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Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War
Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Somalia: Transforming Hope into Stability
Somalia: Transforming Hope into Stability
Briefing 99 / Africa

Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War

Despite military gains against Somalia’s Islamist group Al-Shabaab, the insurgents’ defeat will remain elusive until the Somali government and its international partners address longstanding social – often clan-based – grievances through parallel local and national processes, as the basis for the revival of conventional governmental authority.

I. Overview

Despite the recent military surge against Somalia’s armed Islamist extremist and self-declared al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Shabaab, its conclusive “defeat” remains elusive. The most likely scenario – already in evidence – is that its armed units will retreat to smaller, remote and rural enclaves, exploiting entrenched and ever-changing clan-based competition; at the same time, other groups of radicalised and well-trained individuals will continue to carry out assassinations and terrorist attacks in urban areas, including increasingly in neighbouring countries, especially Kenya. The long connection between Al-Shabaab’s current leadership and al-Qaeda is likely to strengthen. A critical breakthrough in the fight against the group cannot, therefore, be achieved by force of arms, even less so when it is foreign militaries, not the Somali National Army (SNA), that are in the lead. A more politically-focused approach is required.

Even as its territory is squeezed in the medium term, Al-Shabaab will continue to control both money and minds. It has the advantage of at least three decades of Salafi-Wahhabi proselytisation (daawa) in Somalia; social conservatism is already strongly entrenched – including in Somaliland and among Somali minorities in neigh­bouring states – giving it deep reservoirs of fiscal and ideological support, even without the intimidation it routinely employs.

An additional factor is the group’s proven ability to adapt, militarily and politically – flexibility that is assisted by its leadership’s freedom from direct accountability to any single constituency. From its first serious military setbacks in 2007 and again in 2011, it has continually reframed the terms of engagement. It appears to be doing so again.

Countering Al-Shabaab’s deep presence in south-central Somalia requires the kind of government – financially secure, with a common vision and coercive means – that is unlikely to materialise in the near term. More military surges will do little to reduce the socio-political dysfunction that has allowed Al-Shabaab to thrive; in certain areas it may even serve to deepen its hold. The Somali Federal Government (SFG), supported by external allies, should consider the following political options:

  • implementing, as outlined in the “National Stabilisation Strategy” (NSS), parallel national and local reconciliation processes at all levels of Somali society;
     
  • imitating Al-Shabaab’s frequently successful techniques of facilitating local clan dialogue and reconciliation (as per the National Stabilisation Strategy, NSS), as well as religious education;
     
  • developing a new approach to establishing local and regional administrations that privileges neither SFG appointees nor clients of neighbouring states; and
     
  • making the local (Somali) political grievances that enable Al-Shabaab to remain and rebuild in Somalia the paramount focus, not regional or wider international priorities.

Nairobi/Brussels, 26 June 2014

Commentary / Africa

Somalia: Transforming Hope into Stability

Somalia has a genuine opportunity to promote needed political and security reforms following the election of a new president and renewed international interest. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union to seize the momentum by achieving consensus with its international partners on realistic goals ahead of the upcoming London Conference on Somalia in May. 

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Somalia is at a tipping point. The election of a new president with cross-clan support, the emergence of a youthful and reform-minded parliament, and renewed international interest present a genuine opportunity to promote needed political and security reforms to combat Al-Shabaab and stabilise more areas. The London Conference on Somalia in May coincides with this moment and should be seized upon to mobilise international support. However, because the new federal cabinet was only approved in early March, conference organisers should be realistic about how detailed the government’s plans can or should be. More broadly, key international actors – the European Union (EU), African Union, Arab League, UK, Turkey and the U.S. – will need to coordinate and achieve consensus on realistic strategic goals, including creating an environment in which the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) can begin to draw down. If the new president fails to deliver on promised key reforms – including to rebuild the national army, revamp the constitution, curb corruption and strengthen federalism – both domestic and external support for the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) will inevitably wane and Al-Shabaab will be in a stronger position to rebuild its forces and support.

Al-Shabaab exploits humanitarian needs

Although international aid has picked up, its geographic coverage remains limited, not least because insecurity is rampant and the UN has so far managed to raise only 30 per cent of the $825 million it asked for in early March. As a result, the threat of famine is unlikely to diminish in the next six to twelve months and 5.5 million people (nearly half the population) will require emergency aid. The immediate priority is to mobilise more funds, prevent a repeat of the large-scale graft that marred past relief efforts and assist the hardest hit communities in remote regions which are increasingly turning to Al-Shabaab for assistance. Al-Shabaab is exploiting these needs to improve its image and attract public support, allowing people to move to relief centres run by local and international agencies, even as it gives no indication of its willingness to grant aid agencies access to areas it controls.

Al-Shabaab struggles to demonise diaspora Somalis’ crowd-funding campaign (collecting small amounts of money from a large number of people) and especially the Caawi Walaal campaign organised by youth volunteers to provide water and food to remote villages. International actors should therefore support such initiatives, given their potential to extend the reach of the relief effort to remote areas inaccessible to Western aid agencies.

Harnessing the diaspora

The recent elections produced Somalia’s most demographically diverse and youthful parliament ever. Nearly half its 283 members are younger than 50; over 90 hail from the diaspora; and 63 are female. President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo campaigned on reform and owes his victory to younger and well-educated diaspora MPs. However, efforts to push through needed reforms and national reconciliation will be complicated by the poor delineation of roles and authorities among the president, prime minister and speakers of the upper and lower houses, as well as by powerful vested interests that will want to maintain the 4.5 formula that apportions FGS positions among the four major and smaller minority clans. The president will not be able to rely solely on the diaspora bloc but will need to work with politicians more closely tied to the traditional clan leadership. In the same vein, the new administration will need to avoid giving too many positions to diaspora Somalis, which could aggravate deep societal divisions.

