The war with Al-Shabaab’s Islamist insurgency has dragged on for fifteen years. As it reviews its options, Somalia’s new government should look into what room there might be for dialogue with the group. The alternative is more fighting with no end in sight.
What’s new? Al-Shabaab’s lethal insurgency continues with no end in sight. The group consistently stays a step ahead of local and regional military operations. Combined with dysfunction and division among their adversaries, the militants’ agility has allowed them to embed themselves in Somali society. It also makes them hard to defeat.
Why does it matter? The protracted war has cost countless lives and derailed Somalia’s state-building project. There is growing domestic and international consensus that Al-Shabaab cannot be beaten by military means alone. Yet there is little appetite among Somali elites or the country’s international partners for exploring alternatives, notably talks with militant leaders.
What should be done? Putting off efforts to engage militants in the hope of gaining the upper hand militarily or forging greater unity among elites will prolong the conflict indefinitely. The government should seek discreet channels to Al-Shabaab leaders to test whether political negotiations and confidence-building steps might be feasible.
The war with Al-Shabaab’s Islamist insurgency has torn apart Somalia for more than fifteen years and shows no sign of abating. Military operations by Somalia’s government and its foreign partners have been stymied in part by discord between Mogadishu and the country’s regions, known as federal member states. For its part, Al-Shabaab has proven resilient, adjusting to counter-insurgency campaigns and entrenching itself deeper in parts of Somali society. The government that has just come to power, led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, may boost confidence that Somali forces can take the fight to militants. Yet even new leadership is unlikely to prevail over Al-Shabaab by force alone. Mohamud’s government should continue military operations and redouble efforts to repair relations among Somali elites. At the same time, it should seek to engage Al-Shabaab’s leaders to test whether political talks might be feasible and explore initial confidence-building steps that could reduce violence. The challenges to dialogue with militants are huge, but given that the alternative is incessant war, engagement is worth a shot.
Though military campaigns ousted Al-Shabaab from Somali cities in the early 2010s, counter-insurgency efforts by the government backed by a 19,000-strong African Union (AU) force have floundered of late, and time is running out. Political division underpins the failure. Relations between the federal government and some member states became more rancorous under Mohamud’s predecessor, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, or “Farmajo”. But elites have long channelled energy – even before Farmajo’s tenure – into bickering over power and resources, leaving the struggle against Al-Shabaab a secondary concern. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. A re-hatted AU force, whose mandate was renewed in April, will, in principle, keep Al-Shabaab at bay while Somali security forces build up, allowing AU troops to pull out by the end of 2024. In reality, few believe that Somali forces will be ready by then. The fraught debates of late 2021 over the AU mission’s extension illustrate that international patience with the present model of external assistance is waning.
Al-Shabaab, for its part, demonstrates internal coherence and capacity to adapt. It responded to early setbacks when pushed out of the capital, Mogadishu, in 2011 and the port city, Kismayo, a year later by switching to guerrilla warfare. It avoids costly frontal battles with opponents, instead sapping their strength through asymmetric attacks. Its dominance in rural areas, where it provides basic services in localities under its control, helps it recruit and generate revenue through taxation. The group has also sent operatives back into cities, where they run elaborate extortion rackets that at once fill its coffers and undermine government authority. Al-Shabaab is certainly not popular, but aspects of both its service provision and its message do hold some appeal. Moreover, its flexibility makes it difficult to counter militarily and its roots in society give it a degree of staying power.
Little suggests that Al-Shabaab will be defeated militarily, but nor are militants likely to prevail in the long run.
Both sides thus remain locked in an endless cycle of war. Authorities in Mogadishu may argue that by staying the course, with reforms to strengthen their own hand, a concerted military push and now a president who pledges reconciliation among elites, they can gain the upper hand over Al-Shabaab. Emboldened by the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan, Al-Shabaab calculates that it, too, can emerge victorious by biding its time, given the federal government’s weakness and external partners’ impatience. Both parties overestimate their chances. Little suggests that Al-Shabaab will be defeated militarily, but nor are militants likely to prevail in the long run. Powerful neighbours are more likely to step in directly, as they have before, if a militant takeover of large parts of Somalia looks as though it might be on the cards.
If the war is largely stalemated, obstacles to a negotiated settlement are formidable. Previous outreach efforts to militants have fizzled, either because Al-Shabaab leaders rejected them or because Mogadishu overly focused on stimulating defections from the group. Calls for dialogue from civil society and foreign actors, while growing louder, are driven by frustration with the status quo more than the existence of an opening. Al-Shabaab’s al-Qaeda ties hardly help. Neighbours Ethiopia and Kenya are hostile, driven partly by understandable fury at Al-Shabaab attacks in the region and partly by fear of Islamists with pan-Somali aspirations holding or sharing power in Mogadishu. Many Somalis also reject the idea of bringing in Al-Shabaab. Its brutality fuels loathing, even if this sentiment does not translate into support for Somali authorities. Clan politics could complicate engagement. Plus, militant leaders reject the government as illegitimate and show little readiness to compromise on their vision of Islamist rule – although in a recent public statement a high-ranking Al-Shabaab leader appeared to leave the door ajar generally to the idea of talks.
Given that the alternative is indefinite violence, Mohamud should test the waters with Al-Shabaab to see what might be feasible. This endeavour could take different forms: empowering an envoy, instituting a committee of individuals able to contact militant leaders or entrusting the UN, with its wealth of peacemaking experience, with reaching out to the group. Emphasis at first should be on discretion, given the task’s sensitivity. The immediate goal would be to probe with the group’s leadership under what conditions it might be ready to enter more formal talks and perhaps what room there might be for compromise on big issues, notably political and religious pluralism, the role of Islam in public life and demobilisation. If such efforts reveal readiness to engage on the militants’ side, both parties could take steps to build confidence – moderating how they speak of each other, for example, or concluding local ceasefires or getting vital assistance to populations living under Al-Shabaab control, especially amid the country’s recurring droughts. With time, these measures might prepare the ground for an official process.
Prospects for success are low – indeed, Al-Shabaab may again rebuff Mogadishu’s overtures – but the cost of some quiet exploratory outreach would not in itself be high. Most risks, if factored in, are manageable. To mitigate the danger that militants would use dialogue to regroup, the tempo of military operations could continue unabated, perhaps with some adjustment to targeted killings if meetings do take place with leaders. President Mohamud can follow through on his sensible pledges to repair relations between Mogadishu and federal states, even while making contact with Al-Shabaab. Suspicion among elites means that any diplomacy with militants could sow fear that the federal government is using it for other purposes, but that is a challenge to be managed through consultations if engagement with Al-Shabaab goes anywhere, not in its initial stages. Much the same applies to resistance from Somalia’s foreign partners, though Mohamud might err on the side of seeking Western backing, which could help bring along regional capitals, fairly early on.
There will never be an ideal time to engage Al-Shabaab, but it makes more sense to try now than to wait. The AU forces’ mandate means the departure of foreign troops – one of the insurgency’s core demands – can still be leveraged to extract concessions from the group. As for Al-Shabaab’s rigid ideological stance, uncompromising political vision, al-Qaeda links and activities outside Somalia’s borders, these remain daunting hurdles. But they are issues that should be tackled through negotiation rather than precluding it. No one should expect quick wins. If precedent from other places is anything to go by, getting to political talks is likely to be a lengthy process, with fits and starts, and the road to a settlement an even longer and more arduous one. But getting started requires initial soundings and the new government loses little by taking them. President Mohamud came to power promising reconciliation among Somalis. The question that peace in Somalia likely hinges on is whether that can extend to Al-Shabaab’s insurgency.