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Al-Shabab’s grip weakening – US Envoy to Somalia | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat- James C. Swan, the United States Special Representative to Somalia, said that the militant Islamist group al-Shabab’s grip on the country has begun to weaken due to a combined effort by the Somali forces and regional countries to confront the fundamentalist movement. Swan, a resident of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, spoke before representatives of the international press in a meeting attended by Asharq al-Awsat in London the day before yesterday. He explained that the hardline methods imposed by al-Shabab upon the Somalis living in areas under their control, in addition to the fierce attacks that have claimed the lives of many people, have eroded the popular support that the movement may once have enjoyed.

Swan said: “I’m here in London for some follow-up consultations after the London conference on February 23rd, 2012, on Somalia. This has been convened by the UK with a number of key partners on Somali issues, including those from the region of Gulf and Middle Eastern states, to Western partners. I think this underscores that our efforts on Somalia really have been part of a coherent international response to the situation, largely led by the region in the Horn of Africa, but then endorsed and followed up by the African Union (AU), by the UN Security council, and by other partners”.

Swan confirmed that there is a need to cut off support for al-Shabab and to stop the commercial activities that finance the movement, for example the trade of charcoal which is traditionally exported to the Gulf States, pointing out that al-Shabab also gains funds from the taxes it imposes on piracy. He also emphasized the importance of continuing to target al-Shabab’s capabilities to develop links with radical organizations such as al-Qaeda and affiliated groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

With regards to the security situation in Somalia, the US Special Representative said: “We have certainly seen that there have been significant gains against al-Shabab over the last 18 months, but accelerating particularly since last summer. This has really been a combined effort by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), along with Somali forces as well. As you may know, those forces have effectively retaken the city of Mogadishu and are in the process of pushing out into the suburbs – particularly Dayniile – which is a strategic area with an important airfield”.

In addition to the victories achieved in Mogadishu, significant new fronts have also been opened against al-Shabab over the past 15 months or so, with another front in the Gedo region, supported by Ethiopia along with Somali troops in those areas, and subsequently in the Juba valley with Kenyan forces supporting additional Somali troops. More recently in the central region, Somali troops regained control of the city of Beledweyne at the end of 201, and most recently on February 22nd the city of Baidoa in the agricultural belt. Control has subsequently expanded to the city of Hudur in the Bakool region.

Swan added “So we’re seeing continued pressure on al-Shabab. I think again it is not only a concerted effort of military action, but it is also due to a gradual loss of support for al-Shabab among the population, as a consequence of its very draconian methods; its abuse of the population. I think you’ve all seen multiple reports of the recruitment of child soldiers and the very abusive punishments and judicial practices, which we believe have steadily eroded popular support for al-Shabab”. However, the US Special Representative stressed that this does not mean al-Shabab is no longer dangerous, as the capital Mogadishu continues to witness “vicious” attacks with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Furthermore, al-Shabab periodically seizes control of towns in southern Somalia, typically only for a day or so, whereby there are instances of looting and abuses of the local population. Swan explained that there is a need to work against al-Shabab not only internally but on an international scale, and he indicated that the United States is working hard in all regions it is able to access.

In response to a question posed by Asharq al-Awsat regarding the relationship between al-Qaeda and al-Shabab, Swan answered: “Certainly the recent and public linkage between al-Qaeda and al-Shabab has only reinforced the extremist nature of al-Shabab. Again, al-Shabab in the way that it has governed areas under its control has consistently taken very draconian measures, from amputations to stoning individuals and active programs of child soldier recruitment, which have been documented by a number of international human rights organizations, or by using young Somali women as forced brides for their fighters. Over time it is clear that al-Shabab has eroded the popular support that they may have once enjoyed. Clearