Following Ethiopia’s December 2006 invasion, which dislodged the Islamic courts in favour of the internationally backed Transitional Federal Government, Al-Shabaab positioned itself as a vehicle of armed resistance and a governing actor throughout the areas under its sway. In 2007, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) replaced the Ethiopian troops. AMISOM offensives and Al-Shabaab’s own internal divisions soon put the militants on the back foot. Al-Shabaab recovered, however, to regain dominance in rural swathes of south-central Somalia, where it put down the roots of an enduring insurgency. It stages daily attacks on AU forces, Somali troops and officials, including in towns nominally held by the federal government.
The conclusion of a fraught election cycle and selection of a new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who previously served in the same capacity between 2012-2017 and returns to power promising to reconcile Somalia’s feuding elites, offers a chance to rethink the approach to a war that has dragged on for more than fifteen years, with no end in sight. This report explores available options. In particular, it examines prospects of political engagement with Al-Shabaab. It follows previous Crisis Group publications examining the possibility of dialogue with other jihadists elsewhere.
The report is based on more than 150 interviews, mostly conducted in 2021 and early 2022. Interviewees included current and former Somali government, defence and intelligence officials, civil society figures, including religious scholars, clan elders, NGO representatives and researchers, businesspeople and diplomats. Crisis Group took special care to contact a variety of actors living and working throughout Somalia, including federal member state representatives and other local authorities, humanitarian workers, defectors from Al-Shabaab and civilians who live or previously lived in places under Al-Shabaab administration. Efforts were made to interview women in each of the sectors surveyed, including those who have lived under Al-Shabaab and businesswomen who now operate in Al-Shabaab-held territory. While research involved interviews with individuals associated with Al-Shabaab, it did not include contacts with the group’s leadership due to the challenges associated with securing access. Interviews took place in person in Mogadishu, Nairobi and other locations, and by electronic means with respondents based elsewhere in Somalia.
II. A Grinding Stalemate
The war that pits Somali and international forces against Al-Shabaab can be characterised as a stalemate at best. The militants have defied years of counter-insurgency efforts and remain committed to driving foreign troops out of Somalia. They also seek to topple the federal government and establish a state run according to the dictates of their particular interpretation of Islam. The grinding conflict and its attendant costs, coupled with the thinning patience of the government’s foreign backers, is prompting more and more conversations in Somalia about the prospect of intra-Somali dialogue, including with Al-Shabaab, as one feature of a pathway toward ending the violence.
Factious politics have persistently hindered Somali government efforts to defeat Al-Shabaab. As discussed in previous Crisis Group reporting, Somali politicians are often consumed by their own squabbles, especially between the federal government and member states.
The unsettled relationship between Mogadishu and its domestic rivals at times descends into armed confrontation, leaving counter-insurgency campaigns to sputter. The result for several years has been a government that faces a coherence deficit, and therefore struggles to counter an adversary in Al-Shabaab that has demonstrated a greater unity of purpose. The internal tensions also divert resources from the battle with the militants, which often appears to be a secondary priority.
In the course of Farmajo’s term, friction between the federal government and member states worsened.
Al-Shabaab directly expanded its reach as a result, including in parts of south-central Somalia that have witnessed the sharpest quarrels between Mogadishu and federal member state leadership. Even when the government attempted major offensives against Al-Shabaab, these fell short. Gains of military campaigns were rarely sustained, as centre-periphery and related political tensions undermined the efforts, redirecting attention and limited resources elsewhere. Although a more unified approach among the political class would by no means be guaranteed to vanquish Al-Shabaab in the long run, the converse is undeniably true: political dysfunction, especially during the protracted 2021-2022 electoral cycle, has aided the Islamist group.
Some in Mogadishu argue that with the conclusion of the electoral cycle in May 2022 and formation of a new government, Somalia will be able to focus anew on fighting Al-Shabaab, yielding different results.
The new national security adviser is one who maintains that Al-Shabaab can be defeated under the right conditions. Indeed, the new leadership team under President Mohamud might reinvigorate the military struggle, in turn increasing the pressure on Al-Shabaab. Yet Somalia’s security forces remain a work in progress, sometimes fracturing along political lines, and it is uncertain when they will be up to the task. The 2017 National Security Architecture agreement between the federal government and member states, which called for establishing a national army and police service including troops seconded from member states, is still just a piece of paper. Recent government efforts to build up the security forces have unfolded with little input from member states. Even if all the proposed reforms take place, it is unlikely the Somali security forces will be in a position to row back the militants for good any time soon.
Without deeper engagement between Mogadishu and member states to resolve persistent political differences that hinder efforts to combat Al-Shabaab – combined with reconciliation within member states, whose internecine disputes Al-Shabaab exploits – the change in government itself is unlikely to shift dynamics significantly in Mogadishu’s favour. Moreover, even if federal and state political leaders make progress in tamping down their feuds, Al-Shabaab will remain a potent threat due to its persistent adaptability, as described below. In this sense, continuing largely with the same approach, but just “done better”, may lead to short-term improvements but probably not to the militants’ conclusive defeat. Mogadishu is certainly in a stronger position than it was a decade ago, despite the reversals of the past few years. But little suggests that the new government will be able to beat Al-Shabaab by military means alone.
Al-Shabaab survives, if not thrives, because it enjoys greater internal coherence than its adversaries. It holds together due to adherence to a unifying Salafi-jihadist ideology and strong checks on dissent. Not every member believes equally in each and every tenet, but the common beliefs provide the basis for an organisational logic that neither the federal government nor any member state can match.
Al-Shabaab is also much more connected via family and other ties to Somali society – and to the government – than outsiders often assume.
The broad contours of Al-Shabaab’s strategy are to preserve itself by avoiding direct military combat, to maintain dominance in rural south-central Somalia and, increasingly, to penetrate cities and towns nominally under government control.
The group rarely engages in large battles but dictates the conflict’s pace by undertaking smaller ambushes at locations of its own choosing.
AMISOM, now re-hatted as the African Union Transitional Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), meanwhile, has for years adopted a more defensive posture and rarely launches major offensives.
Combined with a Somali security sector that is still developing in the midst of war, these factors have put Al-Shabaab in a comfortable position.
