New President in Somalia, New Opportunity for Reconciliation
New President in Somalia, New Opportunity for Reconciliation
Podcast / Africa

New President in Somalia, New Opportunity for Reconciliation

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks to expert Omar Mahmood about the election of Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, whether he can repair some of the division stoked by his predecessor and prospects for dialogue with Al-Shabaab Islamist insurgents.

On 15 May, Somali lawmakers voted in new president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The peaceful vote and transfer of power drew a line under what had been a fraught, long-delayed and sometimes violent electoral process that repeatedly threatened to tip into a major political crisis. Defeating the incumbent Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known as “Farmajo”, Hassan Sheikh became the first Somali to hold the presidency twice – having already served between 2012 and 2017. The new president promises reconciliation among Somalis and a new era of peace. But he faces daunting challenges. Foremost among them are deep divisions among Somali political elites, particularly between the capital Mogadishu and Somalia’s federal member states, or regions, and the long struggle against the Islamist militant group and al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab. 

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood is joined by Omar Mahmood, Crisis Group’s Senior Somalia Analyst, to talk about what the change in power means for Somalia. They discuss how it might impact domestic politics, notably the fraught dynamics between Mogadishu and federal member states. They look at how Somalia’s foreign relations might evolve: in the Horn of Africa, where Farmajo had forged tight links to Ethiopia and Eritrea; in the Gulf, where Farmajo’s close ties to Qatar had alienated the United Arab Emirates; and with Western governments that had grown impatient with his election delays. They then talk in depth about a forthcoming Crisis Group report on prospects for dialogue with Al-Shabaab. Omar and Richard map out the many challenges to such engagement: the troubled history of dialogue with Al-Shabaab, the group’s uncompromising nature, unpopularity and foreign ties, political fractures among other Somalis and resistance in regional capitals. They examine why, despite all the challenges, it would be worth President Hassan Sheikh testing the water with the group’s leaders to see what sort of compromise might be feasible. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on Somalia, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Somalia country page and keep an eye out for our upcoming report “Testing the Water: Considering Political Engagement with Al-Shabaab in Somalia”.

Podcast Transcript

N.B. This transcript was generated using speech recognition software and human transcription. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting or if in doubt.

Clip 00:04
Let us think about tomorrow. Not yesterday, and what happened. I will work on a brilliant tomorrow and a beautiful future for the sake of my people.

Richard 00:16
Hi. This is Hold Your Fire!, a podcast by the International Crisis Group. I'm Richard Atwood. Last week, Somali lawmakers voted in a new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. We just heard part of his speech on taking office. Hassan Sheikh defeated the incumbent, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known as President Farmajo. He's also the first Somali to hold the presidency twice; he was actually president before Farmajo. The build-up to this year’s vote had been long and fraught, with repeated delays and, on occasion, rival armed factions clashing in the streets of the capital Mogadishu. In the end, though, it was a smooth transfer of power. Farmajo conceded and handed over power peacefully.

Clip 00:52
“A Somalia at peace with itself and the world”. That is what the East African nation's new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, says he wants for his country. He now has a lot of serious issues on his plate, including a devastating drought, soaring inflation, deep political grievances and, of course, the fight against Al-Shabaab insurgents who have been trying to overthrow the government there for more than a decade.

Richard 01:19
So can a new president bring a new approach to Somalia's many daunting challenges? What prospects are there that Hassan Sheikh Mohamud takes a fresh look at the long running war with the Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab, a grinding stalemate that shows little sign of ending any time soon? To talk about all this, I'm delighted to welcome Omar Mahmood, who is Crisis Group's Somalia expert. Omar, welcome back.

Omar 01:41
Happy to be here, Richard.

Richard 01:44
So, Omar, why don't we start? I mean, this seemed like a remarkably smooth handover of power, despite all the disputes and the friction beforehand. Do you want to just talk about what happened?

Omar 01:58
Yeah. I mean, in the end, I think we basically got the best case scenario out of this. You know, Somalia does have a history of really contested electoral dynamics or manipulated electoral dynamics, but also of preserving this rotation of power at the highest level. And that was preserved this time around. But there was no guarantee of that. It really did look bleak for quite some time. I think it was essentially a process of continuing to push ahead and with each step that was passed, it made it difficult to basically reverse that progress because these elections, you know, are essentially a month-long, drawn-out process. And there was probably a turning point last December, where there was another one of these flare ups between the president and the prime minister. So, President Farmajo and Prime Minister Roble. And I think there was a wider consensus after that, that the way out was really to conclude this electoral cycle. And so we saw the parliamentary selection process really pick up in January and February, and especially once then you had the speakers of both houses of parliament selected. Basically, you got to the point of no return, essentially. But that's not to say that the election was very well run. You know, I think there were many issues in terms of the level of manipulation or basically pre-rigging within the parliamentary process itself. But we did get to the point at least where this transfer of power was preserved.

Richard 03:30
And just so people understand, just explain the Somali election system.

Omar 03:35
So, there are indirect elections. Essentially, you have two houses of parliament. The upper house, where the candidates are selected by federal member state presidents and their assemblies vote on them. And that's because the upper house represents the federal member states.

Richard 03:51
The federal member states are Somalia's regions, right?

Omar 03:55
Exactly. Basically, the building blocks in the Somali system. Then you have the lower house, in which each seat is assigned essentially to a certain sub-clan. And so this is where the process gets a little complicated, but you essentially have a group of elders and civil society members from that sub-clan who select, in this case, 101 representatives from their clan. And that grouping of 101 then decides who the parliament member for that seat will be. So basically, it's kind of a multi step process. Then, both those houses combine for the presidential election and that's what we saw last Sunday.

Richard 04:37
So how are the 101 people for each clan chosen?

Omar 04:41
So there is basically a set of clan elders. People can agree that this is the elder for this clan and then some civil society members (so, respected members within that clan that might not be particularly elders). And so, there's a grouping of a couple of those and they end up selecting this group of 101 delegates that end up selecting the parliament member.

Richard 05:06
So, regarding President Farmajo himself in the build up to the election. I mean, it had seemed fairly clear that incumbent presidents in Somalia tend not to win re-election. But it had been fairly clear that Farmajo himself hoped to hold onto power. And yet he sort of conceded his defeat and handed over.

Omar 05:25
Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think there's a strong incumbency disadvantage in Somalia, actually, especially maybe playing into the indirect system. But because there's such a wide swathe of actors to sort of satisfy each time around, it becomes very difficult even when you've been in power for a while, to guarantee that same level of support for your re-election. You know, it says something about the level of power and relationships in Somalia and how dispersed they really are. But of course, incumbents try. Farmajo tried for his re-election. And there were some concerns. We got a lot of worried sort of reporting within the region about what might happen if there isn't some acceptance at some level. But I think basically by the time you get to the presidential election, because there's been so much build-up before, you know, this is a months-long sort of process. By the time you get to that final event, which is a very confined event – which is, you know, televised – all the Somali political elite are there. I think it's very difficult to have any sort of contestation of that, you know, once you've got into that process.

