As pro-ISIS Americans Leave Al-Shabaab, Is Somalia Prepared for High-Level Defections?

On 7 December, it was announced that two American and pro-ISIS jihadists within al-Shabaab had surrendered to Somali authorities. Abdul Malik John (also reported as Abdimalik Jones) was captured near Barawe after fleeing al-Shabaab’s targeted killings of ISIS supporters.

Pro-ISIS al-Shabaab member Miski

Pro-ISIS al-Shabaab member Miski

More surprisingly, infamous ISIS recruiter and former Minnesota high school student Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan aka “Mujahid Miski” apparently surrendered to the Somali government in early November after joining the group in 2008, but his defection was not announced until yesterday.

Miski was thought to be the inspiration behind a failed terrorist plot in Garland, Texas, and authorities are trying to determine whether he ever had contact with those involved in the ISIS-inspired attack in San Bernardino, California in which 14 people were killed.

In the last four days, the tiny area of Kunyo Barrow — between Barawe and Kismayo —  witnessed both U.S. airstrikes on al-Shabaab targets, as well as al-Shabaab attacks on pro-ISIS militants that may have caused to Malik to flee toward Barawe.

The intensifying battlefield space will not help an inherently weak collection of pro-ISIS supporters gain momentum against al-Shabaab.

Screenshot 2015-12-08 at 01.10.50

What Happens Next

Earlier this month, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud penned an article explaining how Somalia was defeating extremism through political and economic resilience, but there have been gaps in addressing terrorism and amnesty from a policy perspective.

The State Department highlighted the United States did not have an extradition agreement with Somalia, and it is unclear how the U.S. will be involved in the fate of Malik and Miski.

The two defectors did what another dissenting American jihadist, Omar Hammami, said he would never do: surrender to the U.S.

Hammami infamously claimed he would only return to the U.S. “in a body bag” and even declared himself as “part of the Rahanweyn clan” in the days before al-Shabaab killed him, showing the insufficient local support he had in the face of al-Shabaaab as a threat.

In his autobiography, Hammami appeared to express little regret about leading a life in which he would ultimately die, not by the shot of a Somali National Army soldier or U.S. drone strike, but by the gun of his own militants:

1) The pens have been lifted, and the ink has dried. Still, if you had the opportunity, would you have done anything differently in the past? This relates to both your childhood and later years.

Fortunately, I view myself as a man with no regrets when it comes to most of my life choices. My true regrets are only those which relate to my sins and to my laziness which prohibited me from engaging in more righteous actions.

In contrast, Malik allegedly told Reuters from detention: “If possible, I would like to return to my home in Maryland.”

In another case, lifelong jihadist Hassan Dahir Aweys escaped from the clutches of al-Shabaab and into government hands in 2013 during his own bout of dissent with top leadership, but he never renounced his extremist beliefs.

This, along with a UN travel ban, made it almost impossible for the government to grant him formal amnesty (or send him to a golden cage in Qatar) amid intense clan pressure to do so.

aweys in house arrest

Aweys in house arrest

Instead, Aweys has appeared to remain in indefinite detention under house arrest, which is not an acceptable legal solution.

Two other defectors, Mohamed “Atam” and  Zakariye Ismail Hersi did renounce violence, but they have largely been out of the spotlight since their defection in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

So, it is difficult for the public to tell if Atam and Zakariye earned the benefits of their amnesty deals by taking part in peacebuilding efforts.

If the Somali government could not resolve these cases definitively, how will it approach the cases of Malik and Miski?

As always, al-Shabaab members who are not so thrilled at the prospect of being executed by al-Shabaab’s Amniyaat will be watching to see what options exist, especially for disenchanted Westerners.

If Malik and Miski are somehow extradited to the U.S., it will discourage other militants from considering defection as a potential alternative to joining another theater for jihad amid al-Shabaab infighting.

On the other hand, the Somali government only has a limited capacity to “rehabilitate”  jihadists and an even more undefined legal policy for dealing with ex-militants more broadly.

To date, no ex-Shabaab fighter has played a consistent public role defeating extremism, raising the question of whether high-profile defectors like Malik and Miski would even be required — or have the will — to “pay their debt” to society under amnesty.

In an ideal world, Somalia’s parliament would move forward with the urgent request of President Hassan Sheikh to pass the cabinet’s terrorism bill, which could also include policy guidance on how amnesty would function consistently in the legal code.

An critical question moving forward may be: if Somalia National Army troops are executed for killing civilians, should defecting terrorists be afforded impunity at such a low cost?

Categories: al-Shabaab

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