Airstrikes won’t kill Al Shabaab, work for the youth will do the job

Wednesday November 22 2017

Young and vulnerable men are easily recruited to violent, extremist groups because there are few other prospects for making a living. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG


Last weekend, US forces launched a series of airstrikes in Somalia – four of which targeted the military group Al Shabaab. This came a month after the deadliest single attack in Somalia’s history struck Mogadishu.

A truck bomb killed more than 350 civilians and injured over 500 when it exploded in the busiest street in the city. Homes up to three kilometres away were damaged by the blast, which razed everything in the immediate vicinity to the ground. Bodies were found under collapsed houses.

I have lived in Mogadishu and other similar towns all my life, and I have never experienced anything like this before.

After the bombing last month, I met a mother who had taken her three children to school that morning, and had just heard that they had all died on the bus on their way back home.

A father had flown into Mogadishu to celebrate his daughter’s graduation from medical school, but never got to see her, as his plane landed an hour after she had been killed.

The sheer scale and shock of the atrocity affected everyone in the city and beyond. Thousands of hearts have been broken by the loss of family and friends, and the people of my city are now living in a heightened state of fear and uncertainty.


Although this is the worst attack our country has seen in years, daily violence has been a reality for the people of Somalia since 1991.

For nearly 30 years, we’ve seen conflict between clans, tribal warlords, government forces, religious groups, and freelance militias, and endured regular fighting between the government and Al Shabaab.

We need hope

In this conflict, innocent civilians continue to lose their lives, homes, and loved ones, and are deprived of the opportunity to live in peace.

The response from the people of Mogadishu to the attack on October 14 was one of unhesitating solidarity. Those fortunate enough to escape the blast gave blood for the injured, comforted the bereaved, and started to rebuild damaged homes and infrastructure the very next day.

The international community also responded quickly: Foreign governments and NGOs sent money and humanitarian aid, and Turkey airlifted the wounded to hospitals in Istanbul when ours were overwhelmed. This was all so gratefully received. But what we’re still lacking, and what we need in Somalia more than ever, is some hope that this indiscriminate and unrelenting violence will end.

Of course, a solution to such a complex and entrenched conflict is hard to find. But as one of the many citizens trying to build peace in a country long-plagued by war, I know by now that high-level meetings, international processes and ministerial negotiations will never be enough to end the war on their own.

Bringing peace to Somalia requires a thorough understanding of the context and drivers of the unrest. This can only come through the involvement of grassroots projects, local civil society groups, and local peacebuilding experts, who are all too often left out of negotiations.

The youth factor

Trying to solve the problems in Somalia without taking into account the views, knowledge and experience of the everyday people who live in and work on this conflict is like trying to draw a map of a country you’ve never visited, or making a cake with no recipe and no knowledge of baking.

Every conflict is unique, but there are common approaches that are proven to be more effective in building sustainable peace. According to Peace Direct, an NGO that supports our work in Somalia and other local peacebuilding efforts around the world, sustainable peace is realised far more often when those who understand the tensions and drivers of violence, and are trusted in their communities, are given the chance to design effective local interventions.

My organisation, SADO, knows that young and vulnerable men are easily recruited to violent, extremist groups because there are few other prospects for making a living.

The motives for joining up are less often about religion or ideology, and more often about money, smartphones, and work. That’s why we increase young people’s resilience to recruitment by providing leadership training, financial skills, and paths to alternative livelihoods.

By doing so, we have already changed the lives of over 1,500 young people, who might otherwise have been fighting for Al Shabaab right now.

We also see the challenge that current members of Al Shabaab face in leaving their group, and so we design programmes to help those who want to defect.

At present, youths who leave will often carry guns when they return to their communities, through fear of retaliation and punishment.

A government-led amnesty for those who want to stop fighting, support for those who leave, and resources for reconciliation, will allow more successful reintegration of former fighters back into civilian life.

If local understanding and interventions continue to be undervalued, in favour of the tried and tested but failed methods of international intervention, the conflict in Somalia will continue and we will see more bloodbaths like the one last month.

However, with effective collaboration between civil society and national and international actors, we can ensure interventions are contextually sensitive, sustainable, and implemented successfully.

After decades of violence, partnership between local peace builders and other actors could finally bring hope of peace to Mogadishu, and the rest of my country.

Isse Abdullahi is executive director of SADO (the Social-Life and Agricultural Development)