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End of Al Shabaab in sight? Exploring three ways

By Adan Ismail

Somalia’s accession to the East African Community (EAC) in 2023 marks the rupture of a longstanding policy that kept Mogadishu in isolation due to its irredentist claims. This significant shift opens a new chapter in Somalia’s regional integration, breaking away from decades of political seclusion and signaling a commitment to collaboration and economic development within the East African region. Presumably, Nairobi which pushed Somalia’s debut may be grooming it as a close Horn ally capitalizing on ethnic ties and mindful of Mogadishu’s gradual rise to prominence. A strategic shift perhaps necessitated by the simultaneous sagging of a traditional ally, Ethiopia, rocked by devastating conflict and civil wars.

Al Shabaab militia group.

Away from the bunch of pastoral nomads in the past century, the Somali population has swelled, grown wealthy, influential and adeptly partaking in the race to prosperity, investing billions in their country and regional capitals. For this reason, Somalia can play a pivotal role in East Africa’s quest for a united prosperous regional bloc serving as a model for the rest of the continent.

However, on the path toward this promising future lurks a stumbling block; Al Shabaab. A mysterious entity whose only hobby is savagery with a mission to spill blood to prove their Islamhood. With the increasing pace of social integration espoused by EAC’s migration policy, Al Shabaab is today more than a Somali problem but a factor that decides the future of 300 million people and a geography of about 5 million kilometers. That makes ending this menace an urgent matter more than any other time before.

Revive of the Sufi Islam

Islam is the sword of resistance to Somali society and an inseparable part of their daily life. Throughout the centuries, Islam was a mobilizing factor for wars against intruding foreigners and always the agents holding the mantle controlled the public space. In the Dervish era, the Sufi Salihiya dominated the Somali religious space because the legendary Sayid was one.

In the late 20th century when Salafism emerged as a potent force in Somalia claiming to redeem Somali Islam after Siad Barre contaminated it with alien Marxist-Leninism, they commanded near-unanimous public support. A reason the two decades following the fall of Siad Barre saw the explosion of Salafi-Jihadism in Somalia. It has thus always been an undeclared code that whoever carries the sword commands the conscience.

Having sidelined the traditional version of Sufi Islam which Somalis had known for centuries, Al Shabaab as the erratic child of Salafi Islam hijacked the Somali conscience, inserting themselves as the only force standing against what the society feared forever: foreign occupation. Exploiting the hearts and minds of a hyper-insensitive public incensed by constant foreign interventions in their country.

The Somali public thus face an excruciating dilemma: tolerate the savagery of Al Shabaab because their existence resonates with the conscience or abandon the conscience for a status quo bivouacking an incompetent foreign-backed political elite that lacks the slightest touch with the Somali reality. The former is the choice for a radically anti-foreign society; fortunately for Al Shabaab, this public factor plays in their favour. Crowding the Somali religious space with competitive Islamic ideologies serves to diminish Al Shabaaab’s influence in the Somali mind. A religious re-indoctrination campaign that seeks to erase the violent version of Islam that got embedded in the Somali psyche in the last three decades and which Al Shabaab promotes.

While in large part this campaign should concentrate on influencing the public discourse to recapture the Somali mindset, carefully conceived combat plans are also an added prize. This entails introducing a law-compliant but ideologically Islamic armed group in the space of Somali warfare to stand toe to toe with Al Shabaab.  This is to fight the group with the same determination they do propelled by an underlying religious fervour. Turning equally determined religious zealots against them is Al Shabaabi’s death knell. Rather than being a war of Islamic ‘liberators’ and pro-foreign stooges as Al Shabaab frames the current conflict in Somalia, this proposition puts the war in the frame of civil-minded and law-compliant Muslim forces versus transnational beasts. And ultimately, the public will identify with the side where sanity exists.

Since Al Shabaab commands no moral authority in Somalia but is favoured by Islam and history, recapturing the Islamic discourse to alter the course of history could shorten their lifespan.  The form of Islam in the hindbrain of every Somali person which is also capable of confronting Al Shabaab is Sufi Islam. In war, Sufis are ferocious fighters and in peace, submissive to the laws of the land. This characterization is inherent in the Sufi ideals that promote humility, soul purity and aversion to excessive material gains.

