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In Somalia—or Afghanistan—Can Insurgent Defections Change a War’s Course?

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An al-Shabaab defection raised hopes in Mogadishu, but violence, and lessons from another conflict, suggest little has changed

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL — MOGADISHU, Somalia—When a former deputy head of al-Shabaab turned up last August in a Mogadishu hotel to denounce the extremist armed group, government officials were exuberant.

Mukhtar Robow, after all, was among the most notorious leaders of Somalia’s al Qaeda affiliate. Luring senior insurgents like him to switch sides is a major war aim for the Western-backed Somali government—and for the U.S. military, which has deployed more than 500 American troops to fight al-Shabaab.

“Defections in general, including by Robow, show that the government’s strategy is working, that people are realizing that this government is the best hope for Somalia,” Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre said in an interview this week. “It shows that the Shabaab are weakened and are being defeated—not only militarily but politically, economically, judicially and ideologically, and that public support is on the side of the government.”

Yet, though a few dozen al-Shabaab fighters joined the government since Mr. Robow’s August defection, and despite frequent U.S. airstrikes, the tide of war has hardly turned. Al-Shabaab, which continues to dominate much of rural central and southern Somalia, carried out Africa’s deadliest bombing two months after Mr. Robow’s surrender, killing more than 500 people in Mogadishu.

The Somali movement—like Afghanistan’s Taliban—still holds sway over one of the world’s largest jihadist footholds.

Last month, al-Shabaab finally broke its silence about Mr. Robow—who, in the Mogadishu hotel appearance, had condemned the group’s ideology as “not in the interest of the religion, people and the country.” Mr. Robow, al-Shabaab retorted, was “deluded” to think the group could be undermined.

The question of whether defections by militants, including senior leaders, really matter has been hotly debated by military commanders, intelligence officials and policy makers ever since the U.S. became embroiled in counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq following the 2001 attacks.

The U.S. military’s Africa Command said last year that its policy is “to support Somalia-led efforts to encourage members of al-Shabaab and ISIS to defect and pledge support to the Somali Government.”

A similar effort, deployed for several years at great cost, has proved largely futile in Afghanistan, a conflict that bears many parallels to Somalia.

There, the Taliban insurgency—like al-Shabaab in Somalia—controls a large chunk of the countryside and retains the ability to carry out devastating attacks in the capital city. The fighters who defected to the Afghan government often did so for opportunistic personal reasons and usually didn’t represent forces that the Taliban couldn’t easily replenish.

“There certainly have been some individuals who have been reconciled or reintegrated as a result of that effort,” said Laurel Miller, an expert at Rand Corp. who served as acting U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until last June. “But I have never seen any indications that one can draw a line between any results that have been achieved via that effort and any fluctuation in the conflict on the battlefield.”

In Somalia, Mr. Robow’s defection quickly proved controversial. In his home South West state, where much of the countryside is under al-Shabaab control, officials embraced the former militant as a potential savior. “Mukhtar Robow is a very good tool. He can reach out to the young people because he knows their language,” said Ali Ali, the state president’s chief of staff.

But many other Somalis—especially those whose friends and relatives had been killed by al-Shabaab when Mr. Robow helped lead the group—were dispirited.

“It’s as if bin Laden was suddenly named a minister or security chief. It’s not a good thing when we give such credit to those who have killed innocent people,” said a Somali lawmaker—who, like several other such critics, feared retribution for speaking out against Mr. Robow in public. Mr. Robow himself couldn’t be reached.

Such anger over al-Shabaab’s atrocities means that, so far at least, there is no effort to negotiate an end to the conflict between the Somali government and the militant group. That is a contrast to Afghanistan, where—despite the Taliban’s murderous record—the central government and the U.S. have been pursuing negotiations with Taliban leaders about a possible political settlement for several years.

Asked about a possible diplomatic engagement with al-Shabaab, Mr. Khayre, the prime minister, suggested that wouldn’t be necessary.

“I see now that my government is winning this war, and it’s just a question of time,” he said.

What is really needed, he added, is greater international assistance to the Somali government, especially by writing off its debt and resuming access to international financial institutions.

Many Western officials disagree with such optimistic assessments of the campaign, and say that—at some point—talking to al-Shabaab may become a necessity, in part because al-Shabaab is mostly a homegrown movement deeply rooted in the country’s clan politics.