Richard 06:36
Tell us a little bit about the new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. It’s, what, his second time in power? So, he was in office before. Before Farmajo.

Omar 06:48
Exactly, before Farmajo. Essentially, I mean, it's an interesting dynamic because you do actually have a new president in Somalia, but one that's been there before, which is unprecedented, especially because of this incumbency disadvantage. It's very hard for presidents to kind of come back into power.

Richard 07:06
But perhaps less so for former presidents.

Omar 07:09
Well, that's what Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud has proved now. That former presidents do have a route. And interestingly enough, basically the same two squared off in the last election in 2017. The final two standing were Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Farmajo. Same thing in 2022 here, just with a different result. As for, you know, Hassan Sheikh himself, I mean he is from one of the bigger clan families. You know, he did serve as Somali president. So I think we know more about him and he's really becoming a dominant force in Somali politics. You know, he served as president for four years. One of the main leaders in the opposition in the past five years. And now president again. And I think part of what he was able to play off this time and in the past few years is that he's positioned himself as a reconciler. This was very clear in his campaign, the slogan of “A Somalia at peace with itself and abroad”, and this idea of a no retaliation policy, you know, regardless of the outcome. And so, he's basically struck a chord within the Somali political elite that has been more polarised and divided over the past couple of years. But I think, you know, he's playing off this idea that he can be this sort of healing factor that Somalia needs right now. We'll have to see how that unfolds. But during this previous track record, there was, I'd say, a degree more of consultation than the sort of combativeness we saw in the most recent administration.

Richard 08:44
And, Omar, of the upper and lower house members that voted in the election, quite a large majority voted in the end for Hassan Sheikh.

Omar 08:53
Yeah. There are three rounds of the presidential election. So, in the first round, the top four vote-getters go on to a second round. In the second round, the top two go into the third round. And so, Hassan Sheikh in the first round actually was not the lead vote-getter. I think he was third after the leader of Puntland, Said Deni, who was also running for president, and Farmajo himself. But basically, to emerge as president, you have to pick up the votes of candidates that have fallen along the way. And that's what Hassan Sheikh did quite well. And so after the first round, there were a couple candidates who did not advance, and they came out publicly and endorsed him. After the second round against Said Deni, after he didn't emerge, he endorsed him for the third round. So Hassan Sheikh essentially quadrupled his vote total from the first round to the third round. While on the Farmajo side, we saw him barely double his. And a lot of this came to this idea that for the opposition, you know, I think they had two plans here. One was a plan that each of them would run for presidency. But because of the sort of round system, their plan B was anyone but Farmajo. And we saw that consolidation around Hassan Sheikh as the vote progressed.

Richard 10:10
So he seems to have sort of quite a lot of backing, as you say, among Somalia's political elite. What do you expect to be his immediate priorities?

Omar 10:19
Reconciliation is a big one. You know, that's the reflection of a more polarised political environment. But more practically, this means resetting the relationship between the federal government and the member states. That relationship has really fractured over the past couple of years. You know, one thing Farmajo focused on was centralising a bit more power around the federal government itself. And that spurred a predictable backlash. And so I think one thing he's going to focus on is kind of resetting that relationship. You know, I would say we need to take that even a step further. Because if you look within the federal member states themselves, there are also very significant fractures at member states like Jubaland, for example the Jubaland administration. And Kismayo is very distant now, from the Gedo region in the north of Jubaland. And you see similar fractures in some of the other ones. So I think reconciliation is going to be a big one. But beyond the federal government and federal member state frame, going a level deeper as well, there are some other sort of key state building tasks that are outstanding that I think he’ll focus on. One is basically the next electoral model. One is that the constitution in Somalia is still provisional. It hasn't been finalised. There are some outstanding areas that require political agreement around that. At the same time, economically, Somalia has been going through this debt relief process with the international financial institutions. But the big one, of course, will also be security. And he inherits a withdrawal plan for the African Union peacekeeping forces that was just negotiated, you know, a couple of months before this election. So this is one kind of drawdown that we see happening on the international side. But, of course, you know, there’s the fight against Al-Shabaab itself. So I think those would be the main priorities. The other thing I would just mention is that there is a dire humanitarian situation ongoing right now in Somalia with a severe drought that has the potential in some areas to basically become a famine for the rains at the end of this year. Also, the initial forecasts haven't been that promising. So it's both about responding to that in the immediate term, but also about how to kind of get out from under the cycle or some prevention measures going forward.

Richard 12:40
And as you say, Omar, we'll come to the struggle against Al-Shabaab in a moment. But could we just talk a little bit about the deterioration of relations between Mogadishu and some federal states over the past few years? I mean, traditionally, that's been a relationship where, you know, it's been defined (even before Farmajo) by disagreement between Mogadishu and member states. But in some cases, it was a relationship that deteriorated dramatically under Farmajo. And you do want to sort of talk a little bit about what that looked like in different parts of the country?

Omar 13:15
Sure. And I mean, that's a key point to make right off the bat, that this relationship was problematic even before the Farmajo period, which is basically the Hassan Sheikh period. You know, we saw him oversee the institutionalisation of a couple of federal member states, basically the establishment of them. But that relationship was also still never completely smooth. Now, under Farmajo, I think his view was that member states really actually just have too much power. And he thought about rebalancing that relationship. And in some ways, you know, parts of that analysis make sense. But the way he went about it was quite destabilising and quite polarising. And so one of the big aspects was federal government interference in regional member state elections. And he was able to ensure that allies of his came out on top in three of the member state elections, while the two he wasn't able to to influence as much wound up consequently being the two member states most consistently opposed to him and formed a basically solid bloc there. And so this relationship fractured quite, quite strongly. You know, it became very politicised. The security forces were used in some cases to basically force the federal government's way into some of the member states as well.

Richard 14:39
In which member states were relations particularly fraught?

Omar 14:42
So they were particularly fraught with Puntland and Jubaland as those were the areas where federal government influence over the elections was quite weak. And in Galmudug, South West and Hirshabelle, those are the areas where the federal government had more influence.

Richard 14:57
And so if you think then of what that means, you have now Hassan Sheikh come in. Is that then sort of reversed? So those governments, those leaders in the federal member states in the regions with whom Farmajo had fraught relations (so Puntland in the north, Jubaland in the south), now have better relations with the government? And the three you mentioned where Farmajo managed to install allies (Galmadug, South West and Hirshabelle), they're now going to have to adapt to a new reality, a new government in Mogadishu. And how do you see that playing out?

