Somalia at the Forefront of Fighting Violent Extremism
My name is Mohamed Abdirizak and I am from Somalia and I would like to address the issue of countering violent extremism (CVE). Let me first share a story of why I am interested in CVE and looking for ways to increase my involvement in efforts to bring peace, security and stability to Somalia. It’s a story about being able to freely practice one’s faith in a foreign country, while being afraid to enter your local place of worship at home.
A year and a half ago, I resigned from my job with the National Democratic Institute’s (NDI) Somalia program and created Somali One to have a closer interaction with local communities, with the youth and non-state actors. During the launching events of Somali One, I wanted to talk about Somali One’s vision such as youth anti-radicalization through the creation of economic opportunities or supporting girls’ education while still continuing with some democracy and governance work.
We chose Minneapolis, Columbus, and the DC area as well as a stop at Amsterdam on my way back to Africa. On our way to one of these cities, I saw an article in the NY Times talking about two young Americans who joined Al-Shabab and IS respectively. One of them died in Somalia and later the other died in Syria. They were both friends with a young Somali man. It was a long story but after reading it we discussed and concluded that I was best positioned to talk about this issue with the Somali Diaspora community since some of their kids left and joined these groups and later got killed. It’s not that I had solutions for them but the fact that the community could come together and openly talk about the problem was good enough on that day.
I told them a story from a friend who was from their community and who was working in Mogadishu told me. My friend said, Mohamed when I was back in the US, I would pray in the mosque as much as possible. I especially enjoyed the morning prayer because no traffic, it’s peaceful and that short drive or walk to and from the mosque really helped me get my day started well. But now in Mogadishu, I don’t go to the mosque because it’s a place where Al-Shabab often assassinates people. So, imagine you can go to the mosque in America but afraid to do so in Mogadishu.
In this brief, I would like to touch on the following important points: a) violent extremism (VE) and its global reach as a new world paradigm; b) the need for a common definition and understanding of difference between counterterrorism and CVE; c) the importance of promoting and strengthening the role of local communities in combatting VE; d) the need for systemic approach from state actors — particularly, strengthening the approach of government.
Global reach of violent extremism and the new world paradigm
Attacks from violent extremists around the world have increased in recent years. The attacks which, were once common only to countries in conflict and largely contained or limited to certain regions of the world, can now happen anywhere and anytime. This is a new world paradigm requiring a global response.
I am sure during the course of the day many of you will be discussing the topic further but meanwhile, let’s recognize that VE is not unique to Somalia, Horn of Africa or to Asia or the Middle East for that matter. It has a global reach and it’s a phenomenon that requires for all of us to figure it out and to work together in eliminating from all parts of the world. One conclusion I have come to is that violent extremists are anarchist thugs, plain and simple. They use religion as a cover to recruit and violence as a method to get to power and change our way of life.
Still, of course, in some countries extremists act with impunity, can challenge governments and have training camps. Somalia is but one front in this conflict and its people are among the most affected in the world. VE attacks have become regular daily occurrences. Just this week, there were two attacks, one in Mogadishu and one in Galkacyo. These attacks, which are carried out by Al-Shabab, take place at schools, at graduation ceremonies, at hospitals, at mosques, hotels, bus stops, airport, marketplaces, homes, government offices, businesses, at military and peacekeeper bases. Nowhere and no one is immune. This has become a sad reality for most people. Relatives, friends, and colleagues of mine have all become victims.
So, what’s the objective of this enemy? It’s certainly not about winning hearts and minds of the Somali people. It’s not about the promotion of religion given that mosques have not been spared from violent actions taking place in them. It’s not that they have a nationalist agenda since they are against our culture and traditions. It cannot be about killing us into submission since Somalis are the most resilient people I know — where in the aftermath of an attack a café or a hotel, the businesses reopen within hours.
Defining CVE — the difference between counterterrorism and CVE
There is an extreme lack of empirical data or research to help identify or define CVE. However, the main distinction to be made here will be that it is NOT counterterrorism and that it is a preventative measure to curb violent extremism.
CVE does not depend on military intervention alone; or lay only on intelligence; it is not black and white, rather all gray; it is not hard or clear-cut. Preventing VE is complex since we don’t know who will do what act, when, or how. For example, in 2011, Somalia’s Minister of Interior was assassinated by his own niece who blew herself up inside his house. How can one protect themselves from own family members?
