agenda to a Local Focus
Al-Shabaab was formed as the youth wing and radical offshoot of the Union of Islamic Courts, a group that emerged out of the Somali civil war and briefly controlled most of south-central Somalia during 2006. In late 2006, the union was defeated by troops from Somalia’s transitional government backed by Ethiopian military forces. The invasion fractured the Islamic Courts Union and allowed the nascent al-Shabaab to capitalize on an upsurge of nationalism. Soon after this, though, al-Shabaab discarded the narrower nationalist stance that made it domestically popular and repositioned itself as part of the global jihadi movement. The group formally joined al-Qaeda in 2012. This realignment was engineered by the former al-Shabaab leader Ahmad Abdi Godane. Under Godane, al-Shabaab closed the door to any negotiations with the Somali government, launched a series of terrorist attacks in Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Uganda, and called for further strikes against shopping malls in Europe and North America.
Godane was killed by a U.S. airstrike in late 2014. By 2016 it was clear al-Shabaab had begun to rethink its strategy. Domestically, al-Shabaab’s focus on global jihad, along with its draconian style of governance, had triggered a drastic decline in public support. During Somalia’s 2011 drought, for example, the group blocked aid deliveries, burned food, and killed charity workers, worsening a disaster that ultimately killed over 260,000 Somalis. In this context, Godane’s death offered an opportunity for the group to reinvent itself and improve its local image. Thus when a similar crisis occurred in 2017, al-Shabaab responded proactively, providing food relief, and digging irrigation canals for farmers. Al-Shabaab has also delivered emergency provisions to communities in contested territories, who have long complained about being neglected by the Somali government.
Al-Shabaab’s new domestic focus has taken a number of other forms as well. By 2015, al-Shabaab had significantly downgraded its ties to al-Qaeda central. While the group continues to advertise its al-Qaeda allegiance, it now sees them as more of a marketing brand and source of general advice. It took a whole year after Godane’s death for al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, to release an audio message acknowledging the allegiance of al-Shabaab’s new leader, Abu Ubaydah. And even this message was likely prompted by al-Qaeda’s fear of losing its largest African affiliate, the Islamic State. More recently, when al-Qaeda central and most of its proxies celebrated the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, al-Shabaab did not release a communiqué or even discuss the takeover in its propaganda broadcasts.
This fits with a broader evolution of al-Shabaab’s media strategy toward highlighting local issues. Significantly, instead of just denouncing the Somali government as an “apostate regime” that is artificially sustained by international support, al-Shabaab has started criticizing their governance record too. In a July 2019 audio statement, al-Shabaab’s leader Abu Ubeydah argued that the reason why “we [Somalis] lag behind other countries” is that the Somali public keeps lending support to a “Somali puppet regime” (nidaam faasid) that is endemically corrupt. In early 2021, the group released a six-part documentary “appraising” President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmaajo’s four years in power in a further bid to capitalize on Somalis’ dissatisfaction. More recently, amidst a growing political rift between Farmaajo and Prime Minister Hussein Rooble, al-Shabaab announced in September 2021 that it would release a 12-part documentary that “critically investigates” the shortcomings of Somalia’s constitution.
To build on this shift in rhetoric, al-Shabaab has begun to soften its harsh dispensation of justice. Research shows that terrorist groups with limited aims are often mindful of public opinion and try to win over domestic audiences. This is most obvious in the group’s decision to reconstitute its much-feared Jaysh al-Hisbah (morality police) as an “unarmed” unit that provides “moral guidance.” Al-Shabaab’s al-Hisbah were notorious for inflicting arbitrary punishments without the approval of judicial officials. Taking a page from the Afghan Taliban’s playbook, al-Shabaab, in theory, standardized their al-Hisbah units in a bid to limit civilian abuses.
At the same time, al-Shabaab appears to have recognized Somalia’s borders. The group’s perceived refusal to recognize national borders was once a key symbol of its broader vision and ambitions. Al-Shabaab has argued that it does not recognize national borders or flags, and refers to its regional provinces as wilayaat. Where Jihadi groups committed to a particular territory often declare local emirates, such as the Afghan Taliban and Ansar al-Islam fi Kurdistan, al-Shabaab would not even do this. This anti-national stance was most salient in the late 2000s when foreign fighters wielded considerable influence in al-Shabaab. However, following an internal purge between 2011 and 2013, the group turned against its foreign fighters, leading many to leave the country. Now, al-Shabaab seems to have gone further in its recognition of the Somali state. In December 2020, the group released an official map demonstrating the territory under its control. Strikingly, the al-Shabaab-created map shows internationally recognized boundaries in the Horn of Africa, even including contested borders with Ethiopia’s Ogaden region and Kenya’s North Eastern Province.
Finally, perhaps the most important change in al-Shabaab outlook is that the group has softened its views on political reconciliation with the Somali government. Where it once categorically rejected any political dialogue, al-Shabaab has now offered a number of key preconditions, including the removal of foreign forces and “repentance of their apostasy.” These maximalist demands are a non-starter but they are still a step in the right direction.
Time to Negotiate
To date, neither the Somali government nor al-Shabaab’s leadership have taken any direct steps to initiate negotiations. The Somali government feels that doing so could cause it to collapse while al-Shabaab worries that trying to negotiate will be perceived as a sign of the group’s weakness. But religious leaders and clan elders can help overcome this impasse.
