Comment: Are Somalia’s militant Islamist ‘defectors’ genuine?

Al-Shabaab militants in SomaliaBy IAN ALLEN| |
During the past two years, the once powerful influence of Islamic militancy in Somalia appears to be steadily declining. Not long ago, much of the country was firmly controlled by al-Shabaab (The Party of Youth), formerly the youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union, which ruled Somalia until 2006. The group, which is thought to have approximately 5,000 armed members at its disposal, emerged as a powerful force in Somalia in 2009. Three years later, in 2012, it formally announced its operational alignment with al-Qaeda. Its power began to wane, however, once the Western-backed Somali government decided to confront it militarily, with the support of the United States Central Intelligence Agency and several European-funded private security companies. A major indicator of this optimistic trend seems to center on the unprecedented numbers of al-Shabaab members who are defecting –apparently en masse– and joining the ranks of the Somali armed forces. Many of these defectors are trained by private security companies employed by the European Union before being sent to the front to fight against their former comrades.

But the optimism of Western and pro-government Somali observers was tempered last week by news that an al-Shabaab defector blew himself up in an attempt to kill the country’s Prime Minister, Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid, and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Saaid and Mohamud survived the bombing, which shook the area around the presidential palace in Somali capital Mogadishu. The incident, however, prompted some commentators to wonder whether the ongoing wave of al-Shabaab defectors is genuine. Some reports from Somalia suggested that the suicide bomber, Ali Abdi Hared Malin, an al-Shabaab defector, was a member of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency.

Could it be that the militant Islamist group is copying the tactic of the Afghan Taliban, whose clandestine members are systematically infiltrating the ranks for the Afghan military, police and security services, in an attempt to destabilize the Afghan government from within? A senior military consultant for the Somali National Army, Abdi Hassan, argues that some defectors have in fact proven useful in subverting al-Shabaab operations, but that “not all defectors are genuine and honest”.

Some commentators are critical of the Somali government’s ‘defector policy’, which, they say, is nothing more than a mass arrest campaign. Under this program,  al-Shabaab members are captured in the bush and placed in ‘reform camps’, where they undergo a ‘rehabilitation campaign’ of dubious reliability. Paul D. Williams an Associate Professor and Associate Director of the Security Policy Studies program at  George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, notes that much of this problem comes down to funding. The Somali government’s Western backers are eager to fund military operations, but little thought has been devoted to rehabilitation programs for former al-Shabaab members. He argues that “without the necessary financial support, efforts to transition former fighters into alternative livelihoods will fail, and ‘disengaging’ will prove only temporary as disgruntled individuals turn against the government or to banditry”. And he warns that, “given the significant military and political progress that has been made in Somalia over the last year, it would be a major blunder to skimp on this crucial part of the enterprise”.

2 Responses to Comment: Are Somalia’s militant Islamist ‘defectors’ genuine?

  1. Pete says:

    Al-Shabaab defectors who commit suicide by bombing are obviously too commited to Islam and/or al-Shabaab to be swayed by what are relatively weak concepts of Somalian nationalism or patriotism.

    Furthermore rehabilitation programs probably represent new ways to spend Western money in the vain hope of secularising or Westernizing people in a society where Islamic/tribal/clan/other group affinity are stronger. Somalia, like Afghanistan, are insufficiently stable, both with many dominant warlords, for money wasting rehabilitation programs to work.

    Soon after Western forces or Western money leave Somalia the locals will revert to their usual ways.

  2. Eddy says:

    The efforts of the kenyan and burundian military in bringing al shabaab atrocities in kismayo and other major towns to the bearest minimum is been ignored in this write up. Also, i believe these so called rehabilitated islamists are just a flash in a pan. I’d call them infiltrators.

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