Sheikh Aweys, al-Shabaab, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma in Somalia

Amid violent infighting between forces loyal to al-Shabaab top leader Ahmed Abdi Godane and dissenting leaders, media reports and security analysts were quick to pose Aweys’s negotiated surrender to central Somalia’s Ximan and Xeeb administration as a big victory for the Somali Federal Government (SFG) and a blow to al-Shabaab. However, a closer look reveals the implications are not that simple.

First, the mere act of hosting Aweys was not without its drawbacks.

Central Somalia’s Ximan and Xeeb administration, which is dominated by the Hawiye-Habar Gadir-Saleeban clan, wanted to get Aweys out of their hands as soon as possible as to avoid making the region the site of conflict between Aweys’s enemies (ASWJ, Ethiopia, al-Shabaab) or allies (Habar Gadir-Ayr elders and militiamen). While it was reported that Aweys was seeking asylum in Qatar (or Norway/Turkey), Ximan and Xeeb negotiated with the SFG to finally transport Aweys to Mogadishu.

Aweys heads to Mogadishu

Aweys heads to Mogadishu

Aweys might not have brought any carry-on luggage on his chartered plane, but the SFG has been burdened with heavy baggage upon Aweys’s landing. Habar Gadir elders who thought they had secured Aweys safe passage received various injuries when they fought Somali security forces who whisked Aweys away to prison upon arrival.

Elders injured in scuffle with security forces over Aweys

Elders injured in scuffle with security forces over Aweys at Mogadishu airport

And while many Somalis were celebrating the country’s 53rd year of independence on 1 July 2013, many others were protesting for the freedom of Aweys—perceiving that he was being treated this way because of his clan and ostensibly not in the way high-level al-Shabaab defectors should be treated. More protests were threatened unless Aweys was released.

What to do with Aweys?

The question remains how the potential prosecution of Aweys fits into a context in which most people who committed atrocious crimes during Somalia’s civil war have not only gone unpunished but serve(d) in key government positions—even as alleged rape victims and journalists are wrongfully prosecuted. (Relatedly, in an extraordinary case that may further strain the relationship between Hargeisa and Mogadishu, Siad Barre-era government official Mohamed Ali Samatar lost a civil lawsuit in U.S. courts to his torture victims only to have the SFG request amnesty. The decision from the U.S. government to grant it is still pending due to legal implications and diplomatic considerations.)

Rather than face court and conviction, some would argue that Aweys could be an effective voice in denouncing al-Shabaab and discouraging youth from joining the group.

However, even though Aweys disliked his marginal role in al-Shabaab and some of the group’s tactics, Aweys has given no indication that he is willing to renounce his extreme views or support the government.

Additionally, the SFG’s alleged mistreatment of Aweys in custody is not helpful inducement to moderate his views and take a complicit role in the government—if it is even possible.

Shipping Aweys to another country arguably does little better. It lends impunity to Aweys’s crimes. It emboldens those who highlight the weakness and avoidance of the SFG to deal with major issues (like Jubaland) head on.

Any option on how to deal with Aweys either gives the SFG some combination of harsh critics while not necessarily earning the SFG any significant tangible gains.

Impact on al-Shabaab

As news of Aweys’s defection from al-Shabaab developed, the group’s twitter account continued to publish information about recent attacks, perhaps emphasizing how little relevance Aweys was to the tempo of the group’s attacks.

Regardless of what happens to Aweys, Godane now has a huge outspoken headache off the field of play. Aweys’s exit is an additional blow to Godane’s opposition—who loses what could have remained at least a symbolic member of the active opposition. To boot, al-Shabaab recently alleged that co-founders Ibrahim al-Afghani and Abul Hamid Hashi Olhayi were killed reportedly in a firefight after resisting arrest–likely trying to counter reports that they were captured and executed.

This extraordinary turn of events leaves Godane in a potentially advantageous position since Sheikh Mukhtar Robow and Omar Hammami (Abu Mansur al-Amriki) continue to play defense by reportedly fleeing to Bakool region with foreign fighter allies.

One by one, Godane’s main opposition are either killed or taken off the board and there is not yet an indication of how Robow, Hammami, and their allies will respond either by taking the fight to Godane or merely trying to survive.

Ultimately, this is a chance for Godane to consolidate power in the face of a weakening opposition that has not shown it can shift the foundation and middle ranks of the group in its favor—an important missing capability among Godane’s opponents.

End Game

So, what should happen to Sheikh Aweys? Perhaps, there is no good answer. As one commentator stated, the tension among all sides could create scenarios that unequally either favor peace or justice.

Categories: al-Shabaab

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  1. Al-Shabaab’s Ramadan Activities: War and Peace «

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