How Somalia is using soft approach to fight al Shabaab

In Summary

• President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declared counter international terrorism as his first priority.

• But despite his intensified efforts to defeat al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab, the militant group keeps fighting back.

Somali national troops have been fighting al-Shabab militants
Somali national troops have been fighting al-Shabab militants
Image: AFP

In his address to the 36th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the AU in Addis Ababa on February 18, Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declared counter international terrorism as his first priority.

Others were promoting inclusive politics and economic reforms and tackling climate change.

President Mohamud was reiterating what he has said since he recapture the Presidency in May 2022.

Despite his intensified efforts to defeat al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab, the militant group keeps fighting back.

The African Union in its Communiqué of the 36th session expressed concern over terrorism and violent extremism on the continent and called for a robust response and collective security approaches to deal with the threats to peace, security and stability of Africa.

For instance, the terror group on February 22 killed at least 10 people and injured several others in a residential building attack in Mogadishu.

According to Anadolu Agency, five terrorists sprayed indiscriminate bullets with automatic weapons on civilians, and one of them blew himself up. The four were killed by security agents.

Earlier on February 17, the government said Somalia National Armed Forces, with support of international security partners, killed over 50 al Shabaab terrorists, including five ring leaders in a planned operation near Afcad location in Hiiraan region.

However, beyond the militant approach in counter terrorism, the Somalia government is considering other soft approaches in the war on al Shabaab.

To undo the religious legitimacy of the al Shabaab movement, the Somali government employed religious discourse to challenge the ideology.

On January 23, for example, President Mohamud called for a religious leaders meeting that brought together clerics from across the country to involve them in the fight against al Shabaab.

“Mogadishu hosted an extraordinary conference that brought together more than 300 religious scholars from various Islamic sects and local movements that lasted for four consecutive days,” Kamal Mohamed, senior political analyst and the head of the Horn of Africa Center for Dialogue said.

Villa Somalia said the meeting sought to discuss the role of Somali religious leaders and scholars in countering the extremists through the ‘Khawaarij’ ideology and support the President’s rallying call to defeat international terrorism in Somalia.

A Mogadishu-based journalist said it was the first time Somali scholars of all Islamic denominations came together to denounce the extremist ideology and violence practiced by al Shabaab, a huge boost to President Mohamud’s anti-terrorism war.

The closing statement also labeled the militia as "kharijites" (renegades) a description that has become common among the state, local media, and social media.

The Somali government has also launched a media war on al Shabaab, blocking no less than 10 news websites affiliated to the terror group and which were used as a media tool to spread extremism and violence.

Telecommunications companies have also been mandated to play a role in eliminating the movement, in addition to pulling down approximately 600 social media accounts propagating violence.

And given the clan demographics in the government is working with clans to counter radicalization , recruitment and violence.

For many years, Somali clans, especially in rural areas, have tried to resist al Shabaab’s extortionist demands, which included forcibly paying royalties from livestock, farms and trade, even during the worst drought the country has witnessed in decades.

They have also opposed recruitment of children to the group.

The Somali government has thus taken advantage of this rift between the communities and the terror group agents, two parties, and is now working with local militias that have good knowledge of the local terrain to expand the resistance to other areas in central and southern Somalia.

In addition, the Somali government announced in October last year a package of measures aimed at drying up the organization's financial resources, imposing severe penalties against merchants, companies and anyone who deals with the "Al-Shabaab" movement.

In this economic war against al Shabaab, the state also launched a campaign targeting the movement's funding sources.

Between 80 and 100 bank accounts affiliated with the movement were frozen, and according to reports, the frozen bank deposits amounted to about $20 million in just two months.

In October of the same year, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on 14 people in the movement, including leaders, in addition to a network of six people involved in buying weapons, financial facilitation, and recruiting fighters for the group.

These were Abdullahi Jeeri, Khalif Adale, Hassan Afgooye, Abdikarim Hussein Gagaale, Abdi Samad and Abdirahman Nurey. All were designated under Executive Order 13224, which targets terrorist groups and their supporters.

It also sanctioned Mohamed Hussein Salad, Ahmed Hasan Ali Sulaiman Mataan and Mohamed Ali Badaas under the same executive order, accusing them of being part of an al Shabaab smuggling and weapons trafficking network in Yemen.

"Treasury is focused on identifying and disrupting al Shabaab's illicit networks operating in Eastern Africa," Brian Nelson, the Treasury's under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement. 

While this war can undermine the terrorist al Shabaab movement and weaken its military strength, ending the presence of terrorist elements in Somalia seems impossible
Kamal Mohamed

Analysts says the move seeks to drain the group’s accounts to make it unstable and unstainable. Somalia is also benefitting from the help of international partners to deploy drones.

“The Somali government relies on foreign drones (Turkish Bayraktar and American drones) in the ongoing military offensive against al Shabaab. Turkish reconnaissance and combat aircraft provided air support to the Somali army, along with clan militias, in cooperation with the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), a source told the Star.

“Turkey, which is a strategic ally of Somalia, has ensured generous air support for the ongoing war by facilitating the use of its "Bayraktar" drones to carry out air strikes in the center of the country.

These aircraft also provide intelligence gathering on the movements of  al Shabaab militants, in addition to carrying out air strikes during the fierce battles against them,” Kamal opined, noting that the fight against terrorism in Somalia will be long.

“While this war can undermine the terrorist al Shabaab movement and weaken its military strength, ending the presence of terrorist elements in Somalia seems impossible," Kamal observed.

A European ambassador based in Nairobi described the Somalia stabilisation and security process "a complex Somalia situation" and a long-term project.

He observed that while Somalia has received considerable amount of support from international partners, there might be "some form of fatigue" because they are also dealing with other pressing issues. The Ukraine war is such a case.

"President  Sheikh has done well in the last year but the challenge still remains. When you liberate certain section through the help of ATMIS and the Somalia forces, what do you do in those areas to avoid al Shabaab returning? You ned to invest in infrastructure and services to the people," he said, insisting on more soft approach interventions. 


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