Sunday October 14, 2018
There is little doubt in my mind that the perpetrators of that scene
are akin to monsters. Despite this, I call for dialogue. I believe we
have to compel and convince al-Shabaab to come to the political
By Hussein Sheikh-Ali
Despite the horror of that attack a year ago, I’ve talked to this group, and I know that dialogue is the only way to deliver peace
Somali mourners at Soobe junction, now named 14 October Junction, in Mogadishu, 14 October. Photograph: Abdirazak Hussein Farah/AFP/Getty Images
Today is the one-year anniversary of one of the darkest days in Somalia’s history. On 14 October 2017, al-Shabaab suicide bombers drove a truck full of explosives into a crowded junction in the nation’s capital, Mogadishu. They killed approximately 600 people. Around 100 of those were children. The bomb scene was so large it resembled a canyon. For days, it was a crater of horror and tragedy.
I have been talking to them for years. Since 2009, members of al-Shabaab have been defecting and rejecting violence and the group’s ideology. During my time as counterterrorism advisor to the government of Somalia, I created and coordinated the country’s first and only defector programme. I managed several high-level defections from al-Shabaab, including their head of intelligence as well as dozens of soldiers. I would sit opposite them and listen to them for hours. What those defectors said in our meetings made me believe dialogue with al-Shabaab is possible.
To outsiders, al-Shabaab might sound like an unreasonable party to
negotiate with, but from warlords to Islamists, successive Somali
governments have always found room to accommodate opposition groups,
violent and nonviolent alike.
I’ve learned three crucial things. First, we have to understand
al-Shabaab. This organisation can be viewed metaphorically as a house,
with a roof, pillars and a floor. The roof is the element that can be
seen from miles away – al-Shabaab’s operations and its publicity
campaign. But the campaign to pacify al-Shabaab cannot merely focus on
that; it must also target the pillars that hold up the roof, the group’s
military and finances; and also the floors of the house, primarily its
rural support base and ability to influence at home and abroad. Ahead of
negotiations, it will be key to assess the personalities of
al-Shabaab’s current leaders, and identify what motivates them, as well
establish who is open to reconciliation and who is not.
Second, we must understand what al-Shabaab wants. It does not
recognise the current constitution of Somalia, describing it as not
sharia-compliant. President Mohamed “Farmaajo” Mohamed has promised to
deliver a new constitutional order before the next elections – and this
could potentially accommodate some of al-Shabaab’s demands.
The organisation has also always insisted on the withdrawal of
foreign troops from Somalia. Now that an exit strategy is being
formulated for the African Union
mission to Somalia, the government should show confidence in its
ability to secure Somalia on its own, and then consider how to integrate
al-Shabaab’s complex military machine into state structures. I believe
one approach would be to halt drone strikes during the build-up to
negotiations and during the peace talks themselves, as well as promising
not to prosecute the al-Shabaab leadership in court.
we must set the stage for talks. It is imperative that the Somali
government has a good communications strategy as news of the
negotiations becomes public. Somalis on both sides have experienced
atrocities and trauma, and the absence of justice and accountability has
sowed further grievances. The peace dividend that can be gained,
however, has no price. The government must deliver and articulate this
to the public.
While the road to talks with al-Shabaab will be far from easy, and
would certainly be fraught with personal grievances and the need for
revenge on both sides, I believe that deep down, we all want the same
thing: personal safety, economic revival for all and a future for our
We owe those killed last year a solution to this protracted and
demoralising conflict. Something most of them likely never experienced: a
chance for peace.
Hussein Sheikh-Ali was former national
security adviser and counter-terrorism adviser to the government of
Somalia. He spearheaded the creation of Somalia’s high level al-Shabaab
defectors’ programme and is the chairman of the Hiraal Institute, a