With overstretched Somali and partner forces hunkered down in urban locales, Al-Shabaab has secured a firm foothold in the rural areas in which it operates. By contrast, the government struggles to connect the towns it holds, as evidenced by Al-Shabaab’s imposition of blockades that restrict the movement of goods into government-held centres and its harassment of convoys along supply routes.
Some of the basic services [Al-Shabaab] provides rival or outstrip those offered in government-held areas.
To buttress its rural dominance, Al-Shabaab maintains limited but effective administrative control over local populations.
Some of the basic services it provides rival or outstrip those offered in government-held areas. The government’s own efforts at service provision are limited and Somalis often perceive Al-Shabaab to be less corrupt in comparison. The group’s resolution of disputes through a Sharia-based justice system is an oft-cited example. Crisis Group interviews with people who have lived under Al-Shabaab administration reveal other perceived benefits, such as greater public safety and less harassment, including of women, by security personnel. Some women who lived under Al-Shabaab told Crisis Group that the militants asked little of them other than to attend a weekly education program on Sharia from the local hisbah (police) and to abide by zakat (tax) payments – although Al-Shabaab does often pressure women to marry its fighters. Businesswomen interviewed who operate in Al-Shabaab areas noted that they enjoyed advantages over men in some ways, as the group is less suspicious of women.
Other factors suggest that Al-Shabaab demonstrates greater administrative consistency and more adroit use of local institutions than the government. One advantage cited is Al-Shabaab’s centralisation, which stands in contrast to the government’s discordant federalised structure. The latter means a proliferation of administrative levels, and thus of government checkpoints, at each of which people transporting goods must pay a fee.
Al-Shabaab also portrays itself as avoiding discrimination along clan lines, although it certainly does not always do so.
When disputes emerge, Al-Shabaab administrators typically allow local elders the first crack at resolving them and intervene only if the process fails or if their view violates Sharia.
Al-Shabaab does, however, manipulate local institutions as well, appointing replacement elders from its ranks for those who flee once they take over an area or otherwise resist collaborating with them. These appointed elders work on behalf of the group but often struggle to earn local legitimacy.
That Al-Shabaab’s track record is viewed favourably in some ways compared to that of the authorities allows the group to present itself as a legitimate governing actor that in some areas is winning the service delivery competition with its rivals.
True, the accomplishments of Al-Shabaab administration amid dismal government performance can be overblown, and in fact its dictates also draw local resistance, as outlined below. Still, some Somalis see pragmatic reasons to align with the group because they prefer it to the alternatives. The consent of at least some of the governed, however partial and skewed by the lack of attractive options, is vital to sustaining the movement. Villagers are the group’s primary source of fresh manpower, as the group demands that local clans and families hand over a set number of their young male children, while Al-Shabaab’s control of rural areas also allows it to collect taxes that help fill its coffers.
Al-Shabaab remains far from popular and often must rely on the threat of force to back up its edicts.
Yet Al-Shabaab remains far from popular and often must rely on the threat of force to back up its edicts.
Where it occurs, resistance to its rule stems from the onerous demands it makes of civilians – one being the forced recruitment of boys for religious indoctrination and another being excessive taxation. Locals tend to resist Al-Shabaab when they see the group as taking more than it provides. Resistance does not imply a deeply held preference for the government, however. As one elder told Crisis Group, “People don’t care [if Al-Shabaab or the government are in charge]. They just want to live a better life”.
Al-Shabaab also increasingly penetrates urban areas held by the government and its security partners, demonstrating an ability to project its presence into locations not directly under its control. Aided by a robust intelligence wing, which reportedly has infiltrated government and security institutions, and backed up by brute force, Al-Shabaab operatives set up shop in government-held areas, with extortion rackets targeting businesses. Among other demands, these operatives impose taxes on shipping containers arriving at Mogadishu’s port and extract annual payments from local enterprises based on Al-Shabaab’s calculations of the businesses’ profits.
The array of taxes seems to be ever expanding – Mogadishu residents noted that they cannot even undertake renovations of their properties without expecting to pay a fee to Al-Shabaab. Such practices are reported in other government-held cities as well.
Although Al-Shabaab’s expanded presence shaping everyday life in urban areas has brought it ample financial reward and made it difficult to counter militarily, the group’s actions have downsides for it, too. Its extortion racket engenders ill-will – a problem for the standing of a movement that harbours ambitions to rule all of Somalia. Anger is especially pronounced among people in nominally government-held areas, which receive fewer services from the group, yet are still subject to its burdens. Most pay to avoid reprisal rather than as a sign of fealty.
A similar situation transpires in rural areas, although the degree of service provision and control is higher than in government-held areas, affecting calculations about whether to show loyalty to the group or not. Secondly, continued civilian casualties and property damage from the group’s violence in cities like Mogadishu have aggravated anti-Al-Shabaab sentiment. The resentment has reportedly provoked internal debate among the militants, who strive to avoid blowback.
The group’s revenue-generating efforts in urban areas raise other questions, too. One is whether Al-Shabaab’s success at accruing funds has shifted its attention away from its primary objective – imposing a strict form of Salafi-jihadism in Somalia.
In reality, despite the growing efficiency of its extortion racket, little to date indicates that Al-Shabaab has forsworn its ideological struggle. It is mounting regular attacks on its adversaries, while its efforts at indoctrination also continue apace. It has certainly made practical adjustments to earn more money, relaxing certain guidelines in favour of profit generation.
Yet, thus far, the group’s leaders have not abandoned jihad for profiteering. Rather, the taxation and extortion are an exigency of war, as the group needs financing to keep fighting.
Some ... argue that Al-Shabaab's urban infiltration dramatically increased under the administration of President “Farmajo”, alleging ... collusion.
Some in Somalia and beyond argue that Al-Shabaab’s urban infiltration dramatically increased under the administration of President “Farmajo”, alleging a level of collusion.
The group’s deepening extortion racket in government-held territories is an oft-cited point in this regard; another is the greater recruitment of ostensible Al-Shabaab defectors to government bodies like the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA). A spike in killings of government critics in attacks claimed by Al-Shabaab spurred further allegations that elements of the government and insurgency are working together. One such incident was the 23 March suicide car bombing in the central city of Beledweyne that killed the prominent and outspoken parliamentarian Amina Mohamed Abdi.
