The recent killing of Al Shabaab’s radical leader Ahmed Godane could enable a moderate faction within the group to seek a negotiated settlement with Somalia’s government, a leading US specialist on Somalia suggested last week.
The US air strike that killed Mr Godane in September may create political space inside Al Shabaab for emergence of a faction that is “more Islamo-nationalist and less inclined to pursue a global jihad agenda,” said Ken Menkaus, a university professor who has published numerous studies on Somalia.
The “vast majority” of Shabaab fighters are not driven by religious or ideological zeal but were conscripted or drawn by the offer of payment or “the chance to loot,” he observed.
If a less radical element does try to make a power-sharing deal with federal authorities in Mogadishu, most Somalis would likely respond favourably, Prof Menkhaus remarked during a panel discussion on Somalia at a Washington think-tank.
Somalis generally believe that Al Shabaab will not be defeated militarily, and they regard some of the group’s leaders as “redeemable,” added the Davidson College scholar.
But “some powerful external actors” would not be receptive to peace talks leading to Al Shabaab’s inclusion in Somalia’s government, Prof Menkhaus cautioned.
“Ethiopia will be quite allergic” to that possibility, he said. Washington would also have major reservations, he added, noting that US laws forbidding political contact with designated “terrorists” make no provision for decertifying militants who turn to peaceful means to address grievances.
In addition, a peace settlement in Somalia would not necessarily eliminate the threat that violent Islamists pose inside Kenya, Prof Menkhaus suggested.
Al-Hijra, Al Shabaab’s affiliate in Kenya, “has distinct interests and command-and-control” structure that could enable it to continue its operations even if Al Shabaab itself is terminally weakened or moves to lay down its arms.
Due to its continuing loss of territory inside Somalia, Al Shabaab in the short term will likely try to strengthen its presence in Kenya, Prof Menkhaus continued.
The militant Islamist organisation “has found very fertile ground” among Somali Kenyans, Muslims on the Coast and slum dwellers in Nairobi and other cities, he said.
Another speaker on the same panel at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies cited “a worrying scenario for the Kenyan government” whereby various communities with longstanding grievances coalesce behind Al Shabaab or Al Hijra.
Ms Blanchard pointed to a recent study by the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies. In Somalia, the insurgency has declined in potency since its peak in 2008, he said.
“This is an organisation in decline, but it will remain for the foreseeable future a dangerous security threat to Somalia, Kenya and the Horn region.”