Arguing for dialogue with terrorists

Arguing for dialogue with terrorists

By Victor Adar

A couple of months ago, Al Shabaab militants attacked Garissa’s Rural Border Patrol Unit police post in Yumbis. Apart from shooting randomly, the terror gang also razed the camp and brought down a Safaricom mast, cutting off communication. 

In a separate case, seven police officers died in an Improvised Explosive Device attack at Khorof Harar, in Wajir East sub-county. The same militants are also believed to be behind the abduction of two Cuban doctors – Herrera Correa and Landhi Rodriguez – in Mandera town. 

Militants might be the biggest enemies of development. With all the tears and mess they cause, and given that authorities are unable to decisively deal with them, why do we still rule out dialogue? Who is right and who is wrong? Isn’t it time authorities dialogued with Al-Shabaab? 

For nearly 12 years, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has supported the war-torn country’s security forces in an attempt to neutralise the Al-Shabaab and protect the masses. To a large extent, this is yet to bear fruit. 

Although military force is indispensable, analysts and people abreast with terrorism trends say that force (which is constitutionally sanctioned) along with dialogue could yield better results. 

According to Michael Keating, the United Nations Special Representative to Somalia, it is incumbent on regional leaders to strengthen co-operation between themselves and the central government to create stable conditions for economic growth and foster peace.

“For a stable Somalia, there must be tangible progress in building security forces that are both capable and trusted, adopting a justice model, clarifying constitutional arrangements and power-sharing arrangements, passing an electoral law, and increasing revenues on the basis of resource- and revenue-sharing agreements,” says Keating. 

Dialogue, of course, seems like an odd suggestion. But if it is just about stability and peace, then it begins to look appealing. The pain and the anguish that people go through as a result of terrorism could be reduced if dialogue was thrown in the mix. This is an aspect one Somali veteran journalist (whom this writer shall call Noor) believes will pay off. 

Noor, appreciating the complex nature of government-Al-Shabaab relations, argues that there must be a balance to the fight against terror. While concurring that the reason the Horn of Africa country has failed to find peace and stability is because of militant groups, he points out that the vulnerable underbelly is the common citizen. He also contends that there is a contemporary agreement that the elders, at least, know the terror group members, and indication that they can talk, and bring them to the table for dialogue. 

“It is better to be cautious and have other ways just in case force fails. I appreciate the constitution wholeheartedly. I just know that there is more to achieve through dialogue… it doesn’t mean that the government has to work with them per se.” 

Noor offers that at one time, an investigative foreign journalist in Somalia was shocked when some people purporting to be militants approached her to reveal who they were – just to let her know who was in charge. The journalist did not know she had been followed, and shuddered to think that if they had wanted to do something to her, they could have.

“Their intelligence network is something else,” Noor says. “They seem to know what you are up to, the places you visit, where you stay and the people you talk to… They also read everything written about them in the media.”

The dialogue Noor proposes must be “direct, honest, and with both parties saying what they want, so that a middle ground is found.” 

 “It is nothing about being a sympathiser. It is a matter of trying to do something different.”

The Taliban-US Forces engagement is a prime example of how guided dialogue, rather than force, can help quell animosities. After close to seventeen years in Afghanistan, US forces are eventually withdrawing after what could be said to be successful talks, which brought some relative calm thus allowing warring factions to see need to set up a government for both themselves and the masses. 

This tactic also worked in Guatemala. The Colombian government under president Juan Manuel Santos agreed to a peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia People’s Army, a move that put to an end a 52-year-old war. 

Hussein Sheikh-Ali, chair of the Hiraal Institure, a Mogadishu-based think tank who also worked as a national security adviser and counter-terrorism adviser to the Somalia government, also believes that dialogue is a feasible option. In an opinion published by UK-based Guardian newspaper, he admitted to having spearheaded the creation of Somalia’s high level al-Shabaab defector’s program. 

By his own admission, Sheikh-Ali notes that he was able to get a critical mass, and even entice hardliner al-Shabaab defectors, including one head of intelligence, because the parties agreed to look at the bigger picture.

Because of their methods, many view the militia group as unreasonable. But the Somalia government has dialogued with warlords and Islamic extremists before, and perhaps a one-on-one meeting with the group could offer insights on how to engage with them logically or within the bounds of law.

In any event, an appreciable number of issues that Al-Shabaab foot soldiers are primarily concerned with include nationalistic and clan matters which are opposed to the global jihad. In essence, what drives them is basically what is termed the “use of armed conflict to expand the Islamic world”. 

Some wonder, because the militants believe that the Somalia constitution is not Sharia compliant, what good would talks do? For example, will it make sense for the President to listen to such views and come to consensus if he does not subscribe to the same train of thought? Who controls the process? And so on

The issues

The militia has always insisted on unconditional withdrawal of foreign troops from Somalia; the African Union is currently drafting a formula. What the Somalia government must do now is to instil hope in its citizens that they can guarantee maximum security. There is a suggestion incorporate the military-trained operatives into the federal forces once the foreign armies roll out. Carefully managed, it is not undoable.

Secondly, the absence of justice to victims of both the militant group and the citizens of Somalia stands out. This has left many traumatised and inspired further division.

Next, the need for Somalia to work out economic revival cannot be overemphasized, and should inspire the pursuit of dialogue. 

Although observers opine that negotiations with the terrorists are tantamount to negotiating with the enemy and are a sign of weakness (it could also mean that authorities are openly rewarding terrorist behaviour), others hold the view that dialogue with Al-Shabaab could be compared to a political settlement.

Whether the same tactic will pay off in Somalia is a matter for the experts to unravel. But we can all agree that it is too important a matter to ignore.

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