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.