Can Military Might Alone Defeat al-Shabaab?

A Somali woman walks past a soldier protecting a nomad settlement at Sadumay. Somalia, December 1, 2014 (Sipa/Associated Press)

Developing a “security pact” to tackle insurgent jihadists al-Shabaab, who continue to stifle state-building efforts, is one of the key agenda items at the upcoming high-level conference on Somalia scheduled for May this year in London. This complex challenge first depends on identifying what makes al-Shabaab such a resilient movement. Despite some success on the battlefield, this is an understanding that has largely escaped Somalia’s various security forces—and their international supporters—until now.

Donors such as the United Kingdom, European Union, and United States have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Somalia’s security services, including 1.8 billion euros pledged in September 2013 as part of the “New Deal Compact.” Yet al-Shabaab remains a potent force throughout most of the country. The London conference thus presents an opportunity to develop security architecture—and associated justice mechanisms—more in line with previous political progress in Somalia.

Al-Shabaab continues to demonstrate sophisticated organizational planning and execution of attacks. While the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali army have made significant military gains in liberating areas previously under the group’s control, this has brought little overall stability. This is largely because systems of governance and delivery of basic services to citizens have often failed to follow military operations. In addition, the retaking of major towns by AMISOM and government forces often leaves swaths of rural areas in the hands of al-Shabaab, which in turn shifts strategy to attacking main supply routes, rendering towns isolated. At the same time, the federal government has yet to establish a broad, predictable, and consistent policy framework of governance that appeals to communities.

Al-Shabaab remains a viable local actor for the provision of basic services and, in particular, security and justice. To date, national security forces have focused on force alone and have neglected building political consensus and legitimacy within communities they serve. They are thus yet to demonstrate their comparative value to al-Shabaab in many areas. At present, al-Shabaab presents itself as providing Somalia’s only effective justice system. It operates mobile courts that deal with cases swiftly and effectively. Most commonly, Somalis who have a land or property dispute turn to the group because they consider it likely to provide the most consistent and thorough response. This sort of parallel justice network exists across the country and even the capital Mogadishu.

As an extension of this informal justice system, al-Shabaab’s thrives off support from disgruntled clans or individuals, particularly along the Shabelle and Jubba rivers in southern Somalia. The group’s support doesn’t necessarily bring economic benefits, rather it provides self-defense from persecution and protection from manipulation by individual clans and predatory economic interests.

Despite its jihadist rhetoric, which locates Islam as the one and truly only identity, al-Shabaab relies more on Somalia’s traditional clan leadership system. Its own leadership in turn manipulates this system by duplicating it or forcing out traditional leaders when such systems fail to operate in favor of its ideological agenda. It often goes further, by delegitimizing, labeling as “apostates” and “anti-Islam,” those traditional elders who criticize the group. Routine assassinations are dealt out to elders deemed to have collaborated with the government or army.

These dynamics—and state authorities’ inability to adapt to them—are present in the ongoing battle to control Afgoye, 20 miles southwest of Mogadishu. Here, al-Shabaab has successfully exploited grievances directly linked to alleged human rights violations by members of the army, who, supported by AMISOM, regained control of Afgoye in May 2012.

In place of an effective strategy of winning local support, the army advanced certain clan interests over others in Afgoye. Notably, troops were implicated in allegations of torturing innocent civilians, or labeling them al-Shabaab collaborators and sympathizers. Al-Shabaab has since recaptured agricultural land confiscated by the armed forces and returned these to the local population. The result has been marginalized and minority communities becoming more receptive to the jihadists. While Afgoye remains under government control, regular attacks make it incredibly fragile and a constant flashpoint for AMISOM peacekeepers, who are now mired in a cycle of hit-and-run incidents.

A further divide between the ways in which the state and al-Shabaab operate can be found on the road from Afgoye into Mogadishu, which continues to suffer from insecurity. Multiple checkpoints now exist under army or other government control, in randomized locations and extorting inconsistent levels of “taxes” on every passing vehicle. When under al-Shabaab control, there were three such checkpoints, in consistent locations, charging a set tax. In contrast with the current system, the group also provided a receipt when the tax was paid, which could be shown at each subsequent checkpoint, allowing safe passage.

Understanding the enduring appeal of al-Shabaab—and the failure of state authorities to counter, or even prevent their activities from aiding it—will be key to forming a new security pact for Somalia. The current national army will necessarily be just one component of a comprehensive agreement in this respect. At present it remains a loose coalition of powerful clan militias that were once the persecutors of marginalized communities across the country. The widespread perception is that the army operates for the interests of the Mogadishu elite and the clan militias that form it.

To thoroughly weaken and ultimately defeat al-Shabaab, an inclusive security architecture must be developed over the next few years, focusing not just on military strategy but broader accommodation of political and social dynamics. This will need to be done through a consensus-based approach among Somali stakeholders.

In the absence of an endorsed national constitution, the newly appointed Somali government may consider prioritizing the establishment of a specialized judiciary body responsible for the adjudication and arbitration of land and property disputes. This could eliminate the gap between justice and injustice in which al-Shabaab often inserts itself.

Somali legal experts, lawyers, and judges, along with elders with the relevant customary and contextual insight, could be employed to address clan grievances and the myriad land and property disputes across the country. If the new government is able to demonstrate inclusive, effective, and fair judicial recourse for the average citizen, al-Shabaab is likely to gradually lose its relevance and consequently its strength on the battlefield.

Mustafa Bananay is a Senior Analyst at Sahan Research, Mogadishu