“It suits both al Qaeda and al-Shabaab to say they are associated with each other, but actually al-Shabaab is primarily a Somali phenomenon. Very few foreigners have any positions of authority,” said Michael Keating, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia and a former deputy U.N. representative in Afghanistan.

“I do think there is a scope for communication, if not formal engagement, with al-Shabaab,” Mr. Keating added. “The problem is that al-Shabaab right now seems to be in the hands of those who have a very aggressive approach to advancing their political agenda, and I have seen no indication from their side that they see a political track.”

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US military says drone strike in Somalia kills 4 extremists

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VOA — A U.S. drone strike has killed several al-Shabab militants in southern Somalia, officials tell VOA.

Local sources said missiles fired Wednesday targeted a rickshaw carrying five al-Shabab militants near Jamaame, in the southern Lower Juba region.

“I can tell you that the airstrike hit a rickshaw and that five militants were killed. It was carried out by U.S. drone, helping our intelligence forces on the ground,” a Somali government official told VOA Somali on the condition of anonymity.

The attack was confirmed by witnesses and local residents, who also asked for anonymity because they feared militant reprisals.

Somali officials said they were investigating the identity of those targeted. Some sources said two of those in the rickshaw were civilians traveling with three militants.

A statement Thursday from the U.S. Africa Command said the strike was carried out by the U.S. military “in coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia.” The statement said the strike killed four terrorists and no civilians.

On Tuesday, local residents in the region reported another airstrike that destroyed an al-Shabab training camp in the nearby town of Jilib. That airstrike, also confirmed by U.S. Africa Command, killed three militants.

The U.S. military has carried out dozens of airstrikes against al-Shabab and Islamic State militants in support of Somalia’s federal government.

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U.S. military denies Al-Shabaab killed its soldier in Somalia

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MOGADISHU, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) — The United States military confirmed Tuesday no American soldier was killed or injured in southern Somalia as claimed by the Islamist militant group, Al-Shabaab.

The U.S. Africa Command (Africom), which oversees American troops on the continent, dismissed the report as incorrect that the insurgents killed the American soldier on the outskirts of Kismayo during a gun fight early Tuesday.

“We are aware of the reports, but they are incorrect. No U.S military were killed or injured in Somalia, as alleged in the reports,” Africom spokesperson Samantha Reho told Xinhua.

The militants through their radio station, Andalus had reported that the American soldier was killed in a gun battle that took place outside Kismayo town on Tuesday morning.

The allegations came amid intensified security operation by the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) backed by Somalia National Army (SNA) on Al-Shabaab controlled areas in the Lower Shabelle region, destroying several militant bases, checkpoints and explosives including an FM station run by Al-Shabaab.

The allied forces have ramped up offensives against the militants as the African Union forces continue with the drawdown which started with 500 troops last December.

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Al-Shabaab plundering starving Somali villages of cash and children

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Jason Burke

Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia are extorting huge sums from starving communities and forcibly recruiting hundreds of children as soldiers and suicide bombers as the terror group endures financial pressures and an apparent crisis of morale.

Intelligence documents, transcripts of interrogations with recent defectors and interviews conducted by the Guardian with inhabitants of areas in the swath of central and southern Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab have shone a light on the severity of its harsh rule – but also revealed significant support in some areas.

Systematic human rights abuses on a par with those committed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are being conducted by the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamist militants as the west largely looks away because most analysts do not see the group as posing a threat to Europe, the UK or the US.

The group has put to death dozens of “criminals”, inflicted brutal punishments on gay people, conducted forced marriages, and used civilian populations as human shields.

In one 2017 incident investigated by the Guardian, a man was stoned to death for adultery. In another, four men and a 16-year-old boy were shot dead by a firing squad after being accused of spying for the Somali authorities. In a third, a 20-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy were killed in a public square after being found guilty by a religious court of homosexuality.

Last year at least five people were lashed publicly after being accused of “immoral or improper behaviour”. They included a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old who were given 100 lashes each for “fornication”.

UN officials said they had received reports of stonings for adultery. The former al-Shabaab leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, who defected in 2013, described the group’s aim as “Islamic government without the interference of the western powers in Somalia”.

Al-Shabaab, which once controlled much of south and central Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu, was forced to retreat to rural areas by a military force drawn from regional armies seven years ago. Since then it has proved resilient, and remains one of the most lethal terrorist organisations in the world, but appears to be suffering a crisis of morale and financial pressure, prompting the drive to squeeze revenue out of poor rural communities.