A common theory is that Al-Itisaam, a group that built up networks in the Farmajo government, deliberately sabotaged the struggle against Al-Shabaab, as it shares a similar objective of advancing an Islamist governance project in Somalia.
It cannot be ruled out that such elements indeed collaborated with insurgents, as the list of opposition critics attacked by Al-Shabaab grew long. There is no smoking gun proving the case, but the administration did little to rebut the mounting accusations among the opposition, signalling the level of discord among the political elite. Yet historical antagonism between Al-Shabaab and other Salafist groups in Somalia cast some doubt on any theory of coordinated collusion. Al-Shabaab on a number of occasions also undermined agencies like NISA by publicly challenging its narrative of events involving the organisation.
The accusations of collusion between authorities and the militants will remain a source of dissension among political rivals. The wider point, however, is that Al-Shabaab took advantage of the discord to expand its operations, more by exploiting the authorities’ distraction with infighting than by collaborating with them actively.
As detailed above, the administration in Mogadishu directed its limited resources primarily toward eliminating domestic political competition and paid less attention to curtailing Al-Shabaab’s activities. The key questions are how much damage has been done and how much can be repaired if Mogadishu now refocuses on the task at hand. Yet even such efforts can at best claw back the gains the militants have made, rather than lead to the war’s conclusion.
III. Obstacles to Political Engagement
For the reasons described above, neither the government nor Al-Shabaab can be sure it is playing a winning hand. Beset by political dysfunction, the government struggles both to win popular support and to mount an effective campaign against the insurgents. For their part, the insurgents may have won some acquiescence in their rule through service delivery in rural areas, but they also generate resentment among those from whom they demand child recruits and extort money. Under the circumstances, both sides have reason, at least in theory, to seek some form of co-existence that could address their respective vulnerabilities. Such a détente can be reached only through talks. Al-Shabaab may believe that time is on its side with the clock ticking on the AU mission backing up the federal government. Yet there is no guarantee that the government’s external partners will withdraw all support or that the militants will overrun all their domestic opponents. A grinding stalemate is a more likely result than an Al-Shabaab victory throughout Somalia.
Yet, aside from one serious initiative in 2009, engagement by senior Somali officials with Al-Shabaab – in particular with its recognised leadership – has been limited.
Nor do Al-Shabaab’s pronouncements give much indication that it is ready to seek a negotiated end to the war, though credible sources argue that among its leadership there is more willingness to test what engagement might yield than its public statements suggest.
Somali administrations have made a handful of outreach efforts toward Al-Shabaab members over the years (and they may have made others that are unknown). For a variety of reasons these efforts have borne little fruit – raising the question of what conditions might prompt a rethink on both Al-Shabaab’s part and among domestic authorities and key international partners. As an influential Somali sheikh involved in previous mediation efforts, including those in 2009, said: “It’s good to offer talks [again] as this has not been tried when both sides are serious”.
President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed (2009-2012) attempted perhaps the most ambitious program upon assuming power in 2009. Somali sheikhs organised a meeting with Al-Shabaab leaders at the Ramadan Hotel in Mogadishu in 2009 to discuss how to end the conflict.
President Ahmed, who had headed the Islamic Courts Union, backed the discussions, pledging to do more to enact Sharia in Somalia and support a ceasefire. According to those present, discussions failed for two reasons. Al-Shabaab viewed anyone who joined the government, including Sheikh Sharif, as an apostate who was dividing Muslims and was therefore an illegitimate interlocutor. It agreed to meet Sheikh Sharif’s delegation only under pressure from prominent Islamists. Relatedly, Al-Shabaab demonstrated no flexibility in its position that the government should be replaced, revealing a lack of willingness to find common ground.
The talks floundered and the war’s most devastating stages ensued.
President Mohamud's first administration (2012-2017) took a different approach, targeting individual commanders for arrest or defection.
This initiative had some success, with government forces capturing former Hizbul Islam leader Hassan Dahir Aweys in 2013. The next year, authorities induced the leader of Al-Shabaab’s Puntland operations, Mohamed Said Atom, to defect, along with its high-ranking military intelligence official Zakariya Ahmed Hersi. Mohamud’s administration also inaugurated discussions with influential Al-Shabaab member Mukhtar Robow, who eventually defected in 2017.
[President Mohamud’s] focus on facilitating individual defection [from Al-Shabaab] did little to alter the conflict’s trajectory.
While some lower-ranking individuals followed, the focus on facilitating individual defection did little to alter the conflict’s trajectory. The defecting members had clashed with Al-Shabaab’s leadership or were already on their way out of the movement.
Their departure from the group made little difference to its overall firepower, while also likely quieting dissenting voices within the movement that could have been useful for swaying its members’ thinking in the future. Nor did the program address the political gulf between Al-Shabaab and the government. Some describe President Mohamud as “reluctant” at the time to open a door for wider talks that would involve government concessions. Others note that there was little support from major international security partners, notably the U.S. and Ethiopia, to go further than the high-level defection approach.
Under the Farmajo administration (2017-2022), the intelligence agency, NISA, handled the Al-Shabaab engagement file. Credible sources report that former NISA chief Fahad Yasin reached out through contacts to Al-Shabaab on at least two occasions in 2020 and 2021 to explore opportunities for dialogue, but achieved little.
Part of the challenge was the secretive nature of the outreach, amid perceptions of the agency’s increasing politicisation, raising concerns about the discussions’ content. In essence, critics claim that Yasin wanted to use negotiations with Al-Shabaab to seal a deal that would require an extension of Farmajo’s time in power to see it through.
Regardless, the intelligence-driven approach raised more questions than answers and it remains to be seen if the contacts generated through that channel could be leveraged as part of a less politicised outreach initiative in the future.
International actors, including organisations working in Somalia and foreign embassies, have sporadically undertaken other attempts to reach out to Al-Shabaab. Their initiatives have also primarily aimed at stimulating individual defections.
There have been some missteps in these efforts. They were not always well coordinated with the Somali government. Some officials involved in outreach described instances where they thought they were talking to Al-Shabaab but wound up in contact either with people outside the movement or with little clout inside it. Others noted that powerful countries did not support outreach, causing attempts to flounder as those involved sought to avoid blowback.
