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.

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On 1967 and Islamism

Earlier this month, the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War evoked some great writing, including a piece by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution. His piece is entitled “The end of Nasserism: How the 1967 War opened new space for Islamism in the Arab world.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into the words “Arab world” in the title, because Hamid focuses on Egypt, but at the regional level, I question the idea that 1967 was the turning point or even that 1967 was a major factor in trajectories of Islamism in some Arab countries.

Here is Hamid:

When Nasser, and by extension Egypt, lost, there was relatively little left to say. The starting premise of Arab nationalism had been fatally undermined, 15 years into the 1952 revolution…When Nasser died in 1970 at the age of 52, millions of Egyptians gathered to mourn him in a six-mile procession. It was perhaps the last unifying moment in Egypt’s modern history, before the resurgence of Islamism—and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood—opened up a new fault line in Egyptian society.

The first point to make is that Egypt does not equal the Arab world. If 1967 marked the end of Nasserism, why did not just one but three leaders clearly inspired by Nasser come to power after 1967? The three leaders were Muammar al-Qadhafi of Libya, Ja’far al-Numayri of Sudan, and Muhammad Siad Barre of Somalia (a member of the Arab League), all of whom came to power in coups in 1969. True, each of them had a unique relationship with Islam, and al-Numayri embraced Islamism by the late 1970s, but it is significant that multiple leaders in the Arab world were vying for Nasser’s mantle after 1967 and even after Nasser’s death in 1970. If Egypt followed a certain trajectory, that does not mean that Egypt set the pace for the whole region.

The second point to make is that key figures associated with with the “Islamist resurgence” were already up and coming before the 1967 war. The best example is Egypt’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi (b. 1926), who published his influential Al-Halal wa-l-Haram fi al-Islam (The Licit and the Prohibited in Islam) in 1960. Another example is Sudan’s Hasan al-Turabi (1932-2016), who first came to prominence in Sudan’s 1964 revolution. The point here is that after 1967, many of the leading figures were not converts from Arab nationalism to Islamism, but rather people who had been Islamists all along. Certainly the events of 1967 put them in a position to amplify their message, but that might tell us more about the relationship between Islamism and crises than it does about 1967 specifically. Moreover, much of the infrastructure of contemporary Islamism was built after 1967, but key components of that infrastructure were built before 1967.

Third, whatever impact 1967 had, it was not necessarily immediate, and it was only in combination with other factors. When we look at where Islamists actually came to power or nearly came to power, two of the most prominent cases occurred over two decades later – Sudan 1989, and Algeria 1991-1992. And in both of those cases, it was largely domestic factors that brought Islamists to the forefront.

I don’t want to understate the psychological, political, and spiritual impact of 1967 on the Arab world. But I don’t think 1967 was the watershed moment for Islamism in the entire region. Rather, I think that the trajectories of Islamism in the Arab world have been highly divergent, and that some of the most successful Islamist movements in the region were in countries much less affected by the 1967 defeat than Egypt was.

My last thought is a somewhat simplistic one, and it concerns Egypt itself. If 1967 was “the end of Nasserism,” then why has the Egyptian military regime been so enduring, so strong, since 1952? Perhaps the revolutionary aura and the Arab nationalist ideology fell away after 1967, but it still seems to me that Nasser and the Free Officers created a system that remains partly (largely?) in place to this day. Put even more simply: no Nasser, no Sisi. Viewed in that light, the Muslim Brotherhood’s ups and downs in Egypt since 1928 have only really brought it close to controlling the actual levers of the state on a few occasions and only allowed it to partially grasp those levers during one brief period. There have also been multiple moments of “resurgence” for the Brotherhood, just as there have been multiple moments of repression, disarray, and weakness. So was 1967 a turning point, or was it just one of several key moments in a long cycle – a cycle that always ends with military men in power?

Recent Reports and Articles on the Sahel and the Horn

A few new reports have come out lately about the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, all of which may interest readers:

In the comments, please feel free to alert of us about any other new reports.

Africa News Roundup: Mali, Algeria, Senegal, and More

Reuters: “Mali’s interim government has removed General Amadou Sanogo, who led a coup last year, as head of a military committee tasked with reforming the West African country’s armed forces, a government statement said.” For more on Sanogo’s promotion to general, see here.

On Friday, Mali’s President-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita visited Cote d’Ivoire (French).

Magharebia: “Algeria is offering pardons to thousands of armed extremists, provided their hands are unstained with citizens’ blood…Army units are distributing leaflets and flyers in Tlemcen, Sidi Bel Abbes and Ain Témouchent, urging extremists to lay down arms and benefit from the 2005 Charter for Peace and National ReconciliationEnnahar daily reported this week.”

Imams in Touba, Senegal (French) complain of a lack of water, electricity, and other amenities, and cast blame on political authorities.

Reuters: “Nigerians Seek Refuge in Niger.”

Moulid Hujale: “My Journey Back to Somalia.”

What else is happening?

