June 28, 2024


Is the Somali government about to open negotiations with al-Shabaab?

More by Kenya Forum Somalia Correspondent

We don’t talk to terrorists – or do we?

We don’t talk to terrorists – or do we?

President Mohamud (Photo courtesy Bloomberg.com)

Is the Somali government about to open negotiations with al-Shabaab?

There was a flurry of messages on Friday morning from self-proclaimed Somali ‘journalists’ on social media stating that the Somali government would soon begin negotiations with the al-Qa’ida linked terrorist group, al-Shabaab. Everyone in Kenya will remember the attacks on Westgate Mall (2013), Garissa University (2015) and Dusit D2 (2019). Somalia itself has borne the brunt of al-Shabaab’s reign of terror since 2006. So why would the Somali government break the golden rule of fighting terrorism, that ‘we don’t talk to terrorists’? After all, that gives them legitimacy and may even empower them.

The Somali National Security Advisor, Hussein Sheikh Ali, denied the remarkably detailed story – specific dates for al-Shabaab to identify its ‘negotiating team’, followed by discussion in late-July, then November and a final deal ratified by April 2020 – but this all may been a testing of the waters to see what the response was and to socialise the concept. The response was split between those who hailed it as a step towards peace in the restive country, and those who saw it as a sell-out and its proponents as pro-al-Shabaab or just giving into terrorists.

Killing them all doesn’t work anymore

As unpalatable as it might seem, especially to those who have lost loved ones to in terrorist atrocities or felt the brunt of the group’s brutality, history would support the former, pro-negotiation view. In recent memory only two terrorist campaigns were defeated by sheer military force, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and the Chechens in the former Soviet Union. In both cases ‘peace’ took at least a decade to achieve, used methods that would make a modern nation an international pariah, and in both instances there is a suspicion that the problem has been suppressed or displaced, not resolved.

Most other terrorist campaigns end in a mix of legal and technological constraints that hinder the terrorists, a degree of compromise on some issues, and inclusion of the former terrorists in the political process. Peace comes at a price, but the price, proponents say, is better than long, bloody campaigns that harm civilians most and stop the subject nations achieving security, stability and prosperity.

Peace in the next generation’s time

Now the bad news. Negotiated settlements can take time. The UK government was speaking to the Irish Republican Army for decades and the so-called ‘Troubles’ lasted three decades and are still not fully resolved, with hardline splinter groups still continuing the fight. In Colombia negotiations with the FARC took 34 years. Just under a year is an unrealistic timeline, even if the negotiations with al-Shabaab are, in fact, real.

There are a host of other factors to be taken into account. Intermediaries and neutral locations are vital: the negotiations with the FARC were led by Norway, supported by the UN and funded by the US, and took place in Cuba. One version of the al-Shabaab story stated that Norway, Qatar and the US would be the intermediaries. The latter two are unlikely to be palatable. Qatar was vital to negotiations with the Afghan Talibaan (which that ended so well…). But it has a stake in the Horn of Africa nation, and it actively supported the previous Somali administration, under President Farmajo: that makes it a no-go for President Hassan Sheikh’s government.

The US is ‘the far enemy’ for al-Shabaab, even though it kills predominantly Somalis, so for the terrorists the Americans are a no-go. Much more acceptable intermediaries might have been Muslim countries with no stake such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia or, further afield, Pakistan or Indonesia. Neutral countries such as Switzerland are always a good option as well. But neighbours are not. There are many conditions to be met in identifying suitable interlocutors.

The bumpy road to peace

Then there are the inevitable stumbling blocks. Colombia initially conducted its negotiations in secret, then went overt and put the peace process to a popular vote: the people of Colombia rejected it, a setback that took years to recover from. Some factions – on both sides – will want to keep fighting. There is also the question of when to negotiate: it is natural to assume that the best time is when the terrorist group is on the back foot and at a disadvantage but the evidence indicates that this is not necessarily true. Transition periods for terrorist groups are often better, and they might be occurring while the group is still relatively strong.

The easy option?

In the end, negotiated settlement seems worth it – Northern Ireland is now probably the best part of the United Kingdom to live in, for example – but the effort required is immense. Sadly, sometimes it is easier to just keeping fighting.



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