The question of whether engagement is possible turns not just on the preferences of the government and its external partners, but also on those of Al-Shabaab itself.
Al-Shabaab is an ideologically driven movement, but one that clearly is also motivated by the prospect of attaining power in Somalia. Yet the group rarely comments on its willingness to consider talks with the government as a means of furthering its quest for power. It has on occasion rejected the idea of dialogue publicly, characterising entreaties to engage as an attempt to divide the movement – which, indeed, most previous overtures have been.
Yet credible and well-informed sources assert that individuals in the group, including some senior leaders, give indications that they might consider talks with the Somali government, privately leaving the door further ajar than public posturing suggests.
In a significant departure from past public statements, high-ranking Al-Shabaab member Sheikh Mahad Warsame “Karate” in June 2022 responded to a question on the prospect of dialogue by stressing the illegitimacy of the Somali government, but also stated “anyone whom the Sharia allows us, we will negotiate with, when the time is right”. This was the most emphatic statement on openness to talks on the group’s part, despite the customary caveat that it rejected the government’s legitimacy as an interlocutor and the Al-Shabaab figure’s insistence that the group’s goal remains seizing power in the whole of Somalia.
A key obstacle is Al-Shabaab’s assertion that the Somali authorities lack legitimacy. Al-Shabaab messaging regularly lambasts the government’s electoral process and its enactment of a constitution that places manmade laws over God’s.
Its adherence to Salafism and, more importantly, its embrace of the principle al-wala wal-bara (loyalty and disavowal) – which demands the disassociation of believers from those perceived to be non-Muslims or apostates – throws up another barrier. Al-Shabaab casts the government as made up of apostates and thus considers it haram (forbidden) to maintain relations or negotiate with it. Al-Shabaab also views the government as having little popular support and accuses it of serving foreign interests. It is furthermore an ardent critic of the federal model, characterising it as a conspiracy to divide Somalia and render it weak.
Al-Shabaab may be less inclined to engage in talks with the government [because] … it views authorities as having precious little to offer.
Another reason Al-Shabaab may be less inclined to engage in talks with the government is that it views authorities as having precious little to offer.
Al-Shabaab views itself as the stronger party, especially because it is able to levy taxes and wield influence in cities at low cost. It also follows the debates in Western capitals about funding that reflect impatience with the AU military mission. The group seemingly believes that time is on its side, that it benefits from the status quo and thus has little to gain from altering it.
Many observers assert that a cadre of less ideological foot soldiers and mid-level officials in Al-Shabaab is looking for an exit. Some limited data is available to back up this contention.
A long-running government defection program is designed to provide a way out of the group, and the continued defections suggest that internal quarrels do exist. This approach will probably not work with everyone, however, since leaving the group tends to endanger defectors’ personal safety.
The program may also discredit the overall notion of outreach from the government, as Al-Shabaab may subsequently perceive any such overture – even one with genuine diplomatic intent – as a hostile act. While there have been some successes to date and the program fills a useful function by supporting those looking for an exit, the track record suggests that defections alone are unlikely to significantly weaken Al-Shabaab.
To the contrary, if there is indeed support for dialogue in the group, it would be difficult for this sentiment to find expression without the top leadership’s blessing. Al-Shabaab historically has gone to great lengths to preserve internal unity and suppress dissent. Its record includes a purge of high-ranking officials, including foreigners, amid a power struggle in 2013 and another in 2015 aimed at eliminating those expressing support for the Islamic State.
Both campaigns were brutal, with the likely impact of consolidating Al-Shabaab’s core, while serving as a powerful example to its membership of the consequences of not toeing the line.
Thus, while some surmise that – should the government desire to talk – Al-Shabaab may face a split between those willing to engage and hardliners, there is reason for scepticism. Al-Shabaab’s internal cohesion may well be greater than others assume, due partly to measures preventing dissent from bubbling to the surface.
Any outreach that bypasses its top leadership, up to the level of Emir Abu Ubeidah, is thus unlikely to succeed. In this sense, while Al-Shabaab is certainly not monolithic, it is indeed centralised.
An eventual dialling down of the war ... could offer other benefits to Al-Shabaab's leaders, such as a freeze on targeted killings by U.S. drones.
Despite plenty of cause for doubt that Al-Shabaab would be keen for talks, there are also reasons why it might be in the group’s interests. The insurgency’s full and sustained conquest of Somalia appears, as described, an uncertain prospect given strong domestic centres of opposition that have impeded its growth in the past. Nor are regional powers like Ethiopia and Kenya likely to stand by should Al-Shabaab manage to overcome domestic rivals. In that sense, Al-Shabaab’s position is different from that of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Moreover, even if the movement feels confident it can outlast the government, the war has reportedly produced considerable fatigue among its rank-and-file. Its leaders have also demonstrated concern for the welfare of family members living in areas controlled by the government by, for example, demanding that elders based in cities ensure that their kin benefit from humanitarian operations.
An eventual dialling down of the war – or even entering in good faith into peace talks – could offer other benefits to Al-Shabaab’s leaders, such as a freeze on targeted killings by U.S. drones.
Al-Shabaab might also profit from striking a deal at a moment when it perceives the federal government as weak. Lessons from other conflicts suggest that a crucial failure among belligerents in the stronger position is to reject negotiations when their advantage is greatest, assuming that they are on the path to total victory, a stance that often proves mistaken.
Engaging from a position of strength, by contrast, can secure concessions that would otherwise be unattainable. For example, Somali authorities have yet to finish drafting the constitution, meaning that by engaging at this point Al-Shabaab could have a say in shaping its provisions.
How much these calculations play into militant leaders’ calculations is far from clear. Well-informed sources note there has been interest at a high level in the movement to consider alternatives in the past, including active outreach from the group to prospective interlocutors at times.
Whether this interest remains current is debatable, but assessing if prospects for political talks with Al-Shabaab are in any way feasible almost certainly requires actually exploring that option with the movement itself.
Another hurdle relates to the extent of Al-Shabaab’s commitment to pursuing an agenda beyond Somalia’s modern borders. If its ambitions are limited to Somalia, envisioning a path to negotiations is still complicated, but less so than if it clings to transnational or regional aspirations. While the group is certainly focused on Somalia in its day-to-day operations, it has done little to suggest it is confined by this frame – causing concern among Somalia’s neighbours and security partners.
