From Bullets to Ballots: Muhktar Robow, Somalia and Transforming Terrorists to Politicians

Muhktar Robow, formerly the No. 2 man in the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab and more recently a leading Somali politician, was arrested several days ago by Somali officials in a surprise move, setting off deadly clashes between his supporters and government forces.  The terrorist turned candidate is currently running for the presidency of his home South West State in Somalia, to the chagrin of many in the rest of the country and abroad who see Robow as an unrepentant terrorist with gallons of innocent blood on his hands.  Yet, in a country where violence and terror has been the main political currency for decades, it’s debatable whether men like Robow joining the formal political process is a sign of impunity and lack of accountability or the best hope for bringing peace and stability to the country and region.

Al-Shabaab and Somallia: A History of Violence

While you shouldn’t get all your information about Somalia from Black Hawk Down and Captain Phillips (surprisingly, most of the country’s challenges don’t revolve around efforts to rescue white guys), Somalia’s politics were a mess for a long time: after a bunch of different factions banded together to overthrow a military dictatorship in 1991, various factions have been fighting for control of part or all of the country ever since. Al-Shabaab literally means “the youth” (or, more colloquially, “the boys”) and started off as the youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist organization that briefly controlled most of Somalia.

Al-Shabaab is an especially violent and fanatical group, even compared to other terror organizations. During the Islamic Court Union’s rule, al-Shabaab served as a special forces within the ICU military. After the ICU fell to a US-backed coalition that included Somali and Ethiopian military troops, al-Shabaab developed a relationship with al-Qaeda. The Somali terror group was initially rejected by Osama bin Laden, who criticized the group for its excessive killing of fellow Muslims.  Let’s linger on that for a moment: al-Shabaab was too violent for Osama bin Laden.

After the al-Qaeda founder’s death, however, al-Shabaab was able to achieve its merger with al-Qaeda in 2012. Throughout this period, al-Shabaab killed thousands in terror campaigns within Somalia and regularly attacked neighboring countries as well. In 2010, the group killed 76 people in a suicide bombing against patrons of a bar in Kampala, Uganda watching the World Cup (I was in neighboring Kenya at the time, and remember the terror that this attack spread across East Africa). In 2013, al-Shabaab committed one of its most notorious attack in Kenya; in retaliation to an earlier intervention by Kenyan forces into Somalia, al-Shabaab laid siege to the upscale Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi and executing scores of civilians.

From Bombs to Ballots

Muhkktar Robow, while planning, inspiring and participating in countless deaths, has himself been a survivor.  After fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan, he became one of the founding members of al-Shabaab and once served as its spokesperson and deputy leader.  In the last few years, he survived both a 2013 falling out with al-Shabaab, which recently declared him an apostate worthy of death and a $5 million dollar bounty placed on his head by the US (the reward has been rescinded).

After surrendering to the current Somali government in 2017, he emerged as a surprise candidate for president of Somalia’s South West state, where he has been holed up for the past several years, building support among members of his clan who dominate that region of the country.  In arresting Robow, the federal government of Somalia accused him of organizing a new militia and generally continuing his violent ways.  His supporters, who accuse the Somali government of subverting democracy with Robow’s arrest, violently protested, leaving nearly a dozen people dead.

Although it may seem unjust and distasteful for a former terrorist leader to be accepted into legitimate political circles, it is far from unusual.  Putting aside the subjective distinction between terrorist and freedom fighter (Nelson Mandela, for example, was given both labels, including by the US government) and the many past and present leaders who directly seized power through armed revolution (including that guy on the US dollar bill), it’s a fact of life that many if not most terrorist campaigns end not because of military victory but because of negotiated settlements, which usually incorporate violent groups and their leaders into the formal political process.

Sinn Fein and the IRA, the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Palestine Liberation all made such a transition during the past 25 years. Even the notion that the US government does not negotiate with terrorists is largely a myth; the US and its Afghan allies are currently attempting to negotiate with the Taliban, for example, to finally end the Afghanistan War. Whether Mukhtar Robow genuinely intended to contribute to the peace of Somalia or was simply biding time to rebuild his capacity for violence, dealing with individuals like him may be a necessity in Somalia and a number of places around the world.

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