Africa News Roundup: Nigeria, Mali, South Sudan, Somalia, and More

Africa Review:

Senegal’s Attorney-General Serigne Bassirou Guèye has began a probe into one of the biggest drug scandals ever to rock the country’s police force.

As a first step, he ordered on Wednesday the arrest and detention of a Nigerian believed to be behind the whole scandal.

The issue came to a head after a top Senegalese police was accused of having connections with the detained Nigerian.

Reuters:

Malian troops deployed in the northern town of Kidal on Friday after attacks by light-skinned Tuareg separatists on black residents killed at least one, a week before elections meant to unify the fractured nation.

Nigeria reportedly plans to withdraw some 850 of its 1,200 soldiers from Mali following the elections there.

Garowe:

At least two persons including an African Union soldier (AMISOM) in the southern Somali port of Kismayo were killed in a roadside explosion Wednesday.

Human Rights Watch: “South Sudan: Army Making Ethnic Conflict Worse.”

Nigeria:

Nigerian governor Rotimi Amaechi and four of his northern counterparts have been pelted with stones by opponents in his home state.

Their convoy was attacked as it left the airport of Port Harcourt, the capital of his oil-rich Rivers state.

The northern governors [of Niger, Kano, Jigawa, and Adamawa] were visiting to show their support for Mr Amaechi.

He was suspended from the ruling party for what analysts see as his opposition to President Goodluck Jonathan.

What else is happening?

Africa Blog Roundup: Y’En a Marre, DSK and South Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, and More

Justin Sandefur: “Seeing Like a State in Africa: Data Needed.”

Chris Blattman: “Dear governments: Want to help the poor and transform your economy? Give people cash.”

Jacques Enaudeau:

“There are no foreclosed destinies, only deserted responsabilities” has become one of the mottos of the collective of Senegalese singers and journalists known as Y’En A Marre(“Enough is enough” in French). In the wake of the 2012 presidential elections, the group gained international recognition for leading the charge against then President Abdoulaye Wade, who was seeking a third term at age 86 while reportedly scheming to hand over the presidency to his son Karim Wade. Y’En A Marre’s international minute of fame may have passed with Macky Sall’s victory but its engagement as a new kind of political watchdog hasn’t faded since the ousting of Abdoulaye Wade. For its purpose is bigger: to form a united front against social injustice in Senegal and to shift the public debate away from politician bickering and back to the issues of ordinary Senegalese.

Africa in DC: “It’s Official: Obama to Africa This Summer.”

Shelby Grossman on upcoming elections in Equatorial Guinea.

Baobab: “Strauss-Kahn in South Sudan.”

Loomnie on Africans in China.

Somalia Newsroom: “Jubaland and the Future of Federalism in Somalia.”

Somalia, Mali, and the Weakness of Analogical Thinking

NPR, in March, wrote the headline, “Western Money, African Boots: A Formula For Africa’s Conflicts.” Somalia’s “success,” the piece suggested, could be replicated in places like Mali. Bloomberg, over the weekend, made the same argument: “To Stabilize Mali, Look to Somalia’s Lessons.” From the piece:

Mali is like Somalia in that, in both places, Muslim extremists took advantage of political turmoil to seize large areas of the country. In each case, African countries agreed to send soldiers to neutralize the threat — a way around Western reluctance to commit troops to far-off places, and a local solution more likely to be acceptable to African populations. Yet the forces largely floundered when left to their own resources.

Other examples of this kind of thinking are legion.

I’ve criticized the Mali-Somalia analogy, as well as the idea of Somalia as a “success story,” here. I will add this: beyond whatever merits the analogy may have, the way in which people make it, their seeming lack of awareness or concern or curiosity about the limits of the analogy, bothers me. Does the presence of “Muslim extremists,” “political turmoil,” “African forces,” and “Western funds” establish a fundamental similarity between two places? Are the separatist movements of Mali essentially similar to those of Somalia? Are the histories of these two countries, particularly over the last twenty years, alike? Is the situation in Bamako now comparable to the situation in Mogadishu? The answer to all these questions, in my view, is no.

I do not see what is to be gained, from a policy perspective, by eliding the differences between Mali and Somalia. Yes, there are Western-funded African forces in both places. But each country seeks, and needs, political solutions that respond to its own particular histories and dynamics (Peter Tinti’s writing on Mali is relevant here). If Somalia’s “model” offers Mali anything, it is grounds for caution:

  1. The length of time it took to reconquer territory
  2. The fragility of political progress
  3. The persistence of problematic center-provincial relations (see here for a grim take on struggles over Somalia’s Jubaland)
  4. Problems with payment and funding 

Etc.

Mali is preparing for elections that will likely prove highly problematic. Mali faces a massive crisis of refugees and internally displaced persons. Mali confronts a lingering guerrilla conflict in the north. Mali is struggling to determine who will rule reconquered northern territories, and what place the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad will have in northern Mali’s future (see Reuters on Kidal). Amid these challenges, more attention to the specificity of Mali’s problems would bring greater benefit than than more casually drawn analogies between Mali and Somalia.