Yet Al-Shabaab’s outlook on this topic remains fluid and a subject of debate.
While the extent of ties have fluctuated, Al-Shabaab formally remains an al-Qaeda affiliate, in that its leaders have maintained their allegiance to the al-Qaeda leadership.
The relationship endures beyond the personal connections between core al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab’s founding members, some of whom trained in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, as a new generation of homegrown Al-Shabaab leaders has also demonstrated its commitment to al-Qaeda.
After Emir Godane died in 2014, the new leader Abu Ubeidah, who has no experience fighting abroad, quickly reaffirmed Al-Shabaab’s bay’a (oath) to the transnational jihadist group. The ties are apparent in public exchanges of messages between the organisations, which are infrequent but still a powerful reminder.
As to why Al-Shabaab continues to preserve its affiliation with al-Qaeda, it likely sees certain benefits in being part of the global jihadist movement, including the respect this association commands among other militants.
Placing itself under the al-Qaeda umbrella also facilitates relationships with other affiliates, especially al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, with which it has long maintained a direct connection. Additionally, Al-Shabaab continues to recruit non-Somali foreign fighters in East Africa, an endeavour that is aided by presenting itself as al-Qaeda’s regional representative. Indeed, Abu Ubeidah may have had little choice in reaffirming the bay’a, given the expectations of other senior Al-Shabaab commanders, who see the oath as an important signal of Al-Shabaab’s binding commitment to al-Qaeda.
Beyond that, however, the operational utility of Al-Shabaab’s association with al-Qaeda is uncertain. External technical assistance, likely from al-Qaeda, has been relevant in advancing the group’s lethal capabilities in the past.
But Al-Shabaab’s revenue streams, local recruitment efforts and arms procurements do not involve al-Qaeda. Nor is the global group likely in much of a position to offer material support to Al-Shabaab – instead its value appears to be related mostly to propaganda. Al-Qaeda promotional material highlights certain Al-Shabaab attacks on regional or Western targets, with Al-Shabaab also actively framing some of its operations under the banner of al-Qaeda’s global campaign, even if its logic in perpetrating those attacks seems guided by its own local objectives rather than al-Qaeda’s transnational aspirations.
The extent of Al-Shabaab’s ambitions in East Africa is a somewhat different piece of the puzzle. Al-Shabaab’s activities diminish in intensity with distance from its hub in south-central Somalia. But its reach nevertheless extends beyond both Somalia’s borders and the Somali-inhabited areas of the Horn of Africa or what it refers to as Greater Somalia.
Somalia’s neighbours are threatened by Al-Shabaab’s blending of irredentist Greater Somalia rhetoric with Islamist ideology, to the point where both Ethiopia and Kenya have invaded Somalia and stationed troops on its soil over the past decade in essence to prevent formal Al-Shabaab control of Somalia’s government.
Al-Shabaab denounces the present AU, Ethiopian and Kenyan deployments as illegitimate foreign occupations and maintains cells focused on operations in East Africa.
In addition to its own notorious attacks – including the bombing of a venue showing World Cup matches in Kampala, Uganda, in 2010, a bloody 2015 attack on a university in northern Kenya, and sieges in 2013 of the Westgate shopping centre and in 2019 of the Dusit D2 complex, both in Nairobi, Kenya – the group has sought to inspire attacks by others in parts of both Ethiopia and Kenya. After civil war broke out in Ethiopia in November 2020, chatter about Al-Shabaab’s intent to hit targets there increased, though the group has not yet managed to do so. In north-eastern Kenya, Al-Shabaab has been particularly active, claiming small-scale attacks across the border on a near-weekly basis.
[Al-Shabaab’s] recruitment outside Somalia is another source of concern in the region.
The group’s recruitment outside Somalia is another source of concern in the region. In the past, Al-Shabaab signed up a few dozen Western and Somali diaspora members, but it attracts fewer of them now, focusing instead on East Africa.
The organisation has placed a particular emphasis on Swahili speakers. Somali intelligence officials estimate that the biggest source of recruits is Kenya, followed by Tanzania, with some from Uganda and Ethiopia as well. Al-Shabaab also maintains links to a network of East African Salafi-jihadist movements.
Al-Shabaab has concentrated its outside operations in AU troop-contributing countries, seemingly pursuing the strategic objective of forcing foreign troops out of Somalia.
It has stressed that it will continue staging attacks in Kenya, which it portrays as a defensive reaction, as long as that country keeps troops in Somalia.
Whether it would in fact cease attacks abroad if foreign troops withdrew remains untested.
Yet Al-Shabaab’s efforts in East Africa appear to have been surpassed of late by a burgeoning Islamic State-affiliated network.
Some foreign fighters have defected from the insurgency to these groups. At present, Al-Shabaab seems to have narrowed its focus to areas more directly adjacent to Somalia.
The extent of Al-Shabaab’s external associations and operations – whether its ties with al-Qaeda, its recruitment in East Africa or its rhetorical commitment to the Greater Somalia project – is a potential hindrance to dialogue.
The group’s views on these issues have long been a subject of internal debate and may remain so.
It remains unknown if Al-Shabaab would be willing to formally confine its ambitions inside Somalia’s modern borders. The uncertainty about its positions underlines the fact that even if it stays primarily concerned with Somalia itself, East African powers will continue to view Al-Shabaab as posing a threat and will oppose talks that do not take into account their security concerns. The degree to which Al-Shabaab is willing to commit to ceasing attacks outside Somalia is a subject that would have to be explored through engagement. Given the ill-will accumulated over the years, it will take significant confidence building and assurances to convince countries outside Somalia even to reach this point.
If a good part of the challenge lies with Al-Shabaab itself, Somali politics more broadly pose a further obstacle. Two factors are particularly important: first, the distrust that pervades relations among Somali elites; and secondly, the deep animosity among some of Somalia’s people toward Al-Shabaab itself.
