Somalia: Is 'arming the clans' really enough to defeat Al-Shabaab?

Somalia: Is 'arming the clans' really enough to defeat Al-Shabaab?
Al-Qaeda's Somali offshoot Al-Shabaab has murdered scores of Somalis over the last decade. While President Mohamud's vow to eradicate the terrorist organisation has been welcomed, Suhaib Mahamoud questions whether 'arming the clans' will be enough.
7 min read
31 Oct, 2022
The damaged structure of the Hayat Hotel in Mogadishu after an attack by Al-Shabaab, 21 August 2022 [Hassan Ali Elmi/AFP via Getty]

Somalia's chronic instability is often described as complex, multi-faceted and difficult to understand. This is because for three decades, Somalia has continuously lurched from crisis to crisis. No sooner than the gunfire of warring clans had subsided, the jihadists flooded in. This was, of course, one toxic legacy of the physical and intellectual ruin engendered by the state's collapse when the military dictatorship fell in 1991.

This is a response to general media coverage of the war raging in southern Somalia against Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabaab): the most powerful branch of Al-Qaeda today, and the foremost threat to Somalia's security and that of the region. Al-Shabaab face a government-backed clan uprising in the regions it controls, which has reverberated across news and social media channels.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, when elected last May, immediately pledged to cleanse the country of the group. However, during his first three months of office, spent mostly on overseas visits and making clientelist appointments, Al-Shabaab's attacks escalated in Mogadishu and in Hirshabelle, Galmudug and South-West states, where the movement assassinated government ministers.

Al-Shabaab also launched a surprise attack on Ethiopia's border in June. However, it was defeated by the regional administration and locals, who swiftly expelled it from the area.

Map of Somalia 2 [The New Arab]

        Clans rise up - with official backing

Their example has inspired other Somali states to try to liberate themselves from the group, which has been oppressing them for over a decade. Clan militias, dubbed "Ma'awisley", formed in the Hiran region, with government backing. They began launching attacks on Al-Shabaab forces in the area, their offensive quickly spreading to Galguduud and the Bay regions.

The president and his circles claim this war will finish Al-Shabaab, and have amassed international support. Mohamud, in his UN General Assembly speech on 22 September, said his government had taken a "leadership role in fighting terrorism". On the ground, however, the absence of anyone playing this role – at least, to the extent required - is starkly obvious: government strategy has so far been confined to arming the clans.

"The president and his circles claim this war will finish Al-Shabaab, and have amassed international support"

Al-Shabaab: Not a fringe organisation

Al-Shabaab isn't a fringe organisation that has managed to scrape support among certain clans - it has deeply penetrated aspects of Somali political and economic life, and the security forces, and works hard to plug gaps in the state system. For example, it collects more taxes in the south than local governments and its budget this year reached $288 million, according to the Hiraal Institute. 

Reports show Somalis increasingly resorting to Al-Shabaab's courts to settle disputes to avoid long bureaucratic procedures, exorbitant fees and nepotistic corruption in a country that has ranked at the bottom of Transparency International's corruption index since 2006.

Al-Shabaab also has advanced intelligence gathering capabilities, clear from their precise assassination operations; some believe it has penetrated the national intelligence agency. A few months ago, ex-intelligence chief Fahad Yasin and his successor Mahad Salad bandied accusations of links to Al-Shabaab. Following this were reports that the US had refused Salad a visa to accompany Mohamud during his last visit to Washington.

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Al-Shabaab has a strategy based on 20 years' experience, and powerful means at their disposal. The government's counter-strategy is 'arming the clans'. This flimsy strategy is being pursued in a country which never recovered from the civil war, and poses serious risks to the state's ability to stabilise. It also undermines its monopoly on state-sanctioned violence.

Turning the clock back

Somalis remember the date the civil war began – but not its end. The clan militias [who fought the dictatorship] became partners to the political process that ensued, and former warlords became powerful players within the country's political and security apparatus.

The policy of arming the clans today turns the clock back. At the least, it will alter inter-clan power dynamics. This is especially dangerous due to the increasing politicisation of clan identity, and the power struggle between powerful figures for key positions of state according to the 4.5 formula.

"Where is the Somali army – on whom $1.5 billion has been spent "without results" according to a US official?"

Valid questions

The government's strategy raises questions, like: Why aren't these militias being recruited to join the national army, bringing them under an official leadership? In fact, where is the Somali army – on whom $1.5 billion has been spent "without results" according to a US official? Moreover, why aren't the 20,000 African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) soldiers being enlisted to fight, instead of sitting in their barracks receiving salaries five times that of Somali soldiers?

But whoever poses these questions is accused of complicity with terrorism. The corrupt Somali political elites are driven by narrow clan interests. They are desperate, along with their Western allies – practised swindlers of "war on terror" strategies - to defend this war. Therefore, they ferociously attack anyone who points to flaws in the official narrative or its possible consequences.

When Mohamud declares publicly: "You are with us […] or with the enemy", it evokes Bush following September 11. The rhetoric is dangerous, opening the way for score-settling in the streets, with justifications of "links to terrorism".

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Yes – Al-Shabaab is a criminal organisation which has murdered scores of Somali civilians, and which aims to kill the dream Somalis still cling to of a civil state – to live like the rest of the world.  Instead, it is forcing them to choose between its theocratic project, or hell on earth.

Car bombs are now a daily nightmare in the south. Wells and water tanks belonging to pastoral communities already suffering from drought are being blown up, as are telecommunications towers - to isolate villages. The group appears to be systematically destroying infrastructure as a form of collective punishment. Therefore, any war against it is not only legitimate, but urgent.

However, the idea that Al-Shabaab will crumple in the face of the clan militias is wishful thinking. To achieve advances on the ground, the US-trained Danab and Turkish-trained Gorgor units, and ATMIS forces must be mobilised. The government should shift the battleground to the group's strongholds, instead of pursuing them in far flung villages they have no interest in.

The need to fight Al-Shabaab on all fronts

Al-Shabaab's jihadi ideology is imported, but still needs to be met with a convincing counter-ideology. Moreover, it exploits marginalisation to attract recruits – most come from disenfranchised clans and find nihilistic jihadism the only answer offered to accumulated injustices committed against them by the state, or the warlords.

Solving this issue demands a comprehensive strategy addressing the grievances of a hopeless youth, and those denied dignity, education and basic essentials. It demands strengthening the fight against corruption and developing a functioning justice system, governed by accountability and the rule of law.

The government is capable of defeating Al-Shabaab, not just because it enjoys popular support, as opposed to the movement, but also in military terms, especially with Somalia's recent acquisition of Turkish Bayraktar drones. These will change the battle dynamics as they did in Ethiopia, Armenia and Libya.

"Solving this issue demands a comprehensive strategy addressing the grievances of a hopeless youth, and those denied dignity, education and basic essentials"

However, the lack of a holistic government strategy is problematic - what is happening now is a fight between two forces which are starkly mismatched when it comes to organisation, tactics, and the ability to survive: in all of these aspects, Al-Shabaab wins. Those who will pay the heaviest price are the pastoral Bedouin, who stand no chance against what is considered the strongest and best organised jihadist group in the world. The state flooding the clans with weapons will only add more fuel to the fire.

Suhaib Mahamoud is a Somali writer and researcher based in Doha, Qatar. He writes for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original click here. Translated by Rose Chacko

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.