Foreign Policy Essay
No Shortcuts to Negotiating With al-Shabaab
Editor’s Note: The United States recently attempted to negotiate with al-Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group tied to al-Qaeda. Negotiations appear to have failed almost as soon as they began, but was it a mistake to try? Tricia Bacon, a professor at American University, argues that despite al-Shabaab’s brutal track record, it may be right to negotiate with the group. The United States has negotiated with equally ugly organizations, and at times such talks are necessary to advance U.S. interests.
Since the United States and the Taliban inked a deal in Doha in February, debate has abounded over the wisdom of negotiations with other terrorist groups. At the top of that list is al-Shabaab. That debate has been renewed by the appointment of now-Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, who as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center traveled last month to Doha, where he reportedly sought Qatar’s assistance to marginalize hardcore al-Shabaab members connected to al-Qaeda.
There is merit to exploring negotiations with al-Shabaab, despite the group’s brutality and hostility to the United States. The conflict grinds on with little to show for the military-heavy approach. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) intervened in the aftermath of the 2007 Ethiopian overthrow of the Islamic Courts Union. Once part of the Islamic Courts Union, al-Shabaab then broke away and emerged at the forefront of the anti-Ethiopian insurgency that followed. After the Ethiopian withdrawal from Somalia in 2009, al-Shabaab turned its attention to AMISOM. Al-Shabaab made sweeping territorial gains in southern Somalia in the wake of Ethiopia’s withdrawal, only to have those gains rolled back by AMISOM.
In recent years, the conflict in Somalia has reached a stalemate. Al-Shabaab now operates as a powerful hybrid organization: governing rural areas in Somalia, terrorizing Somali cities and AMISOM-contributing countries, and running a massive extortion ring that keeps the group well financed. With periodic questions about how long AMISOM will stay and what the future U.S. presence will look like, waiting to initiate negotiations will only give al-Shabaab a greater advantage in any eventual talks.
The premise of Miller’s plan was to marginalize fewer than a dozen senior al-Shabaab leaders with stronger ties to al-Qaeda to reduce its threat to U.S. interests. Despite an intensified U.S. air campaign in Somalia under the Trump administration, the United States has been unable to eliminate these figures. Unable to remove them from the battlefield, Miller reportedly asked Qatar to help devise plans to buy off these individuals or get other al-Shabaab elements to turn on them, which the Qatari government reportedly reluctantly agreed to do before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quashed the plan.
But the head-scratching and now-aborted plan had no prospect for success and was not a genuine attempt at initiating negotiations. First, such hardline al-Shabaab members are genuinely ideologically motivated, committed to al-Qaeda and ardently opposed to the United States. They are the least likely to be enticed by bribery, and with access to more cash from the United States or Qataris, such individuals would pose a greater threat to U.S. interests. Moreover, a number of such al-Shabaab operatives have been killed over the past 15 years with no discernible change in the group’s posture. The threat from al-Shabaab to U.S. interests and its affiliate alliance with al-Qaeda simply cannot be boiled down to a handful of men among the several thousand who compose the group.
Alternatively, the fallback plan should payoffs fail—encouraging members of al-Shabaab to turn on the al-Qaeda loyalists within al-Shabaab—has equally dismal prospects and likely would have been fatal for those who attempted it. When there have been internal divisions in al-Shabaab, the hardliners have emerged decisively victorious. And they have done so by doing what extremists are good at: killing, imprisoning and ousting those who oppose them. The plan to try to persuade elements of the group to turn on the al-Qaeda loyalists probably would have ended in a similar failure—and with the hardliners holding even more power in al-Shabaab.
Moreover, the track record for high-level defections in al-Shabaab is too weak to encourage others to follow suit. Long after being ousted from the group, former al-Shabaab spokesman Mukhtar Robow surrendered to the Somali government. He then became a pawn in a Somali government political contest, only to be captured by Ethiopian forces and held by the Somali government for trying to participate in elections, something that was legal for him to do. With that precedent for the treatment of defectors, there is little incentive for others to follow suit.
Finally, any strategy that focuses on trying to splinter al-Shabaab ignores the group’s remarkable unity in the Somali context. It is one of the group’s greatest strengths. It has not experienced any splinters of consequence to date, in part because of the leadership’s intolerance for such dissent. Al-Shabaab has proved to be the most unified actor in Somalia’s landscape and has consistently disproved the predictions that it would collapse into divisions.
Who Is Fair Game for Negotiations?
The United States has long declared a policy of not making concessions to terrorists. But U.S. adherence to that position, originally coined as a hostage policy, has been far from consistent. Some of the Taliban negotiators were U.S. prisoners swapped to gain the release of hostage Bowe Bergdahl. After the deal with the Taliban, it stretches credulity for the United States to even claim to still have such a policy. Indeed, peace is made with one’s enemies, not one’s friends, so negotiations may have a role in some conflicts. But the United States has not articulated a broader policy on negotiations; thus, the main way to suss out what the U.S. policy may be going forward is to see with whom the United States was willing to negotiate before. The precedent set by the United States’s direct negotiations with the Taliban should indicate how it may approach diplomacy with other groups, including al-Shabaab.
