‘I’m a human being, not a monster’: al-Shabaab defector turned minister

Mukhtar Robow talks to The Guardian about his controversial authorities position as a part of ‘ideological entrance’ to finish insurgency

“My whole family is fighting al-Shabaab,” says ex-jihadist Mukhtar Robow, peering by his glasses from behind a stack of leather-bound Islamic texts. The usually media-shy former al-Shabaab commander has invited the Guardian to his dwelling in central Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, on the request of the nation’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. His tone is alternately offended and indignant.

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Explaining why he determined to affix Mohamud’s new authorities, he cites the toll al-Shabaab, which has waged a guerrilla insurgency towards Somalia’s fragile central authorities for about 15 years, has taken on his family: his son was lately killed on the battlefield and his brother-in-law was beheaded by the militants.

“The only crime he had committed was being married to my sister,” Robow says bitterly.

Private tragedy just isn’t the one motive for his frustration. Within the 4 years main as much as Mohamud’s re-election in Might, Robow, who was skilled in Afghanistan throughout the anti-Soviet jihad there, had been held beneath home arrest by controversial former president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, referred to as Farmaajo.

Robow’s “only crime”, as he places it, was operating for governor of one in every of Somalia’s 5 federal states – years after he had laid down his arms and renounced violence to pursue politics – however Farmaajo’s authorities, cautious of Robow’s native reputation, locked him up moderately than let him run.

“No legal case was ever brought against me,” stated Robow, who believes he survived tried homicide whereas in custody.0

Mukhtar Robow faces the TV cameras in October 2018 to speak about operating for the regional presidency in Baidoa, Somalia. Picture: AP

The latest choice by Farmaajo’s successor to launch Robow and appoint him minister of non secular affairs represents a shift within the authorities’s technique towards al-Shabaab, with potential ripple results in a area battling a number of highly effective jihadist teams. The hope is that Robow, who defected from al-Shabaab in 2013 and donated blood to victims of the lethal 2017 truck bombing in Mogadishu, will support the federal government in its propaganda conflict and assist curb the extra radical, generally violent Salafist tendencies. in Somalia.

This kinds an vital a part of what Mohamud calls “total war” towards the militants, which additionally includes urgent the group’s enterprise pursuits, and a brand new army offensive by the nationwide military in coordination with the clan militias.

“We can’t give him weapons and ask him to fight, but he can be useful,” the president informed the Guardian in a latest interview.

The brand new strategy, which Robow compares to the community-led mobilization that liberated Iraq from the Islamic State, has yielded some vital territorial features, notably within the Hiran area of central Somalia. However that hasn’t stopped assaults.

At the least 9 individuals had been killed and dozens injured in Mogadishu on November 27 when militants attacked a resort close to the presidential palace, whereas twin automobile bombings in October killed 100 individuals, the deadliest assault since 2017’s truck bombing on the similar web site.

Calling its position the “ideological front,” Robow encourages non secular leaders and students to talk out towards al-Shabaab to “reclaim the Islamic narrative [and] confront their wrong ideology”.

Somalis in Mogadishu pray for victims at the site of a massive truck bomb that killed more than 300 people in 2017. Photo: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

This approach was demonstrated at a recent Islamic conference in Mogadishu where Robow argued that the government should monitor the teachings of religious scholars and introduce a licensing system for imams in schools. “Folks shouldn’t be free to evangelise what they need,” he said.

“Robow is changing into extra vocal on the ideological entrance,” says a presidential adviser. “He is main the cost and changing into the face of the federal government’s marketing campaign.”

Tackling al-Shabaab includes controversial elements, such as shutting down dozens of websites and online platforms believed to be linked to the group, and even arresting journalists allegedly sympathetic to the militants. The government recently imposed strict bail conditions for a respected journalist and media rights campaigner that will prevent him from seeking medical treatment for a suspected kidney condition exacerbated by poor conditions during his intelligence agency detention.

“For the primary time, the federal government is dealing instantly with their propaganda,” says Robow. But Human Rights Watch has accused the government of deliberately curtailing “reliable information protection and freedom of expression by making baseless nationwide safety claims”.

The decision to involve Robow, who once had a US$5m (£4.16m) bounty on his head, in the counter-insurgency strategy has been questioned by critics. Many ordinary Somalis find the appointment of a one-time terrorist to a government position distasteful. Others question how effective he can be.

Various Salafist forms of conservative Islam are increasingly entrenched in Somali society, meaning that Robow, himself a relatively pragmatic Salafist, may struggle to make headway against the more violent elements. Furthermore, many of al-Shabaab’s rank-and-file members join the group not because of religion but for reasons ranging from anger over successive foreign interventions in Somalia, to economic frustration and clan marginalization.

“It is a vital symbolic step to sign to present al-Shabaab members that if they’re prepared to go away the group and resign violence, there’s room for them,” said Omar Mahmood, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “On the similar time, there are some who query the correct match to have somebody who beforehand promoted al-Shabaab ideology now head non secular affairs. Nevertheless, Robow’s expertise makes him an vital asset.”

Mukhtar Robow, second left, on his appointment to the Somali cabinet in August. Image: Anadolu Agency/Getty

Al-Shabaab, for its part, has accused its former comrade of treason and, in a video statement, put a target above his head. “Robow is an apostate,” said al-Shabaab spokesman Ali Dheere. “To shed his blood is permitted.”

The president believes Robow can convince at least some of his former colleagues to defect. “We need to present al-Shabaab’s management that in the event that they give up, they won’t be humiliated, they won’t be crushed.”

Mohamud told the Guardian that his new minister had established some channels of communication with middle-ranking al-Shabaab members and encouraged them to switch sides. He added that this was consistent with the rest of his government’s counterinsurgency strategy: “We’re utilizing the carrot and the stick in parallel.”

Robow insists he has long had ideological differences with the jihadists and resents their brutality. “I did not agree with their tradition and their morals,” he says. “I’m a human, not a monster.”

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