More on Talking with Jihadists: Examples from Somalia

As readers know, I’ve been plugging the idea of talking with jihadists, both here at the blog and in a new paper for the OECD. So I was interested to see that argument being made with regard to Somalia and al-Shabab. In a piece for The Guardian this week, Somalia’s former counterterrorism and national security advisor Hussein Sheikh-Ali, who managed the country’s program for al-Shabab defectors, lays out his case. Notably, as I’ve stressed in my own writing, the idea of talking with jihadists is not hypothetical. Here is an excerpt from Sheikh-Ali:

There is little doubt in my mind that the perpetrators of [the October 2017 Mogadishu bombing] are akin to monsters. Despite this, I call for dialogue. I believe we have to compel and convince al-Shabaab to come to the political negotiating table.

I have been talking to them for years. Since 2009, members of al-Shabaab have been defecting and rejecting violence and the group’s ideology. During my time as counterterrorism advisor to the government of Somalia, I created and coordinated the country’s first and only defector programme. I managed several high-level defections from al-Shabaab, including their head of intelligence as well as dozens of soldiers. I would sit opposite them and listen to them for hours. What those defectors said in our meetings made me believe dialogue with al-Shabaab is possible.

Sheikh-Ali then spells out, bluntly, one central premise of negotiated settlements with jihadists: the settlements may require profound concessions. In the case of Somalia, Sheikh-Ali notes that authorities may have to offer a constitution that comes closer to al-Shabab’s vision of what is “sharia-compliant.” He further notes that al-Shabab wants the withdrawal of foreign forces, including the African Union Mission in Somalia or AMISOM. He adds that a settlement may also require immunizing al-Shabab leaders to prosecution. In other words, settling with jihadists could mean giving up a lot. But I agree with him that it would be worth it for the sake of peace. Obviously jihadists could negotiate in bad faith – but if they renege, then you just go back to fighting them. It makes sense to fear that withdrawing foreign forces and immunizing leaders could ultimately extend the war, but Somali authorities and foreign powers have been fighting al-Shabab since 2006, or 2003, or even the 1990s if you count certain antecedents of the group. It’s time to think creatively.

Here, of course, it’s worth mentioning that Somalia’s defector program netted some big fish. One is former al-Shabab Deputy Commander Mukhtar Robow, who defected to the government in August 2017 following years of tensions between him and other al-Shabab leaders. More recently, earlier this month, Robow declared his candidacy for the presidency of Somalia’s South West region. Authorities blocked his candidacy, due to continued international sanctions against him, but I would be surprised if the story ends there – he is reportedly continuing to run. The sight of a former al-Shabab leader running for office, much less winning, would be extremely distasteful to many observers – but the example also shows that some of these jihadist leaders can prove surprisingly flexible over the long term. Again, no one is saying that making peace with jihadists would be pleasant or pretty; the argument is just that it could be better than the status quo.


It’s Still Dangerous to Be a Politician in Somalia

It’s still dangerous to be a politician in Somalia.

September 12, 2012:

Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, survived an assassination attempt Wednesday when suicide bombers attacked the Mogadishu hotel where was living.


Militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the bombings.


Somalia’s parliament elected Mr. Mohamud president on [September 10]. It was the last step of a U.N.-backed plan to bring a stable central government to Somalia.

January 29, 2013:

A suicide bomber Tuesday detonated explosives outside the prime minister’s home in Somalia’s presidential palace compound, killing two people, security officials said. [Al Shabab] claimed responsibility for the attack.

Remember, these attacks occurred after (1) a multi-year military offensive carried out by African Union troops, Kenyan soldiers, and Somali government forces against Al Shabab and (2) a months-long political transition that was hampered by delays and left key questions regarding the nature and extent of federal authority unresolved. Somalia’s conflicts are not over.

Somalia, in my view, fits neither the narrative of “hellhole where nothing ever changes” nor the narrative of “brand new success story.” Reconquering rebel-held territory and holding elections (or in this case selections) for new political leaders do not necessarily end strife and division. Before one touts Somalia as a model for Mali or anywhere else, it’s important to keep in mind the formidable obstacles to national unity and reconstruction that remain there.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s Trip to Minneapolis

I had a trip to make last week and another coming up this week, so I’m falling behind somewhat on blogging. But important things have been going on. In particular I’m frustrated that various commitments are preventing me from writing more about Mali. Public commentary on that country’s crisis has begun to really upset me, especially commentary that seems to celebrate violence.