Omar 15:34
Well, I think it's complicated. And that's where Hassan Sheikh's sort of no retaliation policy is quite important here. Because basically, yes, you had some of those leaders, particularly in maybe Galmadug and also South West that were quite close to Farmajo up until the very end. But if Hassan Sheikh then comes down kind of with the same policy of replacing leadership, you know, that's bound to spark some sort of clashes. Rather, what he said is that he's going to work with who's there. Let's see how that plays out in practice. At the same time, the sort of alliance nominally with Jubaland, Puntland and then also the opposition which Hassan Sheikh was in at that time was also one more of convenience than anything else. It was sort of an anti-Farmajo coalition. And of course, you know, we saw even Hassan Sheikh and Deni, who were opponents in this political race for presidency.

Richard 16:29
They were opponents in the first round of voting who then united to oust Farmajo in essence.

Omar 16:34
Exactly. So there's still, you know, a dynamic that this was an alliance of convenience against Farmajo and now Farmajo’s not there, you know, does that alliance continue as well?

Richard 16:46
Omar, just a little bit more. So, in these three federal states, where Farmajo managed to get his own allies into power, how are they going to be looking to position themselves with Hassan Sheikh?

Omar 16:59
Yeah, well, I mean, I think the reality is now that there's been a change of leadership in Mogadishu, and they'll have to balance that. So take Ahmed Korkor in Galmadug, for example. He was quite close to Farmajo, you know, basically served a lot of his interests, not just even in government, but also at the national level as well. So a leader like Korkor, he always had this challenge to balance the alliance with Farmajo with interests on the ground within Galmadug. Galmadug is quite complicated in itself, given that Hassan Sheikh also, you know, his clan family comes from that area. And so I think, you know, for a leader like Korkor, the reality is that the political situation in Mogadishu has changed, and that he will have to adjust to that as well.

Richard 17:47
And so some pretty big potential changes in Somali politics, depending a bit, as you say Omar, on what Hassan Sheikh means by reconciliation. But also some potentially big changes in Somalia's foreign relations. I mean, if we look first at the region, at the Horn, Farmajo had emphasised his tripartite relationship with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, and that was very much to the detriment of Somalia's relationship with with Kenya and with other Horn of Africa governments. Is that something that Hassan Sheikh is also going to walk back?

Omar 18:26
Yeah, I mean, essentially, I think the wider regional relationship will be, I would expect, a bit more balanced. It was very much a bifurcated foreign policy under Farmajo. And so yes, he played into this tripartite dynamic with Ethiopia and Eritrea. He was always kind of the weaker, looser third part of that, but very much played into that and developed strong relations with both Asmara and Addis Ababa. And that came at the expense of Somalia's other relations within the region. And so actors who weren't part of that, so in particular Kenya and Djibouti, these relations very much withered. And I would expect this to be, you know, reversed. For Eritrea, it's a little complicated now for the new leadership. There's this whole case of Somali troops who were sent to train in Eritrea, who never came back home. And it's quite mysterious and very unclear. You know, Farmajo himself admitted that 5,000 of them had been sent there and essentially handed over the file now to his Hassan Sheikh. And I think that'll be one of the key foreign policy sort of initiatives right off the bat, kind of figuring out what happened to these troops and, you know, whether they can come home. But basically, it makes, I think, a close relationship with Eritrea just politically toxic as well. On the Ethiopia side, it's interesting because Hassan Sheikh was quite close to Addis Ababa during this first administration, of course, but that was a different set of powerbrokers in Addis. That's no longer the case there.

Richard 19:59
So he was close previously to then Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam.

Omar 20:05
Exactly. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam. And essentially, the TPLF, the Tigray party, was also, you know, a big part of that. But Ethiopia obviously is distracted now and it has different power brokers and it no longer plays the same role in Somalia as it did, you know, four or five years ago. And that's probably one of the biggest changes. So I would expect more of a balance in those relationships and an improvement on the Kenya side, on the Djibouti side. You know, for Djibouti, it was actually very unusual that relations with Somalia got as bad as they did. You know, typically there's almost this more brotherly sort of dynamic there. And on the Kenya side, again, you know, there were two periods of actually completely fractured relations. There's still fundamental issues in that relationship. You know, we should remember Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was the one that actually took this maritime boundary that's disputed between them to the International Court of Justice in the first place, against Kenya's wishes. So still some fundamental issues between them. But I would expect the dynamic to be a little bit more friendly, at least to discuss some of these things.

Richard 21:14
When we talk about Farmajo's relationship with Eritrean President Isaias and with Addis Ababa, with Prime Minister Abiy, you know, his proximity to those two to the detriment of his relationships with others in the region, has that had sort of practical consequences for Somalia itself, whether it's in infighting between Mogadishu and federal states? In effect, it’s been quite a big shift under Farmajo towards closer relations with Asmara. Has that had sort of concrete implications for Somalia itself or is it more about its foreign relations?

Omar 21:54
I think there have been some implications within Somalia. And, you know, part of this was Ethiopia and Kenya were also a bit more on the same page when it came to their involvement in Somalia prior to some of these dynamics as well. And that's kind of shifted.

Richard 22:10
And the big contributors to the African Union mission. But they also both have forces in Somalia that are fighting Al-Shabaab bilaterally as well, outside the African Union mission.

Omar 22:21
Yeah, absolutely. Both have sort of bilateral elements as well. And you know, that is reflective of their security interests in Somalia. But, you know, we saw this kind of dynamic play out when there was this dispute over the Gedo region of Jubaland a couple of years ago and where the federal government essentially intervened to break off Gedo from Jubaland and install a new administration. While Ethiopian forces were supportive of that, you know, in Kenya, Kenyans were backing up Ahmed Madobe in Kismayo, you know, the Jubaland administration. So you saw that proxy dynamic play out where the foreign policy shifts basically played out within Somalia itself.

Richard 23:03
And, you know, again, Farmajo, as you say, his policy sort of being quite bifurcated there. But it's perhaps been even more so in the Gulf where his relations have proven even more contentious. So he has quite famously close ties to Qatar. Farmajo’s former Chief of Staff Fahad Yasin is sort of known to be particularly close to Doha. Qatar, obviously a big supporter of Somalia more broadly. So, you know, in itself, that's not an issue. But that proximity has led to real ties between Farmajo and the United Arab Emirates, particularly in the years after the Gulf cooperation crisis, when the UAE and Saudi, you know, in essence, blockaded Qatar and the Emirates in Somalia pretty much stopped operating in Mogadishu, right? And backed some of Farmajo’s major rivals in the member states. And you know, some of his political rivals in the capital. So what do you think the change of government and Hassan Sheikh's arrival is going to mean for Mogadishu's relations in the Gulf?

