Once feared former Shabaab boss lands Somalia minister post

Saturday August 06 2022

Mukhtar Robow sits among new ministers named by Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre for a briefing with President Hassan Mohamud in Mogadishu, Somalia on August 2, 2022. PHOTO | REUTERS


Somalia’s appointment to its Cabinet, of a former al Shabaab leader as Religious Affairs minister is dividing opinion on whether this could be suitable counter-terrorism policy for the region.

Mukhtar Robow, once a feared terror merchant within al Shabaab and who once boasted of shaking hands with Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was this week among new ministers named by Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre. He was endorsed by the Federal Parliament and will be charged with countering extremist religious ideology, which al Shabaab have used to cause terror.

But for a man known initially for Kalashnikovs slung over his shoulder, explosives wrapped around his torso, combat jackets and ragged veils, the turnaround has been curious.

Somalia’s former President Mohamed Farmaajo had rejected his bid to run for South West state presidency in 2019, rescinding his earlier promise to allow him to run.

Farmaajo ordered the National Intelligence Security Agency to arrest him, but a UN Panel of Experts accused Ethiopian troops of cracking down on his followers while arresting him, killing several people. He was freed this week, and named minister.

Read: Somalia bars ex-Shabaab leader from public office


At the doorstep of Villa Somalia, where new ministers gathered in Mogadishu, Robow stuck out like a sore thumb. This time, he had no veil but wore a koofia, the cylindrical crown hat.

He also wore official shoes and was dressed in a suit. He tried to smile, but only managed a grin. Several other ministers posed with him, declaring him a changed man.

Nairobi's view

But the feeling was different in Nairobi, which suffered many al Shabaab attacks during the early presidency of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the man in whose government Robow will now be serving.

“It is a bad precedent because it sends the message that it is right for an individual to join violent extremist groups and terrorist organisations and not face justice for crimes committed against others,” lamented a senior counter-terrorism expert in Nairobi, requesting anonymity because she consults for the government in Nairobi.

She warned that Robow’s involvement may just be a bridge for al Shabaab as they have always wanted power by the gun. “This appointment puts the group in a position to influence policy and continue to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public.” With a huge following back in his home state in South West, the minister has argued that this elevation will, in fact, cleanse his reputation.

But that assessment, another official from the African Union Transmission Mission in Somalia told The EastAfrican, assumes that Robow is still influential in al Shabaab ranks, or that the group’s structure is the same as one he left it.

“Mukhtar Robow will have significant influence in rank and file of al Shabaab, which means they may be coerced to change course and opt for a negotiated settlement,” says the official who, too, asked not to be named, as he is involved in counter-terrorism programmes with the Somali government.

“Furthermore, what the Shabaab are seeking, in the end, is political power. The strategic messaging by the government to al Shabaab is therefore that violence is not an end by itself; denounce it and come to the negotiating table,” the security expert added.

Back in the day, Robow was a ruthless Shabaab extremist, accused of ordering the chopping of limbs of errant militants. He would also boast about terror attacks.

In 2009, he announced one such brutality after a bomb blast killed students at a graduation party at Shamo Hotel in Mogadishu.

Perhaps Robow became more ruthless when he rose in rank, publicly sparring with then leader Ahmed Abdi Godane before splitting with him in July 2013. Godane was killed by a US drone in September 2014, a year after he authorised an al Shabaab attack on Kenya’s Westgate Mall.

It coincided with al Shabaab’s extensive attacks on Kenyan soil, including the Garissa University attack in April 2015, and a number of sporadic raids around the border with Somalia, targeting important installations.

A few years later, he disagreed with his seniors and fled back to his home town. Robow did not immediately surrender, as his fighters fought back a plan to eliminate him by rivals.

He was arrested three years later after handing himself to security agencies.

Read: Ex Shabaab leader surrenders to Somali government