When pundits and politicos in Washington think of Somalia, the first thing they likely think of is al-Shabaab, the violent rebel group that sprung from the military wing of the Islamic Courts Union that once ran the country. That’s especially true in light of last week’s news that Doctors without Borders is pulling out of Somalia after 20-plus years in the country, due to an increase in violent attacks. That’s also likely what the Department of Homeland Security was thinking when they detained me for questioning at JFK Airport after I returned from Somalia this week.
The al-Shabaab fit nicely into the characteristics of the West’s war on terrorism as well as the conservative’s narrative about Islam and violence. But there is much that is misunderstood about this movement and the country that is trying to quell it.
First, al-Shabaab, which means “youth” in Arabic, is largely made up of young persons who were previously unemployed, aimless and impoverished. They are recruited with nothing more than a $20 gift or a cell phone. Additionally, much of the mid-level leadership is filled by marginalized clans, persons who didn’t get to participate in the political process, at least not in a meaningful way like the handful of majority clans have historically.
My research, including this recent trip to the country, has shown that the majority of al-Shabaab is not composed of people who are inherently set with a sinister agenda for Somalia and the West, but rather people in search of job security and political power. The good news here is that these needs can be met through more legitimate means; it’s up to the Somali government and the international community to make sure they’re met.
While this may not be an easy task, the outline of it is clear. First order of business: Ensure that Somalia’s president and prime minister’s spots, ministerial posts, and members of parliament are better balanced, more inclusive, and more representative, as they have, for decades, been dominated by a few clans only. Second order of business: prioritize socio-economic development, something that has not been placed on the West’s agenda for the Horn.
As I walked the streets of Mogadishu, thousands of youth milled about, aimless, listless and jobless. But in speaking with the women and youth organizations and coalitions operating throughout the country, the United States has not invested in strategies to get these kids off the streets and into jobs. This is a missed opportunity, one that does not require much funding, and one that should be remedied immediately.
That the U.S. Department of Justice’s Terrorist Watchlist creates obstacles to aid — e.g. support for socio-economic development and job creation for youth who are at risk of recruitment by al-Shabaab — is problematic. Somalias most recent famine, in 2010-2012, which killed over 250,000 Somalis, is believed to be partially a result of the World Food Programme retracting its food distribution out of fear it would end up in the hands of al-Shabaab.
There must be a better way. While I understand why policymakers wouldn’t want U.S. aid to end up in the hands of people who do violence, what about U.S. aid for preventing people from doing violence? These Somali youth need our help and if we fail to offer it to them, they will go to the loudest local recruiter, who, in many cases, is the Shabaab.
Second, the Somali leadership, within the government and without, is categorically against the al-Shabaab’s agenda and the violence it is waging. In their view, and mine, these are criminals doing criminal acts, and not representatives of Islam at all. And while it is deeply unfortunate that the U.S. government dealt so poorly with the Islamic Courts Union in 2006, when they first emerged as a more mainstream and less violent movement, that is the past that cannot be undone. What can be changed, however, is how we now engage the Somali government, its people, and its threats.
That path is clear; it is up to us to support it. In meetings with Somalia’s Prime Minister, Ministers of Defense, Interior and National Security, and Foreign Affairs, as well as the Speaker of the Parliament and myriad members of the parliament, they discussed how the Shabaab can be dismantled on several fronts. Whether it’s disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs and rigorous religious retraining and rehabilitation for former fighters — or, for future fighters, something more preventative like skills training and job placement to ensure that the Shabaab’s recruitment strategies (often a simple offer of a free cell phone) are ineffective – the West must be ready to reconsider how we prevent violence overseas because the current approach isn’t working. We’re allowing new recruits to be swept up for something as simple as a cell phone. Certainly we can do better.
Somalia needs America to do better. There’s incredible opportunity for engagement but we’re not seizing it, and, instead, sticking to our old ways in America’s so-called “war on terror.” Ways that are military-focused, not socio-economically inclined, and engaging only segments of the population, not the disenfranchised and marginalized. If we want to win over Somalis, an about-face is needed, and it is needed now.
This is a critical moment in Somalia’s national rebuild and we can help tip the scales towards something very positive. But it requires a serious rethink on how we wage war. In Somalia, a war on poverty and unemployment would go a lot farther in meeting our objectives than our current strategy – and for a lot less money. The time for that rethink is now.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Adjunct Faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.