It's not too late to rescue Somali Islamists from the jihadis who have hijacked them
It's not too late to rescue Somali Islamists from the jihadis who have hijacked them
Somalia’s Stalling Fight Against Al-Shabaab and America's Wobbly Strategy
Somalia’s Stalling Fight Against Al-Shabaab and America's Wobbly Strategy
Op-Ed / Africa 4 minutes

It's not too late to rescue Somali Islamists from the jihadis who have hijacked them

It is easy to be pessimistic about Somalia.

The weak and increasingly fractious Transitional Federal Government seems incapable of extending its authority or becoming even modestly functional.

An insurgency controlled by extremists is now in full control of much of the south, and it is radicalising Somalia’s youth at home and in the diaspora, imposing its harsh brand of Islam, proclaiming allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and promising global jihad.

Recent fighting has killed many civilians, displaced over a million and triggered one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

But as the Islamic Courts Union — also led by now-President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed — demonstrated in 2006, the situation in Somalia can change rapidly and dramatically if the right policies are enacted.

It is easy to forget the Sharif TFG came into office in January 2009 with huge domestic and international goodwill and credibility.

It has wasted much of the opportunity this provided, but can still effect change if it can learn from its mistakes.

First, the TFG has failed to draft a national reconciliation strategy and draw up a list of potential interlocutors, acceptable mediators, and parameters.

This failure created ambivalence and allowed elements within the TFG opposed to any outreach to consolidate their hold.

Second, it has failed to capitalise on the internal schisms and violent factionalism within the insurgency that only intensified from early 2009.

In some instances, attempts by less extreme and more politically pragmatic insurgent leaders to reach out to the TFG were deliberately rebuffed.

The government has been touting the deal with the anti-Shabaab alliance — the Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a (ASWJ) — as proof of its commitment to broader national reconciliation.

However, the deal is extremely fragile and is now seriously under threat.

There are indications some powerful figures in the government are trying to sabotage it.

President Sharif must not allow these elements to have their way.

The ASWJ — though itself divided — remains the most effective bulwark against the advance of Al-Shabaab into the central and northern regions.

If the ASWJ decides to abandon the TFG, some powerful regional and international backers of the TFG, frustrated by the government’s failure to make any headway, may be tempted to withdraw their support.

If the deal unravels, it is likely the TFG will be the greatest loser.

The TFG also needs to extend its outreach beyond the traditional “alliance of moderates” to include less hardline elements in the insurgency disillusioned with Al-Shabaab’s increasing extremism and amenable to some form of a political settlement.

Al-Shabaab is now a deeply fragmented movement.

A tiny foreign jihadi cabal supported by a handful of local jihadi leaders — such as Ahmed Godane (Abu Zubayr), Fuad Khalaf (Shongole) and Ibrahim Haji Jama (Zeyli’i) — have been making desperate attempts since early 2009 to steer the movement away from its original aims.

What was once a Somali Islamist movement with nationalist roots and largely animated by local ambitions, has been hijacked and transformed into an Al-Qaeda affiliate wedded to the concept of a permanent global jihad.

Many local Somali jihadis, keen not to lose their own public support, are resisting this extra-Somalia agenda.

Some have abandoned the movement and many are biding their time waiting for an opportune moment to jump ship.

The TFG should reach out to these disenchanted jihadis.

Creating such a “grand coalition” with Al-Shabaab “dissidents” will be immensely tricky, and sustaining it, even more daunting.

Nonetheless, with sufficient Somali will and determination, reinforced by international consensus and support, it is conceivable.

In fact, this may arguably be the supreme act of collective sacrifice demanded of Somali patriots of all stripes and ideological persuasion, to rid their country of the foreign jihadi menace, once and for all.

A win for the local Islamists will have a huge impact on the peace process and may open interesting possibilities.

First, it is likely they will seek to steer Al-Shabaab back to its original ideological and nationalistic roots, thus gradually weakening the stranglehold of the fanatical fringe element determined to maintain the movement within the Al-Qaeda orbit.

Second, they are likely to strive to strike a balance between ideology and political pragmatism, currently skewed in favour of ideology.

As a consequence, we may see the emergence of a leadership responsive to the concerns of Somalis and amenable to a political settlement.

If this does not happen, and the foreign jihadis manage to fend off the looming challenge from the local Islamists, the consequences will be profoundly negative and disastrous for Somalia, the region and the world.

The process of Al-Shabaab’s rapid transformation into a wholly Al-Qaeda franchise, which has alarmed many in the world in recent months, may become irreversible.

The TFG and the international community cannot be bystanders.

As has been demonstrated numerous times, there is no military solution to Somalia.

The Transitional Federal Government needs to be more transitional and more federal.

It cannot conceive of itself as the new central government (an anathema to most Somalis who still remember Siad Barre’s corrupt and repressive rule), and it needs to share power and resources with those who actually control territory.

Much as the Islamic Courts Union did in 2006, the government needs to cut the difficult deals with those local authorities, for only this can bring some stability and calm to the region.

The international community should demand no less.

Only by doing so can we expect to reverse the growth of Al-Shabaab and improve the situation in Somalia.


Former Project Director, Horn of Africa
Former Deputy Program Director, Africa

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