Unlike Salafism which has an immeasurable obsession with possessions and an extreme affinity for self-righteousness, Sufi ideals are compatible with modern-day governance where tolerance, transparency and freedom are the hallmarks. As shown by the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, ideology-driven Islamic paramilitaries make a grinding machine for terrorist groups. In this case, it is even a great relief for the ideologically crippled Somali National Army which is largely unmotivated to fight Al Shabaab. Much of the combat duties would then move to the parallel Sufi fighters committed to pursuing Al Shabaab in the bush, behind the trees and beneath the rocks. 

A failure to seize the moment is dangerous as it encourages the emergence of an independent Sufi movement that could become a new spectre of a Somali problem. Signs of Sufi resurgence are already detectable in Somalia and if not properly managed to incorporate them into the political and warfare space, may unleash a popular insurrection.  After all, Sufism is a domestic product way better to deal with and live with than the foreign-conceived Al Shabaabi’s driving ideologies.

Exploiting clan system.

Since Al Shabaab faced its greatest military setbacks in the early part of the past decade, the group has turned to a parasitic guerilla feeding off pastoralists and blackmailing urban businesses. Coalescing with pastoralists and using rural areas as a launch base, Al Shabaab has fallen back from the state-like actor it was a decade ago to a marauding militia inhabiting clan cleavages as a survival resort. Exploiting the clan system blows off this last hideout.

Somalis are a tribal society composed of hundreds of clans and subclans. Of these, Daarood and Hawiye who are political rivals command unrivalled power, alternatingly ruling the country since independence. Equally influential is the peripheral Isaaq (Isack) clan ruling the breakaway Somaliland. The three are shapers of Somalia’s history and the determiners of destiny. The Isaaq have a propensity to a secularist system of governance which obsoleted chances of Islamic radicalism taking root in Somaliland. Rather than letting Jihadism thrive in their midst, they have been regularly ‘exporting’ jihadist kinsmen to Southern Somalia to fill in the ranks of Al Shabaab. This left Somaliland unscathed by the menace of terrorism ravaging Southern Somalia.

Occupying Somalia’s Prime Ministerial office, the presidency of Ethiopia’s second biggest federal member state and Kenya’s defense and other security portfolios, the Daarood clan of various sub-clans with transnational kinship ties are the most numerous and influential Somali clan inhabiting the vastest territories encapsulating three countries. Owing perhaps to numbers and geographical vastness, they are also political rivals. The Hawiye clan occupy smaller but critical areas in Southern Somalia, including the capital and its surroundings. They are numerous, proportionately wealthy and form the centre of power among myriad other weaker Southern clans. Mostly exposed to Islamic radicalism and extremely averse to foreign domination.

While the Isaaq clan hold the key to Somalia’s unity, the Daarood and Hawiye have the final say in Al Shababi’s fate. Occupying the territories of the two dominant clans – Hirshabelle, Galmudug and Jubbaland – Al Shabaab thrives on the power of influence of the Hawiye and Daarood, finding a sanctuary in their territories.

Strategic emplacement at the heart of the Somali peninsula makes Daarood sit at the nerves of the Horn of Africa with the obvious fact that they are a critical factor to regional stability. Their political rivalry and transnational division do not suffice here as the kinship bond that binds the ordinary clansmen knows no defined boundary. In reality, Al Shabaab does not deal with the men in suits wrangling over power but the ordinary clansmen in the villages and the bush who value bloodline relations.

Using the clan system to fight Al Shabaab calls for two successive and interlinked approaches. The first one is to end Alshabaabi’s transnational outreach by driving them away from border areas and since they are strewn across national borders, this is where the Daarood clan become the machete. Especially the Ogaden and Marehan in Jubbaland who happen to be the only Daarood sub-clans submitting to the tyranny of Al Shabaab.

Ethiopia has so far successfully managed to contain terror spillover from Somalia as the latest Al Shabaab incursions in 2022 were repulsed. The spillover shadow hangs over Kenya which has so diligently worked to create Jubbaland to use it as a bulwark against terror intrusion. An uphill task that cost Nairobi human lives and mammoth resources but is heading for failure courtesy of a misplaced strategic compass from the get-go.