Omar 24:08
Yes, Farmajo was very close to Doha. I think Hassan Sheikh will continue a relationship, but it won't be in the same way. For the UAE, they were essentially frozen out in the Farmajo period. There was this dispute, you know, at one point there was some money that the UAE ambassador was bringing into the country that that he claimed was first and security training that was seized at the airport, which became such a flash point in the relationship. And essentially, you know, Abu Dhabi and Mogadishu, they didn't officially break relations, but they weren't really talking. They weren't really engaging under Farmajo. Now, I think what we see already is basically the re-entry of the UAE to Somalia. That money actually was just recently released back to the UAE.

Richard 25:00
So it was given back since Hassan Sheikh came to power or before that?

Omar 25:04
In the last week. So the UAE had developed a relationship with Prime Minister Roble even in the last couple of months before this, who announced that he was going to release the money. But this was also blocked at one point by the Farmajo side. And so it kind of got caught up in sort of this power struggle within Somalia itself. But since Hassan Sheikh took power, yes, that money was officially released back to the UAE and the UAE, in turn, basically donated it for humanitarian causes in Somalia.

Richard 25:34
And so those Gulf rivalries will just sort of be less of an issue overall?

Omar 25:38
I would expect a bit more of a balance there for two reasons. One is what's happened also on the Gulf side of things. They've had the declaration where they've kind of worked through some of their issues. That at least removes a little bit of the intensity or the zero-sum nature when it comes to a foreign theatre like Somalia. And so I think that's helpful. So that's kind of one dynamic. But the other level of that is, of course, you know, Somali politics and Somali politicians played into that dispute as well. You know, they were courting different sides depending on where they stood on things and how they could benefit from that. And so under Hassan Sheikh, you know, if we can take this campaign slogan of “a Somalia at peace at home and abroad” seriously, that would basically mean not as much as a bifurcated foreign policy as we saw in the past couple of years. So not basically prioritising some relationships at the complete expense of others, but basically trying to have working relationships with all sides. So I think if we take both of those dynamics going forward, I think we'd expect a little bit more of a balance.

Richard 26:47
And the U.S. President Biden has just announced that the U.S. is going to send in 450 more U.S. forces. This decision also came shortly after Hassan Sheikh's election, is that right?

Omar 27:03
Yeah, but not even 24 hours, maybe about 16 hours after.

Richard 27:08
And we should interpret this as sort of the U.S. wanting to turn the page? I mean, after Farmajo, this is sort of a sign of discontent with the previous president. The U.S. had sanctioned and put visa restrictions on some unnamed government officials related to the election delays, the election disputes. But with these new forces that Washington's committing, this is a sign that Washington wants to build good relations again with Hassan Sheikh?

Omar 27:35
I think it absolutely plays into that. You know, even if officials will say that the two events aren't linked I think it's pretty clear, you know. The conclusion of the electoral process, which international partners were very frustrated about, especially that this was dragging on, and all of a sudden, a decision by the U.S. to basically bolster the fight against Al-Shabaab. Again, I think the timing is a bit unfortunate because it sends that signal that, you know, it was about getting over the political situation and now let's get back to counter-terrorism. But if you interpret that move, this return to some U.S. security assistance, I think that's basically a vote of confidence in the new administration. And, you know, in some ways the U.S. also knows Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. They worked with him before. So I think they have high hopes with him going forward.

Richard 28:26
And so, Omar, is this the idea that Farmajo's administration hindered the fight against Al-Shabaab? That it wasn't just that they were so busy fighting with rivals in the federal member states that they sort of abandoned the fight against Al-Shabaab? But some people go further and say that actually, you know, there was sort of tacit complicity, collaboration between people in the Farmajo government and militants. I mean, what do you make of those arguments?

Omar 28:58
You know, I mean, on the first side, absolutely there was a focus more on, I think, the domestic political scene, and Al-Shabaab really wasn't the first priority. You know, I think that's clear from a number of examples. Even in Jubaland where you saw the focus on the Gedo versus, you know, countering Al-Shabaab. And in Galmadug as well, the focus was on some other domestic areas rather than on Al-Shabaab.

Richard 29:24
And basically the infighting between federal forces, for the most part loyal to Farmajo, and member state forces loyal to the member states, governments, the region's governments. That infighting created space for Al-Shabaab to seize more territory, gain more influence?

Omar 29:42
Absolutely. I mean, any time you have Al-Shabaab's adversaries facing off against each other rather than the movement itself, it creates some breathing space and some room. But the other side of that is Al-Shabaab is very good about exploiting grievances as well within the system. And leveraging that to their own purposes. So I do think the focus on centralisation and taking on some of the member states very much distracted from the struggle against Al-Shabaab itself. On the second point about, you know, whether there was some degree of actual collusion, this is often rumoured but it's hard to point to very specific points of evidence. It became such a talking point, I think, of the opposition as well. That was, you know, quite anti-Farmajo. And, you know, we do see some cases of Al-Shabaab infiltration deepening over the past few years. You know, this is clear, for example, in their ability to undertake taxes in Mogadishu, extorted sort of taxes. We saw this even in the recruitment of Al-Shabaab defectors into some of the security forces. Now, is that reflective of active collusion or is it more a sort of byproduct of being distracted and focusing elsewhere? I think that's hard to say. But what I would say is, you know, I think the bigger factor is the fact that there wasn't this focus against Al-Shabaab and the group was able to penetrate, more so than anything they might have gotten through active collusion as well. You know, the fact that elites were divided and looking elsewhere always creates room for the group to operate.

Richard 31:21
And broadly speaking, where does the fight now against Al-Shabaab stand?

Omar 31:25
Yeah, I mean, essentially, I think it's more or less kind of a status quo over the past few years. You see some areas of advancement on either side, but nothing that's changed the wider trajectory so much. So basically, you have Al-Shabaab very dominant in rural areas of south-central Somalia. You have the government hunkered down in urban locations. The change has been this Al-Shabaab sort of shadow infiltration of those urban locations as well. You have some territories which are contested and kind of switch hands. But I think we could also point over the past few years to greater Al-Shabaab influence in an area like Galmadug where they've actually been able to expand a little bit of their operating presence and in Hirshabelle areas as well. So those are kind of the wider contours. But essentially, you know, it's kind of been a status quo where there hasn't been much significant movement on either side, but especially on the government side.