Factious Somali politics mean that competing Somali elites will see any outreach from the Somali government to Al-Shabaab through the prism of their own disputes over power and resources. The government’s opponents, whether in Mogadishu or the regions, will inevitably view such an overture with suspicion – all the more so because it will have to be discreet at first, likely involving no more than a handful of representatives. Witness, for example, the distrust that Farmajo’s attempts generated. Moreover, many Somali politicians may oppose talks less for ideological than for self-interested reasons, because they see the militants as possible competitors for key roles in government.
The fighting has spurred a war economy, which means that certain actors benefiting from the status quo might see little value in an approach that could slice smaller their share of the pie or usher in a reduction in external military assistance.
Furthermore, Al-Shabaab activity has a varied geographic impact, meaning that the political elite and populations in each of Somalia’s member states will likely have a different attitude about engagement. Leaders in Puntland, which is less affected by Al-Shabaab, might, for example, be more worried about concessions to the militants. Others whose security Al-Shabaab directly threatens on a daily basis could see more benefit if engagement results in a reduction of violence.
Somaliland, whose status vis-à-vis Somalia remains unsettled, would also be concerned about any move to reconcile with Al-Shabaab, given the group’s support for the irredentist Greater Somalia project, which envisages unifying all Somali-inhabited areas in the Horn.
Some observers ... argue that outreach to Al-Shabaab should not take place until the disputes that roil Somali politics ... are resolved.
Some observers even argue that outreach to Al-Shabaab should not take place until the disputes that roil Somali politics – notably those over the division of power and resources between Mogadishu and the federal states – are resolved.
Yet the lack of progress over recent years in repairing those relations and the absence of a clear, comprehensive framework for reconciliation mean that it is unclear when such a situation might arise. Rather than viewing outreach as part of a strictly linear process which requires a lengthy waiting period, officials could explore prospects for talks concurrently with other initiatives – such as pursuing intra-government reconciliation – to reduce mistrust in Somali politics.
Alongside the factiousness among elites, other Somalis are likely to have serious concerns about engaging Al-Shabaab.
These range from high-profile defectors from Al-Shabaab, or associated movements who still command loyalty or authority, to groups like Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a (ASWJ) and Macawisley that have engaged Al-Shabaab in active combat.
All would feel threatened by the prospect of government engagement with the insurgency, especially if it eventually resulted in Al-Shabaab becoming part of the government and political order. Many clans in Somalia are already armed in part because they trust no one else to protect them – for some, engagement with Al-Shabaab could further erode their confidence in the Somali government’s intentions and capacities. Clans would be especially wary if they have little representation of their own in Al-Shabaab or if they have crossed the organisation in the past.
A related stumbling block could be Al-Shabaab’s restrictive view of the place of women in society, whether with regard to women’s rights in the abstract, or to concrete matters like women’s capacity to travel or get an education. True, Al-Shabaab has adopted a pragmatic outlook in some areas, allowing women to work and move around in public without male custodians.
Yet what Al-Shabaab might insist on, with regard to women’s rights and social norms more widely, remains uncertain and a valid fear for many Somalis, given the group’s interpretation of Sharia. Such concerns are likely to affect the thinking of Somalia’s international partners, particularly Western donors, in order to ensure that advances they have invested in, such as expanding women’s rights over the past decade and a half, are not reversed.
Yet here, too, much remains unclear and worth testing through dialogue. The degree to which Al-Shabaab can stomach a social order in Somalia that does not rigidly correspond with what it has instituted in its own areas of administration can only be ascertained for sure through talks. This approach has some resonance locally. A prominent female politician who strongly advocates for negotiations explained to Crisis Group that Al-Shabaab’s views on women should not be considered an impediment per se, since if the group were to insist on strict measures that in her view have no place in Somali society, talks would not succeed in any case.
Another such female activist noted that politicians who had held conservative views about gender relations moderated their positions once in power, adding that she expected Al-Shabaab to make similar adjustments should it engage in dialogue.
IV. Toward Political Engagement with Al-Shabaab
After fifteen years of war, it appears doubtful that the Somali government, even with sustained external assistance, can defeat Al-Shabaab militarily. This point is increasingly acknowledged in Somalia. The vast majority of respondents interviewed for this report conveyed their view that there are few alternatives to engaging with the militants as an eventual means of ending the war.
The notion of waiting until conditions to initiate talks are more propitious is alluring but mistaken. Greater political unity among Somali elites would certainly help to row back the militants’ gains. But, on its own, unity is unlikely to be enough to right the ship, given how adaptable Al-Shabaab has been and how embedded the militants have become in Somali society. Nor, frankly, does it appear realistic to pin a military strategy – or, indeed, to condition talks with Al-Shabaab – on sustained reconciliation among Somali elites, however well-intentioned the new government may be. As for Al-Shabaab, it may presently have little interest in engaging the federal government, assuming that time is on its side amid donor fatigue and persistent government dysfunction. Yet a triumph for the militants is also likely to prove elusive given strong resistance from sections of Somali society and regional and international powers who will likely be determined to stop them from taking over in Somalia. With neither side likely to prevail, dialogue should remain an option to spare the country an endless struggle.
Exploring whether there is interest and enough common ground for a negotiated settlement thus makes sense. There are still many unknowns, especially when it comes to how much both Al-Shabaab and the federal government would be willing to compromise on key issues including modes of governance, interpretation of religious law and, on the part of the militants, willingness to curb operations outside Somalia. Success is far from guaranteed. Commencing outreach without answers to these questions may make some in the Somali government and among its international partners uncomfortable. But the reality is that in Somalia, as in many wars, gauging prospects for talks is not possible without undertaking some initial dialogue. Doubts about how much militants are prepared to compromise should not preclude engagement; rather, those questions should be explored through it.
To that end, the new Somali administration under President Mohamud should discreetly explore if there is interest on Al-Shabaab’s part to genuinely engage. The new president, who came to power on a platform of reconciliation, is serving a second time in office and can leverage his experience of what worked and what did not last time around. If initial probing finds interest on the militants’ side, authorities should take further steps to build confidence and eventually prepare the ground for a more formal process.
Gauging Al-Shabaab’s stance on negotiations with the government will be impossible without testing the waters. Timing for the new government matters. Ideally, it would actively explore options while it still has significant external security backing. The departure of foreign forces would be a key Al-Shabaab demand, so the issue could be part of an intra-Somalia dialogue, including with Al-Shabaab, as Crisis Group has argued previously.
