Al-Shabaab’s survival hinges on strategic civilian interaction – a recently published report says. While the Somali government often displays that al-Shabaab is on the back foot, having lost substantial territory during the government’s offensive, experts suggest otherwise. According to new research by the Hiraal Institute, Overseas Development Institute, and Centre on Armed Groups, al-Shabaab is playing the long game.
London, United Kingdom & Mogadishu, SOMALIA. By Yahya:
The militants are “strategically retreating ahead of the clan militias and government forces, taking some civilians with them and keeping tabs on those left behind,” authors Mohamed Mubarak and Ashley Jackson emphasize in the report. The study examines how and why the dynamics between al‑Shabaab and civilians have differed in three areas of prolonged al‑Shabaab control: Adan Yabal, Moqokori and Jilib.
One of the study’s key takeaways is that al-Shabaab’s relationship with civilians is crucial for its survival. This is different from the mainstream perception that the Somali government helps disseminate, which evolves mostly around al-Shabaab’s military defeat. The Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) and its official media channels focus daily on the military offensive, showing off alleged hundreds of killed al-Shabaab fighters. However, the government narratives entirely lack the focus on governance, on territories both governed by al-Shabaab or liberated from al-Shabaab.
The presented paper explores this gap. It describes how al-Shabaab exploits civilian frustration with political exclusion and government neglect. In the areas al-Shabaab controls, the group provides public goods, such as security and justice, and allows civilians a degree of influence over how the Islamists govern. Clan elders, in particular, use their leverage to extract benefits from al-Shaabab. Their influence over al-Shabaab, the study explains, depends on many factors, such as clan unity and the strategic or military value of a given community to the militant group.
Playing the long game
Military defeat is not enough should the al-Shabaab threat be eliminated for good from Somalia. The authors of the research paper assert that al-Shabaab is nowhere near defeat. Instead, it is “strategically retreating and playing the long game, betting on the government’s inability to maintain control over the long term.” As the previous counter-al-Shabaab offensives have shown, this bet is legitimate.
“Al-Shabab is deeply entrenched in local politics and customary governance within the areas it controls. Local elites actively participate in the group’s governance project for personal and communal gains, and clans compete for Al-Shabab favour and resources,” the report underlines.
Al-Shabaab’s deep entrenchment in local politics and clan structures clearly underscores the need for a comprehensive political, governance, and reconciliation strategy. Military means only, no matter how strong they would be, can not accomplish long-term stability.