Richard 32:27
I guess one way of thinking about where the fight against Al-Shabaab is now, is that the Farmajo years really played into Al-Shabaab's hands. Now there's a new administration, maybe one that's going to be less divisive, there's going to be fewer rifts among Somali political elites. Now, we can, in essence, take the fight to Al-Shabaab and roll back some of its gains and the extra U.S. forces are a symbol of that way of thinking. But presumably there's a danger to that, too. It would be wrong to pin the stalemate in the fight against Al-Shabaab just on Farmajo. There were few signs even before Farmajo that Al-Shabaab would ever be defeated. You know, it was entrenched in parts of Somalia even before then. And so presumably there's a sort of danger in thinking that with a change of administration you know, the sort of fundamental dynamics of the conflict will also change.

Omar 33:29
Yeah, I mean, I think that's right. That we need to point out that there's a wider through line here that goes beyond, you know, recent politics: of course the centralisation drive and then even just a prolonged election. You know, both of those were very distracting elements that I think benefited Al-Shabaab. But the wider picture on the Al-Shabaab side is there's sort of an internal organisational logic that's not matched by its adversaries. And, you know, if we zoom out a bit further this fight has been going on for fifteen years now. And Al-Shabaab has always been more adaptable than the government and its allies. And I think this is a key point for the Hassan Sheikh Mohamud administration. That the threat they're dealing with Al-Shabaab, you know, is quite different from the one of five years ago. You know, it is one that's even more where there is an embedded asymmetric actor that conventional military force is not going to defeat. And, you know, I think I can see a situation where maybe the balance is clawed back a little bit, but I don't see how that resolves the conflict that's been going on for for fifteen years, because I think you can argue the federal government itself is in a much stronger position than it was ten years ago. It does have some institutions. It does have a security sector. You know, that's in a better place than it was ten years ago. But I think I'd be hard pressed to say that the war is any closer to a conclusion than it was ten years ago.

Richard 34:56
And you have another dynamic at the same time, which is that the African Union force, which was AMISOM, is now sort of re-hatted and its mandate has been extended. But clearly to some degree, patience is waning among Europeans that basically pay for the African Union force. And how long the force will remain in place is unclear. And yet the African Union troops are clearly a big part of the Somali government's ability to hold onto towns and cities. So you also have that clock ticking on how long that regional force is going to be there for.

Omar 35:34
Yeah, I mean, that's another part of the puzzle. There's been the AMISOM force that was there previously. That's now called ATMIS, the African Union Transition Mission. AMISOM basically preserved the status quo, but wasn't making a lot of new progress. It wasn't taking on Al-Shabaab in the same way as it was earlier in its tenure. And so there is discontent about continuing to sort of pay for it and the very expensive status quo, especially on behalf of some of the European countries. And so you have now this transition plan, which marks out basically four phases through to the end of 2024, when the mission is supposed to withdraw completely and hand over the fight to Somali security forces. Now, I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone, including the diplomats who've been working on this, that would say these are not very ambitious timelines and that all of this will happen within that frame. But the fact is that there is sort of this plan. I think that's, you know, just a signal of the wider dynamic around international legal support to Somalia. You know, if you zoom out a bit, I think the high watermark has probably been crossed there. Just year after year, dynamics get a little bit more fatigued when it comes to Somalia. You know, other priorities are popping up more and more each year. And so to expect, you know, maybe the same level of international attention and support that Somalia had ten years ago today, I think is just unrealistic.

Richard 37:09
And so you have, again, this sort of resilient, entrenched insurgency that is unlikely to be defeated by military means alone. So the other option is exploring whether there's any option for talking to Al-Shabaab leaders or parts of the group. So we have this big report coming out over the next couple of weeks, which looks at how Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's government might sort of test the waters to see what's feasible. So I'd like to spend the rest of the episode sort of talking about what that might look like and thinking through in particular some of the challenges. So, there has been a history over the past decade of efforts to engage Shabaab, to talk to either its leaders or to use dialogue to pull away lower level commanders or other parts of the movement. Do you want to say something about the sort of history of that engagement and why previous efforts have, for the most part, failed?

Omar 38:12
Yeah. So I mean, we do have this report coming out looking at basically the prospects and challenges of engagement with Al-Shabaab. Because, as you mentioned, Richard, we don't see a military defeat basically being in the cards of the organisation. But of course, there are, you know, a number of significant hurdles here. And one is that there is a history of previous engagement here. Some of that's happened under the previous presidents, including Hassan Sheikh Mohamud himself. That hasn't really borne significant fruit. There was a very serious attempt to engage Al-Shabaab's leadership under Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who was the president before Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in around 2009. Al-Shabaab's leadership basically showed no interest in really moderating their positions or really coming to any sort of agreement. And so that failed. And since then, basically, the tracks were a little different. You know, there's been a focus on defection based engagement. So, reaching out to members of the group that, you know, might not be fully on the same page with core leadership and engaging with them. And, basically, what's that done? It's drawn out a few key members from that group. So there have been some successes in that. Mukhtar Robow, for example, who was one of Shabaab’s founders that’s been pulled out of the movement. Or even Sheikh Dahir Aweys, who this very important Islamist figure in Somali politics, pre-dating Al-Shabaab as well, but then was also associated with the movement for a little bit. So there have been some successes on that front. But I think what we would argue again is that hasn't really shifted the wider tenure of the war as well. You know, you've had tactical successes there, but not a strategic success. You know, at times there's been some other issues in terms of whether there was a mismatch, in terms of local pursuit of an engagement track. The international community hasn't been as ready to support when some dynamics have been moving on the ground. And there have been times, you know, when it's been questionable even who was being engaged on the Shabaab side, and whether they actually represented top leadership. So there is a bit of a history here. But what we would argue is there hasn't been sort of this, you know, organisation-wide dynamic to kind of sit down and talk through the future of this conflict. You know, I think that's what hasn't been done for a while. It's been more predicated on maybe the surrender approach or other sorts of dynamics.

Richard 40:40
So obviously, one big challenge to this is Al-Shabaab itself. As you say, in 2009, when there were some efforts to sort of reach out to the leadership, it showed very little sign of interest or that it was prepared to make the sort of compromises that it would need to enter Somali politics. First of all, Al-Shabaab is an al-Qaeda affiliate. And we'll talk about what that means in practice. But it's also a group that wants to impose its vision of its interpretation of Sharia, of Islamic law, on Somalia. It wants to hold power to be able to impose this vision. And in areas it controls, although it's been quite tactical in forming alliances and backing sort of weaker parties in conflicts and in some cases being quite pragmatic in its local relations, broadly speaking it doesn't show many signs that it's prepared to compromise in its bigger vision of what it wants. But do you think there's more space than some of its public statements suggest?

