Despite suffering major military setbacks in recent months — thanks in part to intensified U.S. drone strikes and ground operations — the al-Qaeda-affiliated terror group al Shabab still holds territory, and influence, in Somalia. And in neighboring Kenya, the group regularly carries out deadly terror attacks targeting non-Muslims.
Al-Shabaab translates literally as “the youth,” and the group’s perseverance depends on its ability to recruit heavily among young disenfranchised people in Somalia, Kenya, and the Somali diaspora.
Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre in Mogadishu works to counter the influence militant groups like al Shabaab have on young people, by providing education, support, and rehabilitation to former child soldiers and at-risk youth in Somalia.
Founder Fartuun Adan and her daughter Ilwad Elman are instrumental to the center’s mission. We sat down with Elman to discuss her organization’s efforts, the role young people play in al Shabaab, and what the human rights activist thinks of current military operations being carried out in her country. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you tell us about the work your organization does to help prevent recruitment into al Shabaab?
In the early ’90s we had a program that was targeting young people co-opted into the clan militias. But later it went on to support young people who were becoming pirates. And then those who were involved with clan militias again. And now, [we’re] looking at the most recent phenomenon, which is al Shabaab. What we found throughout this evolution is that the drivers or grievances have been consistent throughout. It’s just a new armed group masking itself as the savior of young people and giving them a viable opportunity to feel an identity, or giving them an economic opportunity.
So the work that we do as an organization is just presenting an alternative. And we do that by giving young people vocational skills, training, education, and opportunities to not just learn a trade. We also invest in them to start social enterprises, and give them leadership training so they can compel their peers who are still in armed groups to defect.
How have you been able to counter the influences of al Shabaab, which is still recruiting large numbers of young people in Somalia?
[Among] the young people we work with is also a demographic of very young children — the youngest child we work with is 7 years old. And there is also a very strong number of young people that are forcefully recruited. And there are areas that are still very much under the control of al Shabaab, where there isn’t a choice. In those cases, we actually have more difficulties reintegrating people because the areas of their origin are not accessible to them, or to us. But what we found is that when young people go through our programs, we help them to amplify their message through either videos, photographs, or radio announcements to show that there is life after the armed group. And that has actually resulted in people leaving al Shabaab.
The reasons for people joining al Shabaab are not necessarily the same ones that are keeping them in there. They need and want help getting out. And the most credible voices to send that message are people who have lived and gone through it. So that’s what we try to amplify.
Al Shabaab has a record of brutalizing the populations under its control, so what is it that motivates someone locally to become a part of the group?
There is a lot of global obsession with counter-extremism and terrorism and global security. It seems in many ways that these policies and responses have an adverse effect, where they’re actually radicalizing and marginalizing people who may fit the profile of what they assume al Shabaab to look like. I mean that’s the worst thing right now in Kenya with the forceful eviction of refugees back to Somalia and the same circumstances that many of them have fled. It is a driver that could potentially lead someone to join al Shabaab.
“I do not believe that you can bomb an ideology. And the drone strikes that happen in Somalia have had an adverse effect that al Shabaab capitalizes on and uses very heavily in their propaganda.”
There are many reasons why someone in this day and age would join al Shabaab, but I would attribute more of it to politics than I would to religion. And the economic factor still exists. 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30, unemployment now is higher than it’s ever been before. There’s still no viable option for someone to leave an armed group and rebuild their lives.
Al Shabaab translates from Arabic literally as “the youth.” What kind of role do young people actually play in bolstering al Shabaab?
Al Shabaab has been able to identify the power of young people. They are marginalized and they are excluded. Without real partnerships between governments and young people to counter extremism, we won’t have a meaningful or durable solution. The challenge that we face in Somalia is that the government, civil society, and the community at large are so detached. And because of the security situation, everyone is fearful of everyone, especially young people. Every young person is perceived as a perpetrator or potential perpetrator, and with that is a huge missed opportunity where young people can be the real prospect for peace and stability in Somalia.
In recent years, there has been massively increased U.S. and U.N. military involvement in countering al Shabaab. Is the solution to al Shabaab, in your view, a military solution?
I do not believe that you can bomb an ideology. And the drone strikes that happen in Somalia — as they happen in other places, killing innocent civilians — have had an adverse effect that al Shabaab capitalizes on and uses very heavily in their propaganda. It’s turning people who otherwise would never support or sympathize with al Shabaab to consider why it is so easy for a foreign government to drop bombs in Somalia and kill innocent people. And then there is no accountability at all. I think this is extremely dangerous.
What kind of challenges have you faced in running the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre in Mogadishu?
I think just by virtue of being in Mogadishu and Somalia and operating in areas that are controlled by the government, and not controlled by the government, there’s always going to be risks. But we believe that anything worth doing comes with risk. As you know, the founder of our organization — my late father [Elman Ali Ahmed] — was killed in Somalia for the very work that we are involved with now. Because the warlords at the time that were recruiting child soldiers saw that he was counteracting their message of hate, he was killed. My family, and a lot of the people who work with us as an organization have adopted the view that our convictions are stronger than any threats.
What do you see as the ultimate solution to the problem of al Shabaab in Somalia?
Our approach is not a very complex philosophy. We’re working with those that are directly involved with the armed groups and hoping that by giving them an opportunity, an alternative, they will not be inclined to be a part of the group. We’re seeing some success in that. However, this needs to be looked at from many other angles. And I don’t think that military solutions alone can defeat al Shabaab. I think governments need to look at security from a more holistic perspective and actually create opportunities for the average citizen in Somalia.