Can soft power defeat al-Shabab in Somalia?

Since 2006, with the exception of a few setbacks between 2012 and 2014, al-Shabab has maintained an active insurgency in Somalia, preventing state-building projects in the country and threatening peace and security efforts throughout East Africa. Hoping that an alternative approach could help save the country, Somali leaders have decided to adopt “soft power” strategies to tame the militant group. This has entailed direct dialogue with the group’s leaders and outreach efforts to its dissident elements who, if neutralized, could become key in exposing the group’s plans and dismantling its structure.

Engaging the movement in a peaceful political dialogue is not new: over the past fifteen years, the suffering of the Somali people under the al-Shabab insurgency has spurred many attempts to contain and integrate it into the national fabric. In 2012, the government of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed managed to convince hundreds of the group’s most dangerous dissident elements to curb their activities. The following year, an internal conflict within the movement led to the surrender of some of its top leaders, including Sheikh Hassan Tahir Owais, Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansour), Mohamed Said Attam, and Zakariya Ahmed Ismail Hersi, who led the group’s activities in Somalia and was the commander of intelligence and financing operations. In September 2014, Mogadishu announced an offer of conditional amnesty to al-Shabab fighters, but the offer was rejected.

Undeterred by this refusal, the Somali government has undertaken unprecedentedly ambitious initiatives to engage with defectors from the movement and to integrate them into its counterterrorism strategies. Last year, Somali Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre decided to appoint Robow, the former deputy leader of the al-Shabab militant group, as the Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs in his government. Barre explained that this appointment would reassure other potential defectors, convincing them that the state would not only welcome their return but also allow them to assume the highest political positions. Barre also believes that Robow’s experience as a leader of al-Shabab, as well as his intellectual and ideological background, will help Somalia eradicate the jihadist literature that extremists propagate and encourage more defections.

The appointment of Robow was also welcomed by the Somali President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who has been waging an ideological war against al-Shabab. He has launched a religious media campaign, spearheaded by Robow with the participation of hundreds of Islamic scholars, to repudiate al-Shabab’s violent extremism and strike at its intellectual foundations, in the hope that the group will be forced to surrender and agree to a binding national dialogue.

Although this tactic may seem logically sound, it may not yield the desired outcome, for several reasons.

First, al-Shabab generates over $100 million per year through multiple funding streams. This sum ensures that the group’s illicit activities will continue, especially given that factions within the Somali government continue to fight for political influence, which prevents Mogadishu from establishing permanent governance throughout Somalia’s various regions. This political dysfunction has been an asset for al-Shabab, allowing them to invest in their financial and logistical resources to recruit more youth, strengthen their hierarchy, and compensate for their losses from defectors.

Second, the international arms embargo of Somalia has weakened the government’s negotiating position with al-Shabab. Whenever the state succeeds in taming dissidents, it fails to utilize their knowledge and expertise to target the group’s organizational structure, or to even bring it to the negotiations table.

Third, the group’s rigid ideology—especially among its youth elements—often prevents any positive interaction with governments, makes them extremely hostile to Western interference in local affairs, and strengthens their unwavering insistence on applying Sharia law and reviving an Islamic caliphate.

Finally, Robow’s appointment has been extremely controversial in the Somalia, as many interpret it as not only rewarding Somali killers, but also as evidence that al-Shabab has infiltrated the state.

So far, attempts to contain al-Shabab have not yielded tangible results, but the international community recognizes the promise of these efforts, if properly supported. The Somali people must also come to appreciate the potential of a “soft power” approach to al-Shabab—one that not only achieves constructive dialogue and political appointments, but also allows Somalia to build a strong national army, particularly with the approaching the exit of the African Union forces at the end of 2024.

Taking advantage of the growing hostility between al-Shabab and the tribal militias, Somalia could adopt a comprehensive national strategy to mobilize all available resources against extremism, especially after the group denounced the appointment of Robow the “apostate” and called for his assassination. And just as Somalia should continue to coordinate with regional and international partners to cut off the group’s funding, so too should the government pay closer attention to internal problems like ignorance, poverty and unemployment that push Somali youth towards extremism.

Mohsen Hassan is an Egyptian academic researcher and journalist. His work focuses on conflict, development, and political Islam in the Middle East and Africa. He is a research associate at several Arab and international research centers. Follow him on X @twittmohsen2011.