There are several criteria to consider: alliances with al-Qaeda, U.S. terrorism designations, attacks against Americans or civilians, receptivity to negotiations, and transnational attacks. It is also plausible to consider that the Taliban negotiations are a one-off, that the United States will refuse to treat them as precedent. But the hasty effort to orchestrate some kind of deal with al-Shabaab suggests at least that the Trump administration is open to other deals. Let’s examine each of the potential criteria raised by the negotiations with the Taliban to see what they mean for al-Shabaab.
First, groups allied with al-Qaeda are presumably on the table. In fact, there is no al-Qaeda ally more important than the Taliban, except arguably al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Qaeda has sworn an oath of loyalty to the Taliban’s leader for more than 20 years, and its affiliates also regularly herald the Afghan group. Though the relationship is not seamless, al-Qaeda Core and its South Asian affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, could not survive without the Taliban. Some commentators argue that the United States should not negotiate with groups that swear allegiance to al-Qaeda, but that position overlooks that the United States negotiated with the only group to which al-Qaeda has even sworn allegiance. Breaking with al-Qaeda—which the Taliban allegedly agreed to do but has not actually done—can be a potential outcome for negotiations, rather than a precondition. So based on this criterion, al-Shabaab would seemingly be a candidate for negotiations.
Second, organizations on U.S. terrorism sanctions lists appear to be fair game as well. One might attempt to argue that the Taliban was not designated by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Undoubtedly the Taliban met the legal criteria for the FTO list, so the decision not to designate the group was a policy decision (and one made by three administrations). But the Haqqani Network—a faction of the Taliban—is an FTO. In fact, the leader of the Haqqani Network, Siraj Haqqani, is the deputy leader of the Taliban (and apparently quite an op-ed writer), so saying that the United States does not negotiate with groups on the FTO list does not stand up to scrutiny. Moreover, numerous Taliban elements have been sanctioned through Executive Order 13224, and the organization has its own international sanctions regime at the United Nations. As part of the negotiated deal, the United States agreed to remove the Taliban from the U.S. sanctions lists, even though the group has maintained significant levels of violence since making the agreement. So once again, al-Shabaab appears to be a viable group with which to engage in negotiations.
Third, the Taliban has killed more Americans than most other militant organizations operating today. Because the United States will clearly negotiate with groups that kill Americans, that would seemingly not hinder negotiations with al-Shabaab. The Taliban has also killed tens of thousands of civilians, so the distinction made between killing combatants versus civilians in comparing insurgency and terrorism is not a credible criterion to preclude negotiations with al-Shabaab.
Based on these three conditions, groups with which it was once unfathomable for the United States to engage in negotiations, including al-Shabaab, would seemingly no longer be pariahs. In response to the argument that the Taliban was willing to negotiate while al-Shabaab is not, it was once conventional wisdom in Washington that the Taliban would not negotiate either. Whether a group is willing to negotiate cannot be discerned until an effort is made to do so.
The main condition that sets the Taliban apart from other jihadist groups, including al-Shabaab, is that it has never conducted transnational attacks. That is a potential distinction worth considering when determining which groups are candidates for negotiations. Al-Shabaab has conducted horrendous terrorist attacks in Uganda, Kenya, and Djibouti, and has also plotted attacks in Ethiopia. Of course, the Taliban is allied with and protects other groups that conducted transnational attacks, but it did not conduct them. And it has now pledged to prevent such attacks in the future—even if it is a promise that it will struggle to keep. So while a criterion precluding groups that conduct transnational terrorism would exclude al-Shabaab and have some merit, it would be something of a technicality when it comes to the Taliban precedent. But it is a position that policymakers could use to preclude negotiations with al-Shabaab and other groups, if they want the Taliban to be an anomaly.
The Long Road Ahead
Opposing negotiations is growing increasingly problematic in the absence of viable military solutions to many of the current conflicts involving jihadist groups and the reality that the U.S. commitment to many conflicts where such groups thrive is declining. It is more advantageous to develop a coherent policy toward negotiations.
In the case of al-Shabaab, at best, the aborted Miller plan was a way for the United States to claim some kind of victory and exit. Unfortunately, genuine negotiations with al-Shabaab will be much more difficult. They will involve painful compromises, if the group is to be persuaded to put down its weapons and join the Somali government system. But if there is a lesson from the Taliban negotiations, it is that waiting can result in a worse deal and that a bad deal may be worse than no deal at all. At the end of the day, there aren’t any shortcuts to negotiations or real options for how to resolve the conflict in Somalia without them.