Defeating Al-Shabab militants in Somalia requires a “carrot and stick” approach that could eventually include political negotiations with the Islamist militants, the U.N.’s top official in the country tells Newsweek.
Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, elected in February, has declared a state of war against the Al-Qaeda affiliate. The president offered a 60-day amnesty to disaffected members of the group in April and has pledged to eradicate it within two years.
Al-Shabab emerged from the Islamic Courts Union that was ousted from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, by Ethiopian forces in 2006. The militants have carried out major attacks in Somalia and neighboring countries, such as Kenya, and regularly carry out suicide bombings in the Somali capital Mogadishu, killing civilians, government officials and soldiers.
Michael Keating, the Special Representative of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Somalia, tells Newsweek that while the offer of an amnesty was a good start, it would not be sufficient to placate the militant group.
“I don’t think an amnesty on its own is going to work. It’s a signal more than a strategy, saying ‘We do not consider you all to be dyed in the wool ideological enemies,’” says Keating, speaking on the sidelines of a major international conference on Somalia in London Thursday.
“The amnesty is part of that carrot approach, but you also need the stick approach, particularly if they’re using violence to advance their political objectives.”
So far, Al-Shabab has shown no signs of letting up its attacks. The militants dismissed Farmajo’s declaration of war and offer of amnesty as an effort “just to please the West.” At the London conference, which was chaired by the U.K. and brought together representatives of over 40 partners to pledge support for Somalia, British Prime Minister Theresa May noted that Al-Shabab had tripled the number of attacks it carried out in Mogadishu, without giving a specific timeframe.
Experts believe that Al-Shabab consists of different elements, including moderates and vulnerable youths who have been radicalized by the group, as well as a hard core with transnational jihadi objectives. The group’s former leader Ahmed Abdi Godane— killed by a U.S. strike in 2014 —pledged allegiance on its behalf to Al-Qaeda.
Previous Somali governments have attempted to reach out to the militants. Former Somali president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was in power from 2012 until Farmajo’s election victory in February, told Newsweek in April that lower-ranking militants had benefited from an amnesty programme ran by his administration, but that negotiations with high-level Al-Shabab fighters were not possible due to the fact that many are regarded as international terrorists by the United States and other bodies.
“At a certain point, there is typically a political negotiation with the hard core with the hope of, at a minimum, dismantling the integrity of the insurgency. But I don’t think we are anywhere near there yet,” says Keating.
The battle against Al-Shabab is currently being led by a 22,000-strong African Union force (AMISOM), which has succeeded in pushing back the militants from most of Somalia’s urban hubs since its deployment a decade ago. But Al-Shabab still maintains a presence, if not control, over many rural parts of southern Somalia, and regularly launches attacks on AMISOM bases.
AMISOM is due to begin withdrawing from Somalia in 2018; one of the key priorities of Farmajo’s administration is therefore to prepare the Somali security forces to take over AMISOM’s responsibilities as it draws down. The security pact agreed at the London conference laid out the structure of Somali’s armed forces—the Somali National Army is to number at least 18,000, with a further 32,000 police officers—and reiterated international support for security development.
Several countries, including the United States and United Kingdom, are training different components of the Somali security forces. The London conference recognized the need for a unified approach to the issue. “To defeat terrorist organizations, Somalia’s security forces need to train under a common doctrine; be better equipped, better housed, and better coordinated; and be regularly paid with clear status and responsibilities,” said the conference communique.
Keating says that, as well as bolstering security, the Somali government must tackle the “deficits” that give Al-Shabab “oxygen.” “Those deficits include absence of rule of law, absence of basic services, soldiers and police not being paid and therefore being corrupt and delegitimizing the government,” he says.
He adds that alternatives must be offered to those who do renounce ties to Al-Shabab and take up amnesty. “That’s the issue, how do you make it attractive for people to permanently leave Al-Shabab, knowing that if you leave they are really unforgiving—you can’t go back, they will kill you—so leaving Al-Shabab is a big step,” he says.
The election of President Farmajo has been greeted with optimism by the international community. The electoral process, though hampered by allegations of widespread corruption, was “definitely more inclusive and more legitimate” than any process for the last few decades in Somalia, says Keating.
But as well as the near-perpetual insecurity caused by Al-Shabab, the nascent administration is also facing the looming threat of famine. A devastating drought has left more than half of the population in need of food and threatened to escalate into a full-blown famine. At the London conference, U.N. Secretary-General Guterres called for an additional $900 million in aid to the country by the end of the year. “Somalia now hangs in the balance between peril and potential,” said Guterres.
Keating says that while the political situation in Somalia is improving, the plight of much of the population remains dire. “Before one gets too romantic or starry-eyed about Somalia’s future, you’ve got to look at the reality now, which is actually worse today than a year ago for the majority of the population,” he says.