One recent defector from central Somalia told government interrogators that the group forces “Muslims to pay for pretty much everything except entering the mosque”. Another said that al-Shabaab’s “finance ministry” – part of the extensive parallel government it has set up – is “hated”.

Al-Shabaab used to demand money or children from clans: now they demand both

The former mid-ranking commander, who defected four months ago, described how wells were taxed at $20,000 (£14,000) per month and a fee of $3.50 levied at water holes for every camel drinking there. One small town in Bai province was forced to pay an annual collective tax of a thousand camels, each worth $500, and several thousand goats, he said.

In addition, trucks using roads in territory controlled by al-Shabaab have to pay $1,800 each trip. Five percent of all land sales is taken as tax, and arbitrary levies of up to $100,000 imposed on communities for “educational purposes”, the defector said. There is also evidence that the movement is suffering from manpower shortages.

A third defector said al-Shabaab now insisted that all male children attend its boarding schools from the age of about eight. The children train as fighters and join fighting units in their mid-teens.

“By that age they are fully indoctrinated. They are no longer under the influence of their parents,” said Mohamed Mubarak, research director of the Horn Institute for Security and Strategic Policy thinktank.

According to Somali authorities, troops stormed a school run by al-Shabaab in January and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits to be “brainwashed” to be suicide bombers. “Al-Shabaab used to demand money or children from clans: now they demand both,” the defector said.

Al-Shabaab has also told people they will be punished – possibly put to death as spies – if they have any contact with humanitarian agencies.

Somalia has been hit by a series of droughts, and only a massive aid effort averted the deaths of hundreds of thousands last year.

A new military campaign launched by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and supported by the US has seen intensive drone strikes on al-Shabaab targets, putting the militants under significant pressure. Fears of spies have led to a series of internal purges. Suspected agents are jailed and brutally tortured.

Al-Shabaab cuts thieves’ hands and kills looters . Everyone is scared of them

“Distrust is so high that when they go into battle, everyone is afraid of being shot in the back by his comrade,” one of the defectors said. “When soldiers get leave, half come back. Al-Shabaab now send patrols to collect people who have fled home. They stay in jail until they agree to rejoin.”

Abdirahman Mohamed Hussein, a government official overseeing humanitarian aid in southern central Somalia, told the Guardian that extremists used local populations as human shields. “They do not want people to move out because they are worried that there could be an airstrike if the civilians leave,” Hussein said.

Al-Shabaab also imposes tight restrictions on media, the defectors said. “Most people only listen to al-Shabaab radio stations or get news from al-Shabaab lectures which go on for hours and which cover religion and which all must attend,” one said. Another said some people risked harsh punishments to listen in secret toVoice of America and the BBC.

“Life is really tough in al-Shabaab-controlled areas. There is no food, no aid and children are being taken,” said Mubarak, the thinktank director. “Al-Shabaab are still trying to portray themselves as defenders of Somali identity. The message has a lot of sympathy but is not translating into active support.”

The draconian punishment, seizures, taxes and abductions run counter to the strategic guidance issued by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has called for affiliates of the veteran group to build consensus and support among local communities. Their practices do, however, recall those of Isis.

Al-Shabaab also manipulates rivalries between clans and tribes, and benefits from the failures of local authorities to provide basic services. Several interviewees said they preferred using al-Shabaab’s justice system, and that the group had brought security.

In once case in May last year, two clan elders in Beledweyne in Hiran region agreed to seek al-Shabaab justice to settle a case of rape. The attacker was found guilty and stoned to death.

“We decided to go to the al-Shabaab court because the judge rules under the Islamic law and there is no nepotism and corruption,” said Abdurahman Guled Nur, a relative of the rape victim, in a telephone interview. “If we went to a government court, there would be no justice because the rapist could have paid some cash to the court and he would be freed.”

Mohamed Hussein, a farmer in Barire, a town 40 miles south of Mogadishu that has seen fierce fighting, returned home when al-Shabaab took control of the area in early October. “When the government soldiers were here, there was looting, illegal roadblocks and killing,” he said. “But al-Shabaab cuts thieves’ hands and kills looters. The Islamic court gives harsh sentences for the criminals, so everyone is scared of them. That way we are in peace under al-Shabaab. If you do not have any issue with al-Shabaab, they leave you alone.”

Additional reporting by Abdalle Mumin

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