Omar 41:46
Yeah, I mean, I think this is an important point. And it's very clear that publicly Al-Shabaab hasn't commented much on this idea of engagement with the government, but when they have, they have shot it down, you know, for a variety of reasons. One, they've never considered this government legitimate. Secondly, they've kind of termed engagement also as, you know, a means of dividing them and dividing the group as well. I think the other thing to look at is Al-Shabaab's track record and whether it's really demonstrated a dynamic where it can be comfortable without having a monopoly on governance in an area under its control. And so I think that's difficult to see as well. You know, it's not to say that there are times, though, that Al-Shabaab does have to adjust to the local community and kind of work with them and maybe even moderate at a very granular level. But at the same time, you know, it's hard pressed to find examples where it didn't have a monopoly. But privately, you know, I do think there are some indications that the door might be slightly more ajar. You know, some of this comes from conversations we've had through the course of this research with high-level individuals both on the government side, but also on the diplomatic front in terms of some of the indications they've been getting on behalf of Al-Shabaab as well. And so I think there is something maybe worth exploring. And then so what we would argue is that there is a need to sort of test that out, to see really if there is something that can can be pulled on there or, you know, could basically be the start of some sort of track.

Richard 43:30
So then Omar, there's also, of course, the foreign link. So first the al-Qaeda affiliation, I think that was announced in 2012, although it may have even predated that formal announcement. So in principle, that means that the group shares al-Qaeda's global goals, which obviously poses a big challenge to any dialogue. There's also a lot of stigma attached to the al-Qaeda link. It's also quite difficult to sort of in practice break the Pledge of Allegiance between Abu Ubaida, the current Al-Shabaab leader, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader. We talked about this a little bit last week with Hay’at Tahir al-Sham, the group in north west Syria that has done that. But it's not easy. But the transnational element goes beyond al-Qaeda, right? I mean, in reality, pretty much all of Al-Shabaab's external operations, attacks outside Somalia, pretty much all of them are focused on the region, mostly on troop contributions to the African Union mission. So there's generally a lot of resistance in regional capitals to any notion of engaging Al-Shabaab. And it’s partly fury at those attacks. But it's also that Nairobi, Addis, Kampala and the other regional capitals don't want an Islamist militant group holding or sharing power in Mogadishu, especially not a group that has these sort of pan-Somali aspirations, so, in principle, aiming to unite areas where Somalis live, including parts of neighboring countries. Omar, do you want to say something about some of these transnational challenges?

Omar 44:54
Yeah, I mean, there's definitely a concern, but basically it comes to the question of what Al-Shabaab really is at its core. And there's a couple of different frames the organisation operates in. You know, one is this sort of south-central Somalia frame where it is most dominant. But it also pays adherence to this “Greater Somalia” logic, which is this idea that all Somali areas in the Horn should be kind of under one administration. You know, Al-Shabaab is not the first organisation to appeal to this, but this basically would mean, you know, parts of Kenya and Ethiopia, in addition to even Djibouti and Somaliland, would basically fall under one sort of administration. But of course, they go beyond that within East Africa, to paint themselves as the defender of East Africa's Muslims. And we see this in terms of regional recruitment. Kenya and Tanzania, for example, in particular. And then there's the global frame where they play themselves into the al-Qaeda affiliate status. The relationship with al-Qaeda in particular seems to be more symbolic than anything. You know, in terms of what Al-Shabaab is, its locus, its ability to recruit in Somalia, to generate financing, to take on the government, almost all of that is basically locally driven. It doesn't seem to have that much to do with the al-Qaeda relationship. Rather, where the relationship with al-Qaeda is important is, I think, in some of the symbolic benefits that a group like Al-Shabaab gets from this. And such benefits might for example be the relationship not with the al-Qaeda core, but with some of the affiliates. Al-Qaeda in Yemen, I think is one of those. But also it maybe boosts Al-Shabaab’s regional recruitment practice because it can present itself as the al-Qaeda affiliate within East Africa, for like-minded individuals within the region to come to Somalia and fight on their behalf. But again, you know, it's not to say that any of this is sort of central to sustaining the movement. So I think it is a challenge. It's definitely one Somalia's neighbours have a very significant challenge in terms of envisioning any sort of pathway towards Al-Shabaab engagement as well because of this al-Qaeda affiliation. But again, I think what we would say is, because it's not so central to the movement, is that something that could also be explored through the possibilities of engagement rather than a dynamic that precludes it? So, you know, rather than being a precondition, is this something to explore, through discussion, to see just how important it is and whether there's some sort of means to get around that?

Richard 47:38
And what do we know, Omar, about Abu Ubaidah, who's been, as we mentioned, leader of Al-Shabaab for some years? He's not someone who has a lot of foreign experience. I mean, he didn't fight in Afghanistan like Godane, for example, but he was very quick to pledge allegiance to al-Zawahiri when Godane died. But he seems to have a pretty tight grip on the movement. Is that fair?

Omar 48:04
So Abu Ubaidah is a reclusive figure, he doesn't appear much in the media. He wasn't that well-known when he took over in 2014 either. He does not have sort of the international experience side of things which was different from you know the previous Al-Shabaab leader Godane, right. He is a much more locally-driven individual so I don't think we know too much about his personal views but what I would say is that Al-Shabaab is clearly not a monolithic organisation. I think we've seen differences of opinion in the past, but I do think it's a centralised one in the sense that there is sort of a common line and it's a bit risky if you're an organisation to step out from that common line. You know, that was reflected in the purges we saw both in 2013 and 2015. You know, one about internal leadership and in 2015 about outreach to join the Islamic State. Very high level figures within the movement were basically purged, hunted down and even killed. And so it kind of showed that, you know, there is this mechanism in place within the movement to sort of maintain a centralised stance, maintain a hierarchy, even if the organisation is made up of other sort of diverse opinions and backgrounds. And so that's kind of one reason why we argue that if you are to engage, you know, that should happen at the highest level of leadership because otherwise I think you're talking about, you know, just kind of peeling away and dynamics that we've seen in the past that didn't really change the overall trajectory of the war.

Richard 49:41
So there are challenges on the Al-Shabaab side, but there are also challenges on the government side, even with a new government that's potentially less divisive than Farmajo’s government. There is still a lot of political jockeying among Somali political elites between Mogadishu and the regions, which presumably any outreach to Al-Shabaab is going to run into. Let's say there were prospects of broader political talks involving Al-Shabaab, presumably Somali elites are going to see this through the lens of their own political rivalry, their own access to power, their own access to resources. And they're going to distrust whoever is leading these outreach efforts. They're going to view those as potentially being instrumentalised. How do you think then, you know, the prospect of talks fits into what is a very fractious Somali political scene, even with a new government?

