Somalia: A time for caution

If neighbouring countries intervene in Somalia they may be playing into al-Shabab's hands.

    Sending additional forces from neighbouring countries into Somalia will only exacerbate the conditions that empowered al-Shabab in the first place [AFP]

    The Somali al-Shabab group has claimed responsibility for two explosions that rocked the Ugandan capital Kampala, targeting innocent people watching the World Cup final.

    The attacks, which left at least 74 people dead, were the first by al-Shabab outside of Somalia.

    Uganda and Burundi have, in the past, dismissed threats by the group, which vowed to avenge what it called "massacres" committed by Ugandan and Burundian troops as part of the 6,000-strong African Union force propping up the weak Somali government.

    National vs. global agenda


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      Who are al-Shabab?

    Contrary to popular perception, al-Shabab is not a monolithic movement. It is comprised of several wings that espouse different worldviews. Some - perhaps the majority - have a domestic agenda. But a small minority in the upper echelons of the group, and a significant number of foreign fighters, advocate global jihad as a guiding principle.

    This diversity makes for multiple objectives and motives within the movement and among its leaders.

    Those with a national agenda would certainly like to force foreign peacekeepers out of Somalia so that they can replace the government. But, if this was the objective of the Kampala attacks, the group made a strategic mistake.

    For those who espouse the global jihadist agenda and seem to dominate the movement, this may have been a calculated move designed to invite additional intervention in Somalia in order to justify and legitimise their war on religious grounds. If so, they may be prepared for such an outcome.

    Whatever the motives, the attack will certainly invoke an interventionist mood within the international community and among Somalia's neighbours. Many countries in the region will now intervene in Somalia arguing that al-Shabab poses an existential threat to their national security.

    Pre-emption will be the name of the game: let us fight extremist elements in Somalia rather than waiting for them to come to our own backyards. And the chances are that regional governments will find support for such an approach among their citizens.

    Somali hearts and minds

    Neighbouring countries must protect Somalis who have fled the country [GALLO/GETTY]

    However, addressing extremism and insecurity in Somalia needs a sober approach and, like al-Shabab, the international community must not make another blunder in order to mitigate the situation.

    Any military intervention involving Somalia's neighbouring states will exacerbate the security situation in the region.

    In 2006, the US and much of the international community endorsed the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. As a result of the conditions created by that invasion, al-Shabab was empowered at the expense of more moderate factions of the Islamic Courts Union, of which al-Shabab was a member.

    Repeating the same mistake will not only fail to defeat extremism in Somalia but will likely empower it further.

    Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, understands the sensitivities of this issue and the potential consequences of sending Ethiopian forces to Somalia. He, therefore, offered a public assurance in an interview with the AFP news agency that Ethiopian troops will not return to the country. This is prudent decision and we must hope that he honours this pledge.

    The United Nations Security Council understood this fact as early as 2006 when it passed resolution 1725, which prohibited Somalia's neighbours - known as frontline states - from intervening militarily in the country, although this was not implemented.

    Any successful Somalia strategy will require winning the hearts and minds of the Somali people as their support is indispensable. Most Somalis - inside and outside of the country - do not support or condone extremism. They should, therefore, be considered the most important ally in the struggle to re-establish a Somali state and to defeat extremism.

    There are two important issues that must be dealt with. Firstly, many innocent Somalis are victims of the atrocities committed by the Somali government and the African Union forces. This must end. Secondly, regional governments and the international community, particularly law enforcement agencies, must therefore do all they can to protect innocent Somalis who have fled their country's civil war while apprehending criminals. This may be easier said than done, but it is necessary.

    Creating Somali security forces

    We must also understand that sending peacekeeping forces from Muslim countries and African states, excluding Somalia's neighbours, is a temporary solution that cannot be sustained in the long-term. The best way to address extremism is, therefore, to help create professional and disciplined Somali security forces.

    Since 2000, Somalia has had a number of transitional governments - created and supported by the international community. Military experts say it takes approximately one to two years to prepare a combat-ready army. But, after 10 years, Somalia does not have security forces that can protect the country and its people.

    A lack of will from Somalia's leaders has contributed to the current stalemate. The international community must pressure the government to make substantive changes if it wants it to face the pertinent challenges Somalia poses.

    Finally, disuading Somali youngsters from joining extremist groups requires more than the presence of a strong military. Fortunately, most of Somalia's religious scholars have begun to challenge extremism on the ideological front. This is a welcome development.

    In sum, the Kampala attacks will have far-reaching implications for al-Shabab, Somalia and the whole region. Caution is now desperately needed.

    Dr Afyare Abdi Elmi is a professor of International Affairs at Qatar University and the author of Understanding the Somalia Conflagration.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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