The departure of foreign forces could thus be conditioned on actions that Al-Shabaab itself takes. The choice of interlocutors on the militants’ side will be another important factor. Given Al-Shabaab’s rigid, disciplined internal leadership structure, future attempts to explore the possibility of talks should focus first and foremost on outreach to the top leadership – Abu Ubeidah himself and those around him.
The incoming Somali administration should thus aim to quietly look into prospects for peace talks with Al-Shabaab. The immediate goal would be to establish lines of communication with the group’s leadership to test under what conditions the group might be ready to enter more formal talks and perhaps do some initial probing on what room there is for compromise on some of the big issues. The new government has several options for such outreach, all of which have advantages and disadvantages.
One possibility would be to appoint a high-level envoy, empowered to represent the government. Advantages would be, first, to have someone clearly entrusted by the president to speak on his behalf, and secondly, to keep the initial engagement under wraps – likely imperative in the early stages – and in the hands of a single discreet interlocutor. The challenges include that a lone representative is more likely, if dialogue became public, to play into perceptions that the outreach is politicised and fuel distrust among the government’s rivals. Another problem might be that since Al-Shabaab portrays all those working for the federal government as illegitimate, it may reject direct talks with a formal government appointee.
Certain religious scholars may be well placed to press [Al-Shabaab’s] leadership to consider talks.
A second option could be to identify a team of trusted intermediaries (or wasadah).
Clan elders and sheikhs are also two oft-cited groups with potential access to Al-Shabaab. Typically, Al-Shabaab deals with elders at sub-clan level rather than the larger clan families, while militants’ relations with prominent sheikhs are often testy, given bad-tempered theological debates they have engaged in. Yet certain religious scholars may be well placed to press the group’s leadership to consider talks. Businesspeople also maintain relations with Al-Shabaab and might play an intermediary role. In principle, their connections to all sides means they could serve as go-betweens for initial outreach, if they are willing to take the risk.
Any appointed group would have to be able to guarantee to Al-Shabaab that they have the federal government’s blessing and its assurances that it will follow through on any agreed-upon steps. It might also be worth considering a group of intermediaries alongside an officially appointed envoy to facilitate initial discussions.
The advantage of such a group could be that it can leverage pre-existing relations with Al-Shabaab and, because it does not directly comprise officials, might find it easier to get in touch with militant leaders to broach the topic of talks. Still, determining the best intermediaries will be tricky, given the distrust any contact is likely to generate among those who believe their interests are not represented within the team. It might also be harder to keep the endeavour quiet.
A third option could be the UN, through its mission in Somalia, UNSOM. The main advantages would be the body’s experience facilitating dialogue and ability to provide good offices, while the use of an external third party could help insulate initial contacts from Somali politics. Still, distrust of foreign involvement, even by a nominally neutral body like the UN, would be hard to overcome.
Nor does the current UN leadership appear inclined to such an undertaking, which is not explicitly defined in the mission’s mandate from the Security Council (though previous UN representatives do appear to have found space to explore prospects for talks).
In that sense, an initial Somali-led approach might, for now, have better chances of evolving into something viable.
Testing the waters for talks could yield a variety of benefits, even if the parties cannot take the next step to formal negotiations. Dialogue could explore Al-Shabaab’s stance on the thornier issues around Sharia, modes of governance and its external activities, for example, but also focus on ascertaining whether certain, more immediate confidence-building measures that would have benefits for both sides might be feasible. In this sense, while getting to political talks is a key objective, engagement can demonstrate potential benefits beyond this ultimate goal.
In particular, authorities might consider limited confidence-building measures aimed at forging trust, while working through their emissaries to urge Al-Shabaab to reciprocate with its own steps. This tack would allow the movement to soften its own violent public image. Some areas might include:
- The government could tone down the rhetoric it uses to describe Al-Shabaab. The concept of a “linguistic ceasefire” has been useful in other places, as a means of reducing tensions and building trust.
- Al-Shabaab could reciprocate, for example, by desisting from calling the government a group of apostates.
- Authorities could further take steps to improve personal safety and freedom of movement for Al-Shabaab family members, a concern of the group’s membership but also some of its leaders.
- The government can start by committing to Al-Shabaab that it will not harm relatives of militants who already reside in government-held areas – a matter consistent with Somalia’s obligations under international law, but one which the government can still emphasise. It could also open up avenues for these family members to travel between Al-Shabaab and government-held territories without facing recrimination.
- Al-Shabaab could reciprocate with its own commitments related to allowing low- and mid-ranking government officials to travel in Al-Shabaab territory to visit family members. Relatedly, Mogadishu could also undertake a basic verbal commitment to treat Al-Shabaab detainees better and avoid abusing or killing them – again, in keeping with international law.
- Somali authorities could offer practical benefits to improve the lives of people living under Al-Shabaab control, leveraging their advantage in areas of service provision, like health care. Creative measures should be considered to boost confidence by offering public goods to populations living under Al-Shabaab control. For example, Al-Shabaab could agree either to allow COVID-19 vaccinations for these people or to let them travel to government-held areas for the purposes of getting inoculated.
- Authorities would have to refrain from exploiting this access to gather information for planning attacks on the group. The drought afflicting Somalia at present further opens up immediate opportunities (and creates an urgent need) to ease tensions by ensuring relief supplies are delivered across territorial lines, which could come under the guise of a humanitarian truce.
- Eventually, the government should explore whether limited or local ceasefires in relation to specific operational activities or for humanitarian reasons could be possible on both sides. For example, militants could commit to halt their campaign of assassinations of elders and others that took part in elections, or commit to ceasing major attacks in Mogadishu.
- In return, the government could likewise commit to ceasing offensive operations in agreed-upon periods. The exchange of prisoners could be another measure to work toward, if sufficient trust can be built up on the two sides.
The Somali government could undertake any combination of these measures, increasing or decreasing in intensity in relation to Al-Shabaab’s reciprocation. The end goal would be finding creative means of improving the overall environment so that a basic relationship and level of trust can be established between the group and the government. If the parties can achieve this minimal understanding, they can lay the groundwork for eventual wider negotiations.
