Despite the recent military surge against Somalia’s armed Islamist extremist and self-declared al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Shabaab, its conclusive “defeat” remains elusive. The most likely scenario – already in evidence – is that its armed units will retreat to smaller, remote and rural enclaves, exploiting entrenched and ever-changing clan-based competition; at the same time, other groups of radicalised and well-trained individuals will continue to carry out assassinations and terrorist attacks in urban areas, including increasingly in neighbouring countries, especially Kenya. The long connection between Al-Shabaab’s current leadership and al-Qaeda is likely to strengthen. A critical breakthrough in the fight against the group cannot, therefore, be achieved by force of arms, even less so when it is foreign militaries, not the Somalia National Army (SNA), that are in the lead. A more politically-focused approach is required.
Even as its territory is squeezed in the medium term, Al-Shabaab will continue to control both money and minds. It has the advantage of at least three decades of Salafi-Wahabi proselytisation (daawa) in Somalia; social conservatism is already strongly entrenched – including in Somaliland and among Somali minorities in neighbouring states – giving it deep reservoirs of fiscal and ideological support, even without the intimidation it routinely employs.
An additional factor is the group’s proven ability to adapt, militarily and politically – flexibility that is assisted by its leadership’s freedom from direct accountability to any single constituency. From its first serious military setbacks in 2007 and again in 2011, it has continually reframed the terms of engagement. It appears to be doing so again.
Countering Al-Shabaab’s deep presence in south-central Somalia requires the kind of government – financially secure, with a common vision and coercive means – that is unlikely to materialise in the near term. More military surges will do little to reduce the socio-political dysfunction that has allowed Al-Shabaab to thrive; in certain areas it may even serve to deepen its hold. The Somalia Federal Government (SFG), supported by external allies, should consider the following political options:
- implementing, as outlined in the “National Stabilisation Strategy” (NSS), parallel national and local reconciliation processes at all levels of Somali society;
- imitating Al-Shabaab’s frequently successful techniques of facilitating local clan dialogue and reconciliation (as per the National Stabilisation Strategy, NSS), as well as religious education;
- developing a new approach to establishing local and regional administrations that privileges neither SFG appointees nor clients of neighbouring states; and
- making the local (Somali) political grievances that enable Al-Shabaab to remain and rebuild in Somalia the paramount focus, not regional or wider international priorities.