The Ogaden and Marehan kinfolks of the greater Daarood clan numerically and politically dominate Jubbaland. Together with various less numerous kinfolk, the state can be said to be a Daarood enclave. While the Ogaden is hugely spread over Ethiopia and Kenya with a relatively lesser presence in Jubbaland, the Marehan’s power base is in the Gedo – Jubbaland’s largest province. 

Gedo is a triangular region that forms the contact point between Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, covering 85,000 KM² and is the second most expansive among Somalia’s 18 provinces. Producing the revolutionary Siad Barre, the immediate former Somalia president, premiers and other prominent country figures, Gedo and its occupants sway strategic and historic significance over Somali affairs. Whether by deceit or deliberate design, Jubbaland founders have from the beginning downplayed the Marehan factor in the state formation. On its inception, Jubaland was conceived as a strictly Ogaden project which scarcely involved the predominant Marehan, other Daarood factions and even other Somali clans.

If Kenya’s mission was to create a peaceful functioning state on which Nairobi could rely for security needs, a Kismayu city-state became the ultimate prize. 12 years since  Kenya’s intervention in Somalia, the result is only a  divided Ogaden, resenting Marehan, forgotten others and Al Shabaab perpetrating unabated terrorism in Kenya. As Kenya prepares to leave Somalia according to the ATMIS plan, Nairobi’s security is at square one.

Attempts to drive Al Shabaab away from Kenya’s border areas through devastating airstrikes taking a heavy toll on civilians have only deepened animosity toward Kenya and consequently, galvanized Al Shabaab’s presence in those areas. Having seen the fruits of a strategy gone haywire, it calls for revision of the approach on the part of Kenya towards Jubbaland.

At a time when sentimental convergence of Daarood kinship is spreading in the Horn of Africa, an opportunity arises to facilitate a meaningful Ogaden-Marehan reconciliation to reconstitute a new Jubbaland that accommodates both and extends a receptive arm to other clans for inclusivity. Predictably, the greatest obstacle to such efforts will be the Club of Old Guards. Old Guards are a generation of individuals including remnants of warlords and terrorist defectors who rose to prominence in the first two decades of Somalia’s civil war. They fight tooth and nail to remain in the limelight at the expense of the country’s welfare. Intellectually incapacitated, conventional wisdom calls for their seclusion from the Jubbaland rejuvenation project. That is not only for Jubbaland or Somalia’s benefit but also for a greater region that has for the longest time been devastated by terrorism.

Needless to say, a harmonious Jubbaland with Marehan-Ogaden alliance in the lead is Al Shabaab’s greatest nightmare. Unlike a decade ago when Kenya’s incursion into Somalia aroused fierce opposition from Somali leaders and the public alike due to the then-unresolved maritime dispute, those storms have now subsided and fate has stitched the hips of Nairobi and Mogadishu to face a common enemy.

Historically, the Marehan in Jubbaland are strict adherents of Sufi Islam which is Al Shabaab’s sworn ideological enemy. Past attempts by Salafi-Jihadism to entrench foot in Gedo backfired. In the 1990s when Al-itihad-Al-Islam, the earliest Jihadi group in Somalia attempted to use Gedo as a base to infiltrate Ethiopia, Addis successfully allied with the Marehan to drive Jihadists out of the region and away from its borders.

Times may have changed as there is now a functioning government in Mogadishu unlike that time, but historical events are perfectly rhyming with renewed Jihadist trouble-making along border areas. With new variables of state-building, reconciliation and efficient coordination with Mogadishu, chances are high to expunge Al Shabaab from Jubbaland to secure Somalia and its neighbours.

Once Al Shabaab is flushed from Jubbaland and Kenya’s borders, and the group is squeezed into the interior, the machete is supposed to move to the hands of the Hawiye and their neighbouring clans. Given that the Hawiye have borne the brunt of the savagery of Al Shabaab, the moral duty to spearhead an anti-Al Shabaab clan campaign to cleanse not only their territories but from the neighbouring ones falls on their shoulders.

Owing to their fierceness, that is a duty achievable by the Hawiye. Today, Somalia is headed by a Hawiye president commanding the security agencies while the clan has uncontested access to the country’s resources, diplomatic power and machinery. If they want to, they can swiftly eliminate Al Shabaab in a short duration, failure to which raises concerns of terror complicity.