Anyways. Today I have a quick point to make about Somalia, whose (relatively) new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud visited the United States last week. On January 17 Hassan Sheikh met with President Barack Obama and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, and (separately) with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After the latter meeting, Clinton announced that the US government had official recognized the government of Somalia, the first time Washington has done so for any government in Mogadishu since 1991. Hassan Sheikh also spoke at a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies – you can watch the video here.

The US recognition of Somalia’s government was, in one sense, the big news of the trip. But what struck me most was that on January 18, President Hassan Sheikh traveled to Minnesota, where he addressed the Somali diaspora community there (Minneapolis is home to the largest Somali community in the US).

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud called on Somalis living in Minnesota to help rebuild their war-torn homeland.

Mohamud spoke to about 4,000 people late Friday night at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Although most of his speech was in Somali, he said in English that it was, “the beginning of a new foundation.”

Semhar Araia attended the event and collected her reactions and photographs here; I highly recommend reading/viewing them.

The trip struck me not because it is surprising but because it is unsurprising. Two data points don’t necessarily make a pattern, but let’s recall that the previous president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, toured Somali diaspora communities in the US in 2009, visiting Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio, home to another sizable Somali community. Sheikh Sharif was the first Somali president to make such a trip, and it is noteworthy that Hassan Sheikh is building on this precedent. One reason, of course, is that the Somali diaspora is a critical source of money and minds for Somalia. The relationship between diaspora and homeland is also, it should be stressed, far from simple.

I am aware, in the abstract, that large-scale diasporas are reshaping our world and transforming notions of community and nation. But this emerging tradition of Somali presidents making official visits to Minneapolis makes that trend particularly vivid. In a legal sense, no part of Minnesota is part of Somalia. But in an existential sense, an important part of Hassan Sheikh’s country is in Minnesota. I would be very surprised if this is the last trip a sitting Somali president makes there.

Somalia: Extending AMISOM’s Mandate

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has played a decisive role in the Somali government’s reconquest of territory in the southern part of the country from the rebel group Al Shabab.

AMISOM was created in January 2007. The United Nations Security Council authorized the African Union to deploy troops in Somalia in February 2007, and has periodically renewed that mandate. The most recent renewal came in November 2012, when “the council extended the AMISOM peacekeeping mission for four months, instead of the usual 12, to allow for a review of operations, including consideration of the request to lift the arms embargo and a call for permission to resume the export of stocks of charcoal.” The request to lift the embargo, which has been in place since 1992, comes from AMISOM. Introductory commentary on the charcoal issue can be found here.

The new mandate will expire around March 7, and regional leaders have begun calling for its extension. In December, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud released a joint statement calling for the mandate’s renewal. This week, Uganda’s Chief of Land Forces General Katumba Wamala (bio here) added his voice:

“Somalia is like a baby that is still suckling. She needs all the support from the rest of the world,” Katumba said recently in Somalia, where he is currently on the on-spot assesment of the peace operations. Uganda is the leading contributor to the military and police components of the mission.

The AMISOM mission is supported by mainly the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union. “The capacity for Somalia to stand on its own and survive as a country are not yet in place, irrespective of the efforts the world has been putting in,” Katumba said. He explained that in the last few years, tremendous steps have been taken in trying to revive the country, but more support is still needed.

I would be very surprised to see AMISOM leave Somalia in March. It will be interesting, though, to see what happens with the arms embargo issue and the charcoal issue.

Two Perspectives on Somalia’s Government and Its Prospects

United Nations Special Representative to Somalia Augustine Mahiga, in his “Year End Letter” to the people of Somalia:

We have come to the end of an historic year for Somalia, for the region and for the rest of the international community. On 10 September 2012 a new Somali Parliament, sitting in Mogadishu, elected a President—the first such democratic exercise in over twenty years. Holding such an election in the Somali capital would have been unthinkable just months before, and it sent an unambiguous signal to Somalis, to the region and to the international community that the winds of change were blowing. In Mogadishu, the sound of gunfire and explosions has been replaced with the noise of construction and the hum of commerce. Flights into the city are booked solid months in advance. New restaurants and hotels open every day and the city’s building boom produces frequent concrete shortages. Fresh produce from the countryside and fish from the ocean spill from the city’s bustling markets and scores of Somalis from the diaspora return to Mogadishu each day. Similar stories are being played out in other cities recently recovered from the insurgents. Hope and progress have returned to Somalia.