Economic regeneration (symbolised by upmarket hotels, restaurants and homes in Mogadishu) is largely underwritten by remittances from some two million diaspora Somalis, worth some $1.4 billion each year. The FGS has held meetings to mobilise more effective diaspora support for reconstruction, yet there is neither an agency entrusted with policy formulation nor a proper regulatory environment, a gap that could prove risky. For example, Mogadishu’s acute land crisis is fuelled by poorly planned investment exploiting local regulatory loopholes. One idea would be for the Somali Economic Forum, a donor-funded organisation fostering private sector development and economic growth, to use its upcoming conference in Dubai that will bring together diverse stakeholders to help the new administration create a rules-based regulatory environment to promote sensible investment.

Fostering peaceful federalism

Strengthening and broadening the fragile administrations of federal member states should be a priority for the government in order to stabilise areas far from Mogadishu. So far, the protracted and ad hoc devolution of power from the weak FGS to federal states has resulted in de facto blocs dominated by powerful clans which tend to monopolise power and resources. Minority clans, including smaller sub-clans within major ones, often feel sidelined, with dangerous implications: in Puntland, for example, successive mutinies by security forces occurred in February and March over unpaid wages, and several armed clan-based militias operate largely outside the control of Puntland President Abdiweli Gaas. Equally problematic are increasing Al-Shabaab attacks and targeted assassinations, as well as a growing, albeit small, Islamic State faction operating in Puntland.

Elsewhere, the ousting of Galmudug Interim Administration (GIA) President Abdikarim Guled by the state parliament has created a power vacuum and elections planned for late March were postponed due to the severe drought. A similar no confidence motion was initiated against Interim South West Administration (ISWA) President Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan in March. Pushing for genuine and viable political settlements at the intra- and inter-federal state levels must remain a priority. To that end, the FGS and international actors should focus on the following:

  • Setting up a permanent mechanism to help resolve disputes among federal states, such as Puntland, Galmudug Interim Administration, Juba Interim Authority and Interim South West Administration. In so doing, the government in Mogadishu and state presidents would address the reality that several inter-state borders are contested and, in almost all states, minority clans feel aggrieved by local power sharing, with the risk that such discontent could trigger wider violence within and between states;
     
  • Supporting the Independent Boundaries Review Commission (IBRC) to first demarcate contested state borders and then define their boundaries more generally;
     
  • Supporting efforts to finalise currently vague and unaddressed issues in the provisional constitution, including especially by clarifying legislation on resource and power sharing among federal states and the FGS;
     
  • Supporting constructive dialogue between Somaliland, which continues to seek independence, and the FGS. In this respect, Somaliland’s agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to manage Berbera port and host a military base is likely to exacerbate simmering tensions between Somaliland and the FGS.
     

Security after AMISOM?

Al-Shabaab remains a resilient force that undertakes suicide bombings, targeted assassinations, ambushes and sweeps across south-central Somalia. After AMISOM played a key role in pushing Al-Shabaab’s conventional forces from most urban centres, most troop contributing countries (TCCs) are seeking to depart; at a March meeting in Nairobi, the TCCs began crafting a plan for the mission’s drawdown. AMISOM Commander General Soubagleh now says the withdrawal could start as early as 2018. But to make this possible, the FGS and federal states will need to improve governance dramatically and end local conflicts in liberated areas.

[T]he plan to draw down AMISOM needs a coherent framework to establish a sustainable national force that can take over responsibility for security.

Indeed, without a clearer and more institutionalised division of power, resources and security responsibilities between the FGS and federal states, as well as among federal state administrations, current security gains against Al-Shabaab will be difficult to sustain. In addition, the plan to draw down AMISOM needs a coherent framework to establish a sustainable national force that can take over responsibility for security and mitigate the negative effects of regional competition. The new administration’s further development of a national security architecture is a positive step, but the roles and responsibilities of the National Security Council and the president, notably in terms of command and control authority, will need to be clarified and institutionalised. Moreover, efforts to build the Somali National Army (SNA) could be improved through much better international coordination among the EU, U.S., UK, Turkey and Gulf states, which are all involved in troop training. There are growing indications that the U.S., under the Trump administration, is determined to up its direct military involvement. This carries risks. Although enhanced training and equipment would help, increased airstrikes could inflame public opinion and unwittingly drive communities into Al-Shabaab’s arms – especially if they cause civilian deaths.

Pursuing electoral reform

Somalia still has a long way to go before shifting from the 4.5 quota system to one-person-one-vote elections; in particular, it is unlikely that the requisite level of security will be achieved in the next four years. Recent elections were also marred by lack of transparency and accountability, which generated both corruption and electoral manipulation. Therefore, rather than focusing on the overly ambitious goal of one-person-one-vote, the London Conference ought to consider some of the inherited challenges, principally the 4.5 clan system. In particular, Somalis and international actors should:

  • Encourage the FGS to finalise the process of establishing functioning political parties;
     
  • Provide technical support to register citizens across the country;
     
  • Strengthen the capacity of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to organise and oversee future elections; and
     
  • Help the IEC organise smaller scale (eg municipal) elections.