At ceremonies here to mark the first anniversary of the shooting rampage at the Westgate Mall by four Al Shabab gunmen that left 67 people dead, Sgt. Godfrey Emojong offered a remarkable tale of survival. He was one of the first policemen to arrive at the scene that Sept. 21, one of the lightly armed officers who believed they were responding to a robbery.
But the sight of the dead bodies piling up told a different story. Minutes later, as he was helping to move people out of the line of fire, Sergeant Emojong was hit, downed with 15 bullet wounds.
“I have been through hell and back,” he said. “And every day I am grateful for the time I have been given to be with my wife and two young children.”
For Sergeant Emojong and hundreds of others who survived four days of mayhem at Westgate, there’s a small crumb of comfort in the fact that Al Shabab’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed on Sept. 1 in a drone strike by American forces. But Mr. Godane’s death does not spell the end of Al Shabab. Rather, it offers a narrow window of opportunity for the international community to exploit the power vacuum in its leadership and offer solid, practical reasons for its rank and file to put down their weapons.
The Somalia-based terrorist group has been severely weakened in the year following the Westgate killings, not just by the death of its leader, but also because he had eliminated potential successors. Moreover, a United Nations-funded African coalition of 22,000 troops has pushed the group out of key population centers in Somalia, closing off vital sources of income.
Thus it was hardly surprising that President Obama, in his recent speech outlining his administration’s strategy against the Islamic State group, cited Somalia as one of the places where American “air power and our support for partner forces on the ground,” have borne fruit. Yet to expect that these military advances will lead to the comprehensive defeat of Al Shabab is to misapprehend the nature of the group.
“Al Shabab” means “the youth.” It was the name given to the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of clerics that, at the turn of the century, began ousting the warlords who had controlled Somalia since the fall of the central government in 1991. Although the Islamic Union imposed a harsh interpretation of Shariah law, a war-weary public largely welcomed the return to a semblance of law and order.
But the Islamic Union came on the scene at the wrong time. Claims that it harbored an extremist agenda set off alarms in Washington, especially following the Sept. 11 attacks. In December 2006, Washington gave the green light for Ethiopian troops to enter Somalia and battle Al Shabab. A two-year insurgency against troops from a traditional enemy (Ethiopia-Somalia rivalry goes back centuries) only made Al Shabab more popular, and the group hit a high-water mark in 2009 when Ethiopian troops withdrew.
However, an internal split soon cost Al Shabab most of its public support. The group has long been divided between nationalist leaders interested in ruling Somalia under Islamic law and those aligned with Al Qaeda and its vision of global jihad. This second group, led by Mr. Godane and backed by Gulf-state financing, alienated many Somalis with its indiscriminate killings.
“A lot of people advised the international community to reach out to the moderates within the Shabab and arrive at an accommodation with them to isolate the extremists,” says Rashid Abdi, a specialist on the Horn of Africa. “Critics in the West said that would be a policy of appeasement, but the outcome of the failure to engage was the rise in the power of the hard-line, much more radicalized faction of Al Shabab.”
The death of Mr. Godane offers an opportunity. There are scant prospects of talks with Al Shabab’s core leadership, which is firmly aligned with Al Qaeda and must continue to be dealt with militarily. But these jihadists should be viewed separately from the thousands of young men who joined the movement mainly to earn a living. Reaching out to them and to more moderate mid-ranking members is essential.
The Somalia government has offered a 45-day amnesty for Shabab fighters to give up their arms, but it’s not clear what kind of treatment those who surrender their weapons might expect. The government must make concerted efforts to improve the lives of citizens in the areas where Al Shabab has been routed. Washington and its allies should press Mogadishu to channel Western aid into these efforts and work with some of the more effective federal administrations in various parts of the country to improve the water supply, health care and economic activity.
The world community should make it clear that African coalition troops are not battling Somali nationalists but a diminished jihadi force that includes foreign fighters intent on terrorizing Somalis and waging terrorism abroad.
Here in Kenya, fear of Al Shabab remains strong. The border with Somalia is porous, and corrupt police and immigration officials have been known to turn a blind eye to the activities of the extremists. Moreover, in the year since the Westgate Mall attack, the sense of national unity many Kenyans shared in its immediate aftermath has given way to mistrust of our Muslim minority. Security service actions that seem to target Kenya’s ethnic Somali Kenyan citizens can fuel suspicion and resentment that Shabab extremists can readily exploit. It is far better to build bridges of cooperation with the Muslim community, whose leaders in turn have a duty to act against radicalization in their midst.
The United States and its allies are right to confront the more implacable elements of Al Shabab militarily. But the tragedy of Somalia is that military solutions have trumped nearly all other approaches. We must adopt a more nuanced strategy, one that acknowledges Al Shabab’s complex makeup and attempts to isolate its hard-line extremists from its many young members who joined the group merely to make a living.
Murithi Mutiga is an editor at the Nation Media Group in Kenya.