After several failed attempts to end of the Transition in Somalia, we succeeded this past year because the process was inclusive, transparent, legitimate, participatory and Somalia-owned. This underpinned the integrity of the change process, which was enabled on the security front by the determined efforts of the Somali National Forces and the AU Peacekeeping Mission (AMISOM). Throughout this remarkable year, the United Nations, the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and other international partners worked together to overcome challenges as they arose. Above all, it was the desire of the Somali people for peace and change that moved the process forward. Patience and persistence pays.


The road to stabilization will not be easy. Somalia remains a state in need of support from international community, which will need to re-invest comprehensively and generously if it is to capitalize on its massive investment of time and resources. At the beginning of the year, my office and half of its staff relocated to Somalia and continued to work alongside key Somali partners in a variety of sectors. [The UN Political Office for Somalia, UNPOS] closely cooperated with key regional interlocutors to ensure a unified and coordinated approach on important political issues. A joint framework was established between The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the UN and the African Union (AU) ensuring close collaboration on issues affecting the Somali peace process.  This harmonized international and regional response to challenges within Somalia played a critical role in enabling the international community to speak with one voice in support of the process. The center of gravity has shifted to Mogadishu, and UNPOS completing a major strategic review to ensure full alignment of its policies and programs with the goals and aims of the new government. The mission is also increasing staff presence there by 100% in the coming weeks and I urge other members of the international community to come to Mogadishu. For the first time in a generation, a safe, secure and prosperous Somalia at peace with itself and its neighbors seems more like a reasonable aspiration than a distant dream.  We will work with our Somali brothers and sisters to harness this unique opportunity to transform Somalia. I take this opportunity to wish you all a Happy New Year—a new year that dawns brightly and full of promise and hope.

Dr. Michael Weinstein:

The [provisional federal government, p.f.g.] is a weak actor in a power configuration in which it is pulled by the proxy-chain presided over by the “donor”-powers, which hold the purse strings and bankroll AMISOM, and pulled into the fragmented clan, local, and regional conflicts of Somali politics. A government that cannot support itself and cannot exert control over the territory that it is supposed to govern can be called a “permanent” government for the purposes of international convenience, but it is sovereign only in a restricted legal sense and not [in] actuality.

How can a government provide security and deliver services if it depends on external actors to finance it and those actors are not giving it the resources to perform its basic functions? How can a government govern if its authority is actively disputed within its supposed territory and the very form of its political system has not been determined? The p.f.g. is financially starved from without and contested from within. What can it be expected to do? Political outcomes in “Somalia” are not under the p.f.g.’s control, but are resultants of the play between external actors, the p.f.g., and domestic factions. Critics of [Somali President] Hassan [Sheikh Mohamoud] and the p.f.g. should ask themselves if any leader could be effective in such a power distribution. It is the easiest thing to blame leadership as a deflection from the unwillingness or inability to address more serious and less tractable structural conditions, which is not, of course, to say that Hassan is a strong leader.

Weinstein pays particular attention to the problem of determining the administrative status of “Jubaland,” a southern territory that I hope to discuss more in a future post. He also focuses on the question of what groups will be represented, and how well represented, in the government. Weinstein writes, “The ‘Jubbaland’ affair and the representation dispute illustrate the weakness of the p.f.g. from within, a deficit of domestic support in a fragmented political situation.”

The two perspectives are, needless to say, quite different in tone. The heart of the difference, though, may lie in the very different ways in which the statements characterize the relationship between the government and its external partners/donors. For Mahiga, the support of the international community can constitute a critical resource in propelling a successful political transition in Somalia. For Weinstein, if I am reading him right, the international donors undermine the government’s sovereignty at the same time that they enable its existence, and their choices with regard to allocation of resources leave the government weak and dependent.

What do you think? How do you rate the new government’s prospects for success and stability in 2013?

Somalia: Amid Continued Fighting with Al Shabab in the South, Fresh Attacks in Puntland

The Islamist militia al Shabab’s home region is southern Somalia, but the group has a presence in Puntland, a semi-autonomous territory in northeastern Somalia. Several of the group’s recent attacks have occurred there.