Countering violent extremism is essentially about prevention; and prevention measures will need to encompass a holistic approach and should be community-focused, sustained and driven.
Whole of community approach — promoting and strengthening the role of local communities combatting violent extremism
Our whole community approach should particularly recognize the importance of youth and the role of women which, strengthens successful and resilient societies/local communities
About a week ago, I was in Puntland State of Somalia when Al-Shabab attacked the state. They were 800 men strong who came by boats to two coastal towns; the first of its kind in that part of the country. Upon the news reaching the populated cities, the entire community mobilized. Students started to donate blood before even the security forces reached the battlefield. Business owners sent water tanks and made their tracks available, women particularly played one of the most important roles of encouraging everyone and mobilizing through poems and songs and on practical level women cooked hot meals for the troops at the frontlines. And in the end, after a few days, Al-Shabab was taught a lesson they would never forget.
However, a sad story emerged and that is almost all of the prisoners caught were children as young as twelve. The kids were conscripts who were lured with the promises of education, money and better life opportunities. Their parents did not know and clearly after listening to the interviews the kids did not know what they were getting into. This is why the role of youth is even more important in CVE.
My message to all families whether in Somalia, in the US or in Europe is you should talk to your kids, know your kids, know about their friends, learn and understand what’s going on in their lives. This should be part of our culture because parents who know what their kids are going through can prevent from their kids being misled. They can work with the authorities to stop and deal with recruiters. In the end, this is how you strengthen communities and have resilient societies.
Need for systemic approach from state actors — strengthening the approach of government
What can governments do? What should be their approach? I believe any approach should emphasize and highlight the following key points:
1. Having a strategic communication plan and empowering alternate (not counter) narratives: governments need to have a coherent message in their responses to violent extremism. In the region, governments need to voice the challenges they face (so they can attract citizen support) — not only is strategic communication missing, but there isn’t even a message;
2. Strengthening de-radicalization and integration programs;
3. Identify preventative measures and CVE training for law enforcement and/or for peacekeeping troops;
4. Enforcing CVE legislation — in the Horn of Africa region, most states do not yet have a national CVE strategy — however, an important first step is identifying each state’s legislation — since a strategy is only possible with a policy/legislation first in place;
5. Strengthening and promoting local, regional, and international efforts already under way;
6. Promoting interfaith dialogue and unity.
To further expand on some of the above points, I wanted to emphasize the last point of empowering and promoting religious capacity in order to effectively combat violent extremism. Though interfaith unity and dialogue is not needed in Somalia, it is very much an important need in neighboring Kenya.
In December 2015, Al Shabaab stopped a bus full of quarry workers in Mandera, a small town in the predominately ethnic-Somali inhabited region of Kenya. However, when the group sought to carry out its tactic to separate the bus’ passengers into Muslims and Christians — something remarkable happened. The Muslims on the bus refused to identify themselves as Muslims and declared, “if you are going to kill us, kill all of us.”
Incredibly, this defiance worked. Al Shabaab was unable to correctly identify the Muslims and, aside from two fatalities, let all the bus’ passengers free, Muslims and Christians.
Unfortunately, however, the voice and acts of these brave Kenyans have largely gone unheard. Though the Kenyan media did cover the story, the international media was unaware. This type of brave action in standing up to VEOs by ordinary citizens, by Muslim citizens, needs to be amplified a million times over. But this has not happened.
Global CVE efforts and initiatives are constantly looking for acts and credible voices to promote — so the real question now remains: how did we miss to promote this selfless brave act and how do we bring its message to larger global audiences? State actors could play a role in bringing these types of brave acts to a larger global audience.
To conclude, while those of you in the U.S. may be tiring of politics — this year is also an election year in Somalia. As I think about steps forward for Somalia, I am again thinking of changing jobs. I want to lead the fight against those who degrade Islam’s image and kill and maim innocent people, those who kidnap our children and mistreat our women.
I am considering a career change because I believe this a global effort we are more interconnected than ever before. Somalia can play a very crucial role in building a stronger society that denies space to extremists and a strong Somali diaspora community that denies recruiters to live in the midst of their communities.
Countering violent extremism is not a problem unique to Somalia or to the US, or to any one country. Rather it is a global phenomenon that is the most pressing security issue we face. We are getting ready to face violent extremism in Somalia, and we are looking at the international community for support, where our campaign for change theme is: “Achieving Security and Prosperity Through National Reconciliation and Honest Governance.”