What seemed like campaign pledges by the current president to rescue his kinships from the claws of terror have so far borne some fruit. Since 2022 just a few months after his election, sections of the Hawiye have risen and registered tremendous success in the fight against Al Shabaab in a rare-seen public hurricane that swept Al Shabaab but which suspiciously faltered. However, there is still room to revive that campaign.

The choice of using clans here is so important because, unlike government institutions riddled with corruption and bureaucratic complexities that aid terror infiltration, compromising the strict clan loyalties is impossible for Al Shabaab. An average Somali person’s utmost loyalty always lies in the clan even superseding devotion to Islam or any other affiliation.

Headquarters shift and publicity coup

If Alshabaab remains undefeated amid an ongoing foreign troop withdrawal, Mogadishu is at risk of falling. Mogadishu has so long housed Somalia’s jihadist movements such that terror elements have irredeemably infiltrated the city. Presently, Al Shabaab has a parallel army of insiders among Somalia’s security agencies, ubiquitous civilian informants and many collaborators in Mogadishu including business people and government officials. The group has a hand in everywhere and can easily sweep through the city at the opportune moment.

Infiltration in the security apparatus makes planning and execution of anti-Al Shabaab operations in Mogadishu difficult. The group has access to every detail of information and its insiders act as potential saboteurs. These inherent flaws in Mogadishu raise the need to relocate the headquarters of the anti-Al Shabaab operation from Mogadishu. This can either be total relocation of the country’s capital or other short-term measures. Doing so makes it easier to strategize and devise war plans with the least intelligence leaks and execute with efficiency unlike in Mogadishu where there is susceptibility to disruption from Al Shabaab sympathisers.

Publicity is a deadly war machine which terrorists use. Al Shabaab has made Mogadishu its primary target because, being the country’s seat, it gives them both the domestic media fanfare and global visibility that they so crave. Publicity deprivation which comes with the relocation of the capital renders Al Shabaab activities the status of the unnoticed fruit quietly falling from the tree in the forest. By then their operations will be that of any rebel group in the countryside. Since Al Shabaab maintains a physical presence in a few areas in the South of the country, they are kept afloat by the flames they fan in Mogadishu and its surroundings for easy notice.

To thwart Al Shabaabi’s propaganda machine, a necessary move is shifting the state capital. Disciples of the worst-case scenario predicting an Al Shabaab takeover of Mogadishu have another reason to suggest why the seat of the Somali government should be moved. If the hour of reckoning arrives, Somalia’s statehood will be compromised if the central institutions fall to Al Shabaab, rendering Somalia statelessness.

A stateless Somalia with a skeleton controlled by Al Shabaab is a mortal danger and too dangerous a threat to have as a neighbour. Evading this probable tragedy requires making the earliest preparations to identify the next capital and evacuate the central government institutions. In case Al Shabaab sweeps through Mogadishu, the incident will be no different than any other countryside urban falling.

Moreover, EAC membership means Somalia’s capital has to be a bustling, peaceful metropolitan city that is receptive to all walks of life. One that can stand on equal footing with Nairobi and other regional capitals. Its immensity notwithstanding, Mogadishu has a long way to reclaim its glorious past and fulfil this new role because of terror infiltration. It is easier to rebuild a village from scrap than to extricate Mogadishu from the claws of terrorism.

All said Somalia risks becoming the EAC party spoiler and its citizens subject to extreme ethnic profiling. This concern should compel Mogadishu to direct its undivided efforts to Al Shabaab’s swift elimination.  As it stands, the status quo is far from yielding complete success. New approaches should prioritise asymmetrical measures to keep abreast of the group’s irregular warfare. Present hide and seek only adds to the myth of Al Shabaabi’s invincibility and discredits the government.

For Somalia’s backers, containment measures they pursue notably economic sanctions and targeted strikes are unsustainable, only making Al Shabab adaptive to prevailing circumstances and grow more lethal by the day. It is a moral duty to back any other alternative decisive measure Somalia adopts to get rid of this Shibboleth. Inherent anomalies of these new approaches notwithstanding, the goal is to eliminate Al Shabaab even if that will cause Somalia a new but manageable crisis.

Adan Ismail
Email: [email protected]

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