Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War
Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
A Strategy for Exploring Talks with Al-Shabaab in Somalia
A Strategy for Exploring Talks with Al-Shabaab in Somalia
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

Podcast / Africa

A Strategy for Exploring Talks with Al-Shabaab in Somalia

This week on The Horn, Alan is joined by Crisis Group expert Omar Mahmood to discuss avenues for achieving peace in Somalia, amid the growing consensus that Al-Shabaab will not be beaten by military means alone.

Somalia has been fighting the Al-Shabaab jihadist insurgency for well over a decade. After reclaiming control of Mogadishu and other cities in the early 2010s, government forces – with the support of African Union troops – have made limited progress since. Instead, Al-Shabaab has adopted guerilla tactics and managed to consolidate control of rural areas, while regularly conducting deadly attacks on Somali cities. A recent Crisis Group report recommended that stakeholders should at least begin to explore the feasibility of eventual political talks with Al-Shabaab, alongside pursuing existing military operations, to add another tool in the struggle to bring the longstanding conflict to an end.

This week on The Horn, Alan talks to Omar Mahmood, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for East Africa, to discuss the risks and opportunities that this approach might incur. They assess the strengths and limitations of the military campaign against Al-Shabaab and its prospects for success, as African Union forces inch closer to the end of their mandate in the country. They discuss previous attempts to engage Al-Shabaab and the group’s willingness for dialogue. They talk about the impact of multiple failed rainy seasons in Somalia and the need for humanitarian assistance that reaches populations in both government and insurgent-controlled areas. They also discuss the wider implications of Somalia’s Al-Shabaab outlook in the region, including how the country’s neighbours and international partners might respond to the prospect of engagement with a self-professed al-Qaeda affiliate.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Check out Crisis Group’s report, “Considering Political Engagement with Al-Shabaab in Somalia”, in full to learn more about the situation in Somalia and efforts to bring the conflict to an end.