In September 2021, al-Shabaab’s spokesperson, Ali Dheere, released an audio statement presenting al-Shabaab’s strategy and religious justifications for its violent operations and ended by saying the group is willing to engage in a public debate with anyone who disagrees. The Somali government should capitalize on al-Shabaab’s call for debates by using prominent and credible religious leaders to engage the group. In doing so, they can question al-Shabaab’s actions without directly questioning its belief system.
This approach has worked elsewhere. For example, Egypt’s jihadi group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya renounced violence and redefined its attitudes toward the state, politics, and society after engaging in discussions with learned Islamic jurists and intellectuals with ties to the Egyptian government. Similarly, the experience of practitioners and experts from Mali and Syria has highlighted that such efforts can “help to open discussions and bring up important issues for internal debate within the armed group, even if they do not necessarily lead to violence de-escalation.”
Indeed, the reputable religious leader, the late Sheikh Abdulqadir Ga’mey played a substantial role in the 1970s in persuading many young Somali takfiris to re-evaluate their extremist inclinations and rethink the legitimacy of armed jihad in Somalia. In the early 2010s, a wave of defection occurred after al-Shabaab’s internal ideological fissures prompted debates within its leadership over issues including the value of ties with al-Qaeda, the draconian style of governance, and the deliberate killing of civilians. Similarly, my research revealed that attacks which created mass civilian casualties and caused strong public revulsion helped trigger renewed introspection and mass defections. This demonstrates that al-Shabaab can be induced to moderate its positions.
The Somali government should also use senior clan elders to establish a backchannel for communicating with al-Shabaab.
For decades, Somalia was mired in conflict and chaos, riven by warlords and extremist groups. As a result, senior clan elders filled the void left by the Somali state with a traditional method of local conflict resolution called Xeer. As administrators of Xeer, Somali clan elders are the first to intervene when tensions rise or conflicts break out. More importantly, senior clan elders have a protected status during periods of conflict because they serve as mediators within and between clans. This status enables them to be the only pro-government actors that can engage with al-Shabaab in matters affecting Somali society without inviting harsh penalties.
Before al-Shabaab emerged in the mid-2000s, senior clan elders were influential in mediating at the local, regional, and international levels. They provided short respites for war-weary Mogadishu residents at the local level by arranging truces between factional warlords. On the international level, in 2000 a diplomatic spat between Djibouti and the self-declared state of Somaliland prompted Djibouti to close its borders. The Somaliland government then sent a delegation of clan elders to Djibouti to ease tensions.
In fact, clan leaders have already been active in mediating between al-Shabaab and the Somali government. In 2016, for example, when al-Shabaab captured the town of Gal’ad, it was ready to publicly execute several hundred government soldiers. The town’s clan elders immediately brokered a truce that prevented a massacre from occurring, leading one clan elder to remark that “it is our responsibility to do our part and help our people.” Senior clan elders have helped achieve the release of local and foreign workers abducted by al-Shabaab. For instance, in January 2012, al-Shabaab kidnapped two Kenyan government employees in Kenya. Since the Kenyan government refused to negotiate directly with al-Shabaab, it tasked clan elders with securing their eventual release. Elders have also played a crucial role in humanitarian aid delivery in al-Shabaab-controlled areas. For example, during Somalia’s drought, when al-Shabaab banned humanitarian assistance in the areas it controlled, humanitarian groups and the government employed clan elders as intermediaries to deliver critical supplies.
However, some practical hurdles need to be overcome before clan elders can play a constructive role. First, plans should be made to pre-empt any al-Shabaab hardliners who try to act as spoilers. Al-Shabaab is not monolithic in its agenda and is susceptible to shifting alliances and internal divisions. Engaging the engageable and creating a new coherent party around them can help isolate the spoilers and demonstrate the benefits of moderation. The general perception on the ground is that most Somali citizenry and al-Shabaab defectors prefer a negotiated settlement. The government should prepare a communications strategy emphasizing this to help isolate any factions in al-Shabaab that seek to derail negotiations through violence.
Second, both Mogadishu and Washington should help ensure that elders engaging al-Shabaab are not targeted as terrorists. Overly broad local and international anti-terror laws discourage dialogue by putting anyone who meets with al-Shabaab leaders at risk of prosecution. Worse, these elders can easily be perceived as terrorists merely on account of their physical presence in al-Shabaab-controlled areas. For instance, in April 2020, a Jareerweyne clan elder was killed by a U.S. airstrike in the Lower Jubba region. Al-Shabaab claimed that the victim was a traditional elder while the United States insisted that he was a terrorist.
Al-Shabaab has significantly revised the sweeping and amorphous objectives it pursued in the early 2010s. However, al-Shabaab still maintains maximalist demands, which preclude compromise with the Somali government. But the Somali government can still capitalize on the progress that has occurred. This entails using highly respected religious leaders to push al-Shabaab to further moderate its views and clan elders to lay the groundwork for negotiations. Informal talks facilitated by clan elders will allow al-Shabaab to acquaint itself with the Somali government’s intentions and help prepare the group to offer concessions.
Al-Shabaab is trying to appeal to Somalis by calling their government’s legitimacy into question. For the government to engage al-Shabaab and push them to compromise for the sake of the country’s future would be the most effective response to the group’s propaganda.
Mohammed Ibrahim Shire is a senior lecturer in security and risk at the University of Portsmouth. He specializes in terrorism, political violence, and insurgencies with a focus on Africa. You can find him on Twitter @DrMiShire.