Omar 50:35
Yeah. I mean, I think this is another key challenge. And this is a question we get all the time. If there's some sort of reconciliation path with Al-Shabaab, you know, where does that fit in the wider spectrum of reconciliation in Somalia? We talk about a number of things that need to happen. I mean, one, the federal government and federal member state relationship, but also dynamics within member states at the community level as well. And so introducing this can be a little complicated within that because, you know, for example, different member states view the threat of Al-Shabaab quite differently. We talked to leaders from all of them. And the way they see the future of the war against Al-Shabaab is very reflective in terms of how much of a threat Al-Shabaab is to them right now. So those that feel more threatened are kind of willing to engage on alternative paths a bit more than those who feel they can handle the situation themselves.

Richard 51:30
So just to clarify, it’s that way around? The people who are facing the most violence from Al-Shabaab are those that are most prepared to envisage talking to them, and those that are largely unaffected are less interested? You could imagine that it would be the opposite, right? That those who were involved in the fiercest fighting with Al-Shabaab were the least inclined toward talks.

Omar 51:49
Yeah, I think broadly we could generalise in that sort of sense because those that are affected by Al-Shabaab on a daily basis, affected by the conflict are more interested in having some stability. It's their daily lives that are disrupted by this conflict. And those that are a bit more removed have less incentive to really seek that level of stability because they can see themselves kind of getting on right now OK. So I think that's a key dynamic: that Al-Shabaab affects different communities, different layers of the federal system in Somalia differently. You know, that also plays, of course, into clan politics within Somalia as well. The group says it's above the clan. And if you look at its leadership, though, a lot of it is Hawiye, one of the dominant clan families in Somalia. So it plays into these different sorts of dynamics. There are communities that have, as you mentioned, also fought against Al-Shabaab. And because they have fought against the group, they also maybe feel a bit more aggrieved as well. So some militias like Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a, which is this sort of a Sufi militia in central Somalia that's actually had some success in warding off Al-Shabaab. And so I think there's a wider support for stability and for kind of ending the war. But in terms of the way to go about it, there is a significant difference of opinion. And there are, you know, many other ongoing reconciliation processes that do need to happen in Somalia. But I think our wider point here is the formula in Somalia has always kind of been “you need to do X-process to get to Y, to get to Z”, if Z is Al-Shabaab reconciliation. And so it's kind of been a bit linear. And the problem is that the first step never fully happens or doesn't happen properly. And so you never get to the next step, and you never get to the following step. And so I think following that sort of track puts this in a much more long term view that it's hard to see the war getting resolved in the near future. And I think what we'd rather say is, you know, there are multiple things that need to be happening at once. Just because you're working on Z doesn't mean you can't also be working on X at the same time.

Richard 54:09
Right, so you have this sort of argument that you have to fix all the problems among elites. You need to have a new constitution, work out the federal structure and only then can you think about talks with Al-Shabaab. I mean, it's a bit like the argument that, you know, you need to just push a bit longer militarily and then negotiate from a position of strength once you've beaten Al-Shabaab back a bit. The difficulty, of course, is that it's not clear that the moment when other Somalis are fully reconciled, and that the Somali security forces have the upper hand, is going to ever come. I mean, if the last few years are anything to go by, correct me if this is wrong, but it's kind of also as plausible that things move in the other direction. So as you say, Omar, it seems to make more sense to at least explore the opportunity of whether there might be some space for compromise. And again, we're not talking about stopping fighting Al-Shabaab or stopping trying to fix Somalia's other challenges, particularly the Mogadishu and sub-national state relations, but rather that testing the waters with Al-Shabaab shouldn't wait for those. It shouldn't be held hostage to those.

Omar 55:12
Yeah, I mean, I think that's a good point to emphasise that we're not even necessarily saying, you know, the time is right to basically tomorrow be sitting down with Al-Shabaab's leadership and figure out, you know, some sort of grand compromise. I think this is a very long-term process, a non-linear process. But I think what we are saying is that there is an important dynamic here where conflicts are typically resolved at the negotiating table, and that it does appear that a military defeat of Al-Shabaab is going to be impossible. And so should we be doing more to get towards that table?

Richard 55:55
And you talked about some of the groups that might fear Al-Shabaab being brought into politics in Somalia, but presumably there's another big constituency that we didn't talk about yet. You know, a constituency that that doesn't necessarily want to live under Al-Shabaab's vision of Islamist rule, whether that's women in parts of the country, for example, or whether it's others that have enjoyed sort of relative freedoms in parts of the country that they might fear would disappear were Al-Shabaab to have more of a say in Somali politics?

Omar 56:32
Yeah, and I think this is another point worth stressing. That when we do bring up this idea of engagement with Shabaab, you know, a lot of people do kind of stiffen their back. And I think the point to stress here is that, you know, this is about negotiation. This isn't about basically giving the country over to Shabaab, about kind of surrendering to their ideology. You know, it’s basically that it takes two to tango. It's about figuring out if there is a way to end this war through some aspect of negotiated settlement, which involves compromise on both sides. If you don't have that on behalf of one side, which is what happened about ten plus years ago, it doesn't work and it won't work. And it might not work the first time again either. But it lays the groundwork maybe for future processes.

Richard 57:19
The idea of engaging Shabaab is quite likely to generate quite fierce resistance in the region, in Kenya and Ethiopia in particular. You've talked to quite a few Western officials about this. I mean, on the one hand, Europeans are clearly getting impatient with the African Union mission. But on the other, there's obviously going to be a lot of disquiet about the idea of trying to engage an al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militant group in political talks, perhaps all the more so after what happened in Afghanistan with the Taliban takeover and some of the things that the Taliban have done since they seized power. How have people in Western capitals generally reacted to the idea?

Omar 58:11
Yeah, we did a bit of a tour the last couple of weeks visiting Washington D.C., New York, London and Brussels as well to kind of gauge some of the reactions. You know, I think at the surface, there was a lot of frustration with Somalia and kind of the various policies towards Somalia over the past couple of years. You know, part of that is also a reflection of the election dynamic that really just fatigued donors even more. And you know, there is that strong sense of frustration and fatigue when it comes to Somalia. And that leads to maybe some receptiveness to new ideas. I think there's also some healthy scepticism, a lot of discussion on the modalities or the timing, how it would work. You know, what we would have to kind of work through. But to me, you know what that kind of signals is, you know, people are looking for new ideas. I think the U.S. and the EU were both kind of doing strategic reviews on their Somalia policy. You know, there isn't really a coherent sort of long-term vision. A lot of them are more focused on the short-term and kind of assuming that eventually makes way to a long-term path of Somali stability. And you can see even with the discussions around the African Union force, within that you have a short-term sort of plan for their withdrawal over the next couple of years. But it's highly dependent on conditions on the ground. And it's very unclear, you know, what happens next or when you get to those points as well.

