How to defeat Al Shabaab in Somalia

Developing a ‘security pact’ to tackle the insurgent Jihadist group Al Shabaab that continues to stifle Somalia state-building efforts is a key agenda item at the British government-hosted conference in London this May. In preparation for the conference, local meetings are underway to determine how Somalia’s security forces should best take up this enormous challenge. To enable this, decision-makers in London need to do more work to understand what makes Al-Shabaab a resilient movement, successful in planning and executing its asymmetrical warfare.

The African Union’s peace-keeping mission (AMISOM) and the Somali National Army (SNA) have carried out numerous military operations against Al Shabaab. However, this has brought little improvement in stabilizing Somalia. Liberating major towns leaves swathes of rural areas in the hand of Al Shabaab, who shift their strategy to attack the towns’ main supply routes. At the same time, the Somali Federal Government (SFG) has to date failed to beat Al-Shabaab in establishing a widely applicable and consistent framework that attracts communities to feel part of a broader ‘Somali’ narrative. It is not just about killing Al Shabaab militants; the SNA needs to build a legitimacy with communities so that the security relationship develops via a notion of worthiness, not simply brute force or military strength.

These challenges, or past failures, now present themselves as opportunities for Somalia’s newly elected President Mohamad Abdullahi Mohamad, commonly known as ‘Farmaajo’. Over the next four years an inclusive security architecture must be developed that doesn’t simply focus on military strategy but rather on the broader political necessities. Focusing on the SNA and other fighting forces is only part of the solution. Political and social question must be addressed in order to weaken and ultimately defeat Al Shabaab.

At present, Al Shabaab presents itself as Somalia’s only effective justice system. The Jihadist group runs mobile courts across the country that deal with cases swiftly and effectively. Somalis who have a land or property dispute commonly turn to Al-Shabaab as it often provides the most consistent, quick and thorough response. This sort of parallel justice network exists across the country and even in the capital of Mogadishu.

The Somali government must prioritize the establishment of a specialized judiciary body that is responsible for the adjudication and arbitration of land and property disputes. Such efforts will only be effective if federal states are engaged and marginalized voices are heard and respected. The gap between justice and injustice is where Al Shabaab inserts itself. Justice is a platform Al Shabaab promotes. Even the country’s constitution, the backbone of any legal framework, remains unresolved and one of the Farmaajo government’s many ‘things to do.’

As an extension of this judicial system, Al Shabaab’s success or ability to operate thrives on support from disgruntled clans or individuals, particularly along the Shabelle and Jubba rivers in southern Somalia. The local support provided by Al Shabaab doesn’t necessarily bring economic benefits but rather it provides defence against persecution and manipulation by more powerful clans and predatory economic interests. Thus communities from the southwestern part of the country, whose grievances are many, continue to provide the largest manpower figures in Al Shabaab. Despite Jihadist rhetoric that promotes Islam as the one and only way, Al-Shabaab uses the traditional clan leadership system in areas under its control and beyond. The group’s leadership not only maintains the clan system but also manipulates it by duplicating it or forcing out traditional leaders when such systems fail to operate in favour of its agenda. Al Shabaab often goes further to delegitimize, or label as ‘apostates’ and ‘anti-Islam,’ those traditional elders who criticize the group. Routine assassinations are also dealt out to elders who are deemed to have collaborated with the government or SNA.

In October 2016, elders from various regions of the country attended a pro-Al-Shabaab traditional leadership forum in Bay region, south west Somalia. The intent of the forum was to ensure that the traditional clan system remains intact and acts in favour of Al Shabaab’s authority; it helps stabilize its influence, establish tax collection and streamlines the development of fresh recruits.

Forming a national security architecture, or security pact, will be a challenge as the SNA remains a loosely formed coalition of powerful clan militias that were once the very persecutors of marginalized communities across the country. The widespread perception is that the SNA operates for the interests of the Mogadishu elite and the interest of the clan militias that form it. The SNA is seen more as a polarizing than protective force. Reforming or restructuring the SNA is necessary, and will be a key topic at the heart of London’s May conference, although the political realties must also be discussed.

The U.K has held Somalia conferences focusing on similar topics in London in 2012 and 2013. Hundreds of millions have been pledged on Somalia’s complicated and slow transition from ‘failed state’ to ‘fragile state’ and in 2017, despite the enormous challenges ahead, the conference presents itself as an opportunity to exploit the limited progress. Developing mechanisms for fair and equitable access to justice is paramount. Somali legal experts, lawyers and judges, along with elders with the relevant customary and contextual insight, can be employed to address clan grievances and manage the myriad of land and property disputes across the country. If the new government is able to demonstrate inclusive, effective and fair judicial recourse for the average Somali on the street, then Al Shabaab will gradually lose its relevance and consequently its strength on the battlefield.

This guest blog is written by Mustafa Bananay, a senior security sector analyst focusing on terrorism and security challenges in the horn of Africa. Mustafa’s email is