So the Americans got him after all. On Saturday, Al Shabaab confirmed that leader Ahmed Abdi Godane had been killed in a US drone strike earlier last week. With a $7 million bounty on his head, and tight control over one of Africa’s most feared terrorist organizations, Godane’s scalp is one of the most significant in the Global War on Terror since the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.
A US spokesperson said it was a “major symbolic and operational loss” for the Somali militant group. Somalia’s national security minister was blunter, describing it as “a delightful victory”.
The government wasted no time in taking advantage of the sudden instability within the ranks of its main enemy, striking an unusually conciliatory note as it appealed to Al Shabaab fighters to lay down their arms. “While an extreme hardcore may fight over the leadership of Al-Shabaab, this is a chance for the majority of members to change course and reject Godane’s decision to make them the pawns of an international terror campaign,” said President Hassan Sheikh Mahamud. He added that he was “willing to offer amnesty to Al-Shabaab members who reject violence and renounce their links to Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda – but for the next 45 days only.”
It’s a bold gambit, but possibly more PR stunt than genuine pardon – the President had made the same offer, with the same 45-day deadline, a few days earlier. Still, it’s an important concession; a recognition that most Al Shabaab members are not monsters but pawns in a conflict not of their own making, and that some might welcome the chance for a fresh start.
But Al Shabaab weren’t wasting any time either. The group immediately named a new leader, the little known Ahmad Umar, in what it claimed was a unanimous decision. This puts to bed, for now, predictions (including in this publication) that Al Shabaab would be riven by infighting in the wake of Godane’s death. Al Shabaab also reaffirmed its commitment to Al Qaeda, and vowed revenge. “By the permission of Allah, you will surely taste the bitter consequences of your actions,” it warned in a statement directed at the Somali government, regional armies in Somalia and the Americans with their deadly drones.
Godane’s death comes as the longstanding conflict in Somalia enters a new phase. ‘Operation Indian Ocean’ began earlier this month, and is the latest joint offensive from government troops and the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom). It is designed to retake territory from Al Shabaab and to allow humanitarian access to civilians in Al Shabaab-controlled areas. Doubtless participating troops will be encouraged by Al Shabaab’s perceived weakness, and hopeful that finally their efforts might achieve more than just keeping in power the largely ineffectual interim government in Mogadishu – and, vitally, perhaps alleviate the impact of the drought which is devastating so much of Somalia’s farmland this year.
But if those troops really do want to make an impact then they should make sure their own house is in order first. On Monday, Human Rights Watch released a report into sexual abuse and sexual exploitation committed by Amisom soldiers against Somali women at Amisom bases in Mogadishu. The report details ten instances of sexual assault (i.e. rape) and 14 instances of sexual exploitation (i.e. prostitution), but warns that this is just the tip of what could prove to be a very damaging iceberg.
“Members of African Union forces, making use of Somali intermediaries, have employed a range of tactics to get private access to Somali women and then abuse them,” it says. “Some Amisom soldiers have used humanitarian assistance, provided by the mission, to coerce vulnerable women and girls into sexual activity. A number of the women and girls interviewed for this report said that they were initially approached for sex in return for money or raped while seeking medical assistance and water on the Amisom bases, particularly the Burundian contingent’s base. Others were enticed directly from internally displaced persons (IDP) camps to start working on the Amisom base camp by female friends and neighbors, some of whom were already working on the base. Some of the women who were raped said that the soldiers gave them food or money afterwards in an apparent attempt to frame the assault as transactional sex or discourage them from filing a complaint or seeking redress.”
Of course, rape and pillage have been the soldier’s prerogative for many thousands of years, but things are supposed to be different now. Amisom is bound by international law which explicitly forbids such activity, and should be doing everything in its power to rein in its troops’ illegal behaviour. But if a legal argument doesn’t force the top brass into action, then a strategic one should: mistreating civilians – the very people Amisom is supposed to be protecting – is simply bad for the business of peace-building. It makes the supposedly good guys look bad, it gives Al Shabaab a highly effective recruiting tool and it will likely keep Amisom in dangerous action in Somalia for even longer.
As the last two decades have shown us, peace in Somalia cannot be achieved by force of arms alone. Amisom may have the biggest guns, but until it and the transitional government can also occupy the moral high ground they will struggle to combat the potent ideological appeal of Al Shabaab and groups like it. This is one problem that even American drones can’t solve. DM
Photo: Al Shabaab’s military spokesman Sheik Abdul Asis Abu Muscab issues a statement south of capital Mogadishu October 19, 2011. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
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