As Somalia government troops, Kenyan soldiers, and African Union forces have pushed al Shabab out of its urban strongholds in southern Somalia, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia (.pdf, pp. 15-16) and other analysts have observed a partial shift of the group’s operations into Puntland. In February, a militia based in the Golis hills in Puntland formally joined al Shabab, and al Shabab promised to increase its attacks there. In April, Puntland’s President Abdirahman Farole told the BBC that more al Shabab fighters were moving into his territory. The BBC wrote, “Correspondents say the move of some members to Puntland could signal a significant regrouping for al-Shabab.”

The implications of this reported northward move should not be overblown. Losses through the summer, and the loss of the port city of Kismayo in October, have weakened al Shabab. And al Shabab is still attacking targets and attempting to hold territory in southern and central Somalia – for example, this week has seen “fierce fighting” around Jowhar, a reportedly al Shabab-controlled town north of Mogadishu. But with all that said, al Shabab attacks this week in Puntland will likely draw serious attention to the group’s presence there. The BBC has details:

Puntland Information Minister Mohamed Aydid told the BBC Somali Service that a truck carrying soldiers was targeted by a roadside bomb near Bossaso, the main commercial hub in the semi-autonomous region.

Ten soldiers were either killed or wounded in the attack, he said.

Heavily-armed al-Shabab fighters also launched an assault on a military base in the area, but were repelled by troops, Mr Aydid added.

“They fled to their hide-outs in the Galagalo mountains,” he said.

In a statement, the Puntland government said two of its soldiers were killed in this attack.

Its intelligence suggested that at least seven al-Shabab fighters were killed and more than 12 wounded as Puntland government troops fought back, the statement said.

Garowe has more.

Quick Notes on Elections in Somaliland and Burkina Faso

Two major elections took place recently within this blog’s zone of coverage. On November 28, Somaliland held municipal elections. On December 2, Burkina Faso held parliamentary and municipal elections.


Initial international commentary on the elections in Somaliland has largely focused on assessing the integrity of the process. You can read the preliminary report from an international election observation mission here. An excerpt:

With a fuller team assessment to come in early December, preliminary indications suggest that, despite some reports of violence, and no voting taking place in some disputed districts in the country’s east, Somaliland’s electorate has, once again,turned out with enthusiasm and in large numbers.

Particularly heartening has been wide participation by female voters, a boost in numbers of female candidates and, thanks to the lowering of the qualifying age, youthful candidates standing in significant numbers. However, at this interim stage, a few concerns have emerged, including, once again, apparent attempts at underage and multiple voting.

Observers have also reported excessive use of force by security forces outside polling stations in some areas; some poor organisation surrounding the electoral process, including delayed opening of polling stations; insufficient electoral materials; and technical problems with voter safeguards, such as the ink designed to prevent multiple voting.

Aaron Pangburn has more on various concerns about the elections. He also lays out how the outcome of these elections will affect the political arena going forward:

The new electoral law passed in 2011, allows for officially registered political associations to challenge Somaliland’s three legal political parties (President Silanyo’s KULMIYE, UCID and UDUB) in municipal elections. Five new associations (UMADDA, DALSAN, RAYS, WADANI and HAQSOOR) met the registration requirements and were approved by the RAC.

In order to become an official party, the law initially requires a minimum of 20% in each of Somaliland’s six regions. The system limits their populations’ choices to three political parties to ensure broad based policy platforms, and to avoid previous tendency of narrow clan-based coalitions. The campaign was particularly vibrant and regulated, with each party adopting a different color and symbol to bring their supporters together, but with a structured schedule for the party rallies.

Pangburn also comments, significantly, that “unfortunately for the people of Somaliland a transparent and mostly peaceful process will not drastically redefine their standing in the international community. Rather, it will be how they manage their external relationships with Somalia and their regional neighbors that will have the greatest effect on their pending application for statehood.”

Burkina Faso

International coverage of the “coupled” parliamentary and municipal elections in Burkina Faso has focused on several interlinked themes. Commentary has focused largely on assessing the prospects for the stability of the regime of President Blaise Compaore. Recurring themes in coverage include:

  • Noting that these elections follow the protests and mutinies of spring/summer 2011 (see AP and AFP);
  • Assessing the integrity of the vote, especially the performance of the National Independent Electoral Commission, which was reformed after the protests (see VOA);
  • Speculating that if the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress wins a “decisive” majority, it could seek to undo term limits on Compaore’s tenure as president (see Reuters).


Results are expected by December 7 in Burkina Faso (French), and soon (though I have not seen a specific date) in Somaliland.

What do you see as the significance of these elections?