Richard 59:48
So with all this in mind, what sort of options does the new government have to, you know, as you describe, sort of test the water, see if it can establish lines of communication and explore, with Shabaab's leadership, whether there is some space for getting to talks?

Omar 1:00:06
Yeah. I mean, essentially, we argue that it might be a good time for a new government to more seriously consider political engagement as a tool to bring the war to a close in Somalia. Again, you know, it’s not necessarily saying that the time is exactly right at this moment or that it should involve pulling back from the military efforts or other efforts that seek to weaken Al-Shabaab or that this would be something quick, but that this is something to sort of think about and maybe start laying out some of the groundwork on how this would proceed. And so I think there's two areas we focus on. One is basically testing the waters, because I think there's a lot of speculation around what Al-Shabaab is or wants and its leadership and those sorts of dynamics. There's a couple of options on how to do that from a new administration. Maybe there's a special envoy appointed. If it was done very discreetly as well that could explore things with the leadership, it has the benefit of speaking on behalf of the government. Within that, there's an idea that you could have basically a committee, with maybe some drawn from the business community, some clan elders, some from the religious community, those that have the ability to basically reach out to the Shabaab leadership as well. You know, maybe a grouping of them can kind of deliver a message. You could have a third party option as well. You know, an actor like the UN or we've seen some other countries that are interested. I think it's better maybe not to go the bilateral country route because they come with some of their own baggage as well. But more international organisations. So one actor is the UN, that could be seen as a neutral route. You know, if they saw this as part of their mandate, if they were emboldened, they could undertake this. But, you know, the broader point being the need for some sort of testing the waters and outreach, and the modalities around that could happen in a variety of ways.

Richard 1:02:10
Omar, what do you make of the argument that there isn't much incentive right now for Al-Shabaab itself to talk, that its leaders believe that time is on its side, that it gains more right now from fighting than it can through dialogue? And that, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, it just sort of has to wait out foreign forces?

Omar 1:02:30
I think this is one of the questions we get quite a bit as well. What would Al-Shabaab's interests be to engage and why would they have any sort of incentive right now? But I think there's a need to sort of make an argument to the leadership at the moment that it would be in their interests. There's a couple of points to reinforce here. The first one is we do talk about a stalemate, and we do talk about how difficult it will be to defeat Al-Shabaab as well. I think you can make the reverse argument also that, you know, what Al-Shabaab wants is full domination of Somalia at a minimum. That scenario where they emerge in full control of Somalia for an extended period of time is very unlikely because you've seen in Somalia's history, any time an Islamist actor like another Shabaab kind of gets a bit too much power, you've always seen some sort of intervention. So even if the domestic centres of opposition are overrun, we've seen regional intervention, also sort of international. I think you could put a couple of other points here. One is that, you know, war does bring fatigue. And I think from some of the conversations we've had with both the recent defectors or even low level members of the movement there is a sense that the war fatigue does affect Al-Shabaab as well. And that this can be another route to sort of consider. And I think another point to make here to Al-Shabaab itself is that, you know, they're not necessarily a fully popular movement in Somalia.

Richard 1:04:10
Omar, isn't that putting it mildly, that Shabaab is not fully popular? I mean, they're deeply unpopular in parts of the country, right? I mean, it's not just in the capital, where terrorist attacks provoke enormous anger, but also even in rural areas. I mean, sure, they provide some things that people appreciate: some sort of enforced dispute resolution, some basic law and order in some places. But they're also very violent, repressive. Again, it's not to say that the government is popular in those rural areas where Al-Shabaab is influential. But Al-Shabaab itself also inspires a lot of hostility. And, you know, not just in the capital and areas outside of those it controls.

Omar 1:04:46
It's true that, you know, we see these pockets of sort of community resistance against Shabaab. And I think basically the formula here is, you know, Shabaab does offer some services to these populations. We haven't talked about that as much in this episode. But I think we have in the past in terms of some of the justice they provide or other sorts of dynamics that are attractive to local populations. But Al-Shabaab also does demand a lot. You know, the rhetoric is quite extreme. The way they go about implementing it is extreme. I mean, they demand manpower and financing from the local population as well. So there are times where, you know, people do turn to the movement, but there are plenty of times where people have put off fighting as well. And so, striking that balance has been hard, you know, and it's not to say that the federal government hasn't always been able to be there to be a credible alternative either. That's part of the calculation as well. But yes, I mean, Al-Shabaab very much does struggle with this aspect as well. One other argument I'd make is if Shabaab does feel like it's in a strong position, that's actually typically a good time to come into a negotiated process. I think that, you know, history is filled with actors who felt strong and didn't negotiate, only to regret it later on. So if the group does feel like they're in a good position, that actually also makes sense within that.

Richard 1:06:09
So, Omar, maybe let me just ask one more question before we close. Something that we hear sometimes from Western officials in particular, is that a sort of danger of trying to engage Al-Shabaab is that the group might use a political process, might use talks, to sort of stimulate or encourage the exit of foreign forces (in this case, of AMISOM) and sort of seizing the country a little bit like the Taliban did, that's a danger. And as a result, you really can't trust a group like that. The danger of it manipulating some sort of political process is too great. I mean, what do you say about that danger?

Omar 1:06:50
Well, I think that's definitely a risk, but it's one that I would say is better to explore now, rather than the closer you get to that withdrawal. On some level, that is one of Al-Shabaab's core demands, the removal of foreign forces in Somalia. And they kind of see that happening with the ATMIS plan in any case. But there's nothing being extracted on their side in order to get there. And so that's where we'd argue that the wider exit strategy for ATMIS is not just the development of the Somali security forces. And, you know, I think the lesson from Afghanistan, for all its differences, is that there was basically an exit strategy sort of negotiated, and then maybe the government sides were supposed to kind of follow from that, and we would argue here that we should kind of reverse that trajectory and more condition the exit of the foreign troops on some specific compromise on the behalf of Al-Shabaab and, to see if that is possible, I think that needs to be explored.

Richard 1:07:55
Omar, thanks so much for coming on.

Omar 1:07:57
Thanks, Richard.

Richard 1:08:00
Hold Your Fire! is a production of the International Crisis Group. I'm not sure that you can find all of our work on Somalia. Look out for that big report that we talked about in depth today over the coming weeks. All that's on our website, crisisgroup.org. You can also follow us on Twitter, @crisisgroup. Thanks to our producers, Sam Mendnick, Kevin Murphy and Finnian Dunbar-Johnson. And thanks, as ever, to all our listeners. Please do get in touch. You can write to me directly, atwood@crisisgroup.org, or use our general address, podcasts@crisisgroup.org, if you have any questions or comments, or if you like the show, please do leave us a positive rating or review. And I very much hope you will join us again next week.

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