Engaging Al-Shabaab is bound to be a risky endeavour. The dangers range from militant leaders exploiting talks to regroup, to engagement with Al-Shabaab yielding nothing but deepening divides among Somali elites. These are genuine perils that the government will need to factor into any outreach. For the most part, though, there are ways to mitigate the dangers. None of the risks is in itself cause to put on hold efforts to at least test the waters with militant leaders.
A first risk is that, as has happened elsewhere when authorities engaged militants, Al-Shabaab exploits talks to regroup and prepare for another bout of fighting. Were that to happen, it could allow militants to gain greater battlefield advantage than they have at present. Yet establishing lines of communication with the group does not necessarily mean lowering the tempo of military operations or other efforts to weaken Al-Shabaab, such as stopping its flow of financing. Certain operations, such as targeted killings of leaders, may need to be paused to allow time for making contact, but overall military operations would likely continue, even if adapted to reinforce diplomacy.
Were initial talks held to yield some form of truce or cessation of hostilities, the danger of militants using that pause for their own ends would have to be accounted for. But that is unlikely to happen for some time.
As for the danger, cited by Western officials, that Al-Shabaab might use talks to engineer foreign forces’ exit before seizing the country – as those officials argue the Taliban did in Afghanistan – that, too, seems overblown. First, for the reasons outlined above, Al-Shabaab would likely struggle to capture and hold all of Somalia. Secondly, as long as the AU mission is around, it will be able to condition its withdrawal on concessions from Al-Shabaab. To suggest that Afghan Taliban negotiators misled their U.S. counterparts misreads complex talks that were in large part about the U.S. pulling out in exchange for counter-terrorism guarantees; U.S. dealmaking with the Taliban was motivated more by Washington’s intent to withdraw than by peacemaking.
Indeed, a flaw in the U.S. and other foreign forces' withdrawal from Afghanistan was arguably that it was insufficiently calibrated to encourage a peace process among Afghans.
With impatience among donors in Somalia still evident despite the AU mission mandate’s renewal, there is all the more reasons to try establishing contacts rather than wait.
The best way to stop militants’ views from carrying too much weight in a peace process usually lies in a more inclusive process of dialogue.
A second risk is that dialogue legitimises the group or that authorities wind up prioritising concessions to an outfit that deploys violence to maintain its power at the expense of more peaceful elements of society. This dilemma is hardly new for peacemakers; sadly, the interests of men with guns have often carried the day due to the imperative of ending violence. First, though, initial discreet contacts are unlikely to much change Somalis’ or outside powers’ perceptions of the group, particularly if they are kept secret. Over the longer term, the best way to stop militants’ views from carrying too much weight in a peace process usually lies in a more inclusive process of dialogue that gives other parts of society a say. It will certainly be an important challenge if peace talks do get under way. It is not, however, a reason to put off trying to establish lines of communication.
A third and particularly acute danger is that engagement becomes intertwined with Somali politics. Outreach by the new government could play into divisions in Mogadishu or widen the rift between federal authorities and some regions. Even if Al-Shabaab defines itself as sitting above clan politics, clan calculations are never far away. As an interlocutor put it, “Once you get to the negotiating table, it becomes a clan discussion”.
Previous integration of non-clan entities into Somalia’s political system has adhered to its organising principle of power-sharing among clans.
If negotiations were to progress, a disconnect could emerge if Al-Shabaab were to seek representation that challenged this prevailing framework, upsetting the country’s delicate clan balance.
A poorly thought-out or rushed process could sharpen those risks.
All this means that, if talks happen, it will also be a challenge to balance the need for discretion in order to advance negotiations with the duty to generate buy-in from among Somali society. To this end, future government negotiation efforts should build in consultations that include a wide swathe of political, social and civil society actors prior to engaging in substantive discussions.
A similar risk lies in international politics. The Somali authorities could engage Al-Shabaab, only to encounter severe resistance from outside that endangers nascent efforts. Pushback could, for example, come from neighbours that have been battling Al-Shabaab for years and are deeply hostile to its Islamist and expansionist agenda. This risk would be best dealt with through careful consultation with Somalia’s foreign partners, especially those who have invested substantially in counter-terrorism efforts in the country, and reassurances that any future settlement would factor in their interests. Building support in the U.S. for such an approach, which may not be completely out of the question, could help bring other countries on board.
U.S. backing and the development of a wider set of countries who support talks might also help manage any geopolitical friction if talks are eventually hosted outside the country for example.
A different danger is that engagement winds up endangering interlocutors among the militants themselves, emboldening hardliners and perhaps even splitting Al-Shabaab. Somali authorities might see a split as positive in terms of weakening the group, but it could leave an aggrieved rump faction that is less inclined to negotiations and more deeply committed to the Somali government’s violent destruction. The small Islamic State presence in Somalia, centred in the Bari region of Puntland – itself already a breakaway faction of Al-Shabaab – could wind up presenting itself as an anti-negotiation movement and attract dissidents.
This development would have two attendant risks – first, emboldening the Islamic State in Somalia, which to date has had minimal reach outside its mountainous Puntland hideout, and secondly, putting rival jihadist groups at each other’s throats. How much the Somali government can do to avoid engagement setting off unexpected dynamics within the jihadist movement is unclear, but discretion until militant leaders are prepared to go public would best protect those leaning toward dialogue.
The war with Al-Shabaab has dragged on for fifteen years. Little suggests that the militants can be defeated militarily. It is time to start exploring whether another approach can help bring peace. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s government should take the bold step of testing whether political engagement with Al-Shabaab can serve as a complement to military operations and other policies that seek to weaken the group. Al-Shabaab has thus far been reluctant to engage and success this time around is far from guaranteed: a pathway toward talks is unlikely to be the answer on its own and there are clearly risks along the way that the government will have to factor in to its approach. On balance, though, it is worth trying. After all, if the government genuinely seeks negotiations and Al-Shabaab rejects its overtures, more Somalis are likely to lay the blame for the war’s prolongation at the militants’ feet. The cost of continued conflict makes it imperative to at least keep the option of engagement on the table. Rejecting that option out of hand consigns Somalia to an intractable war with no end in sight.
Mogadishu/Nairobi/Brussels, 21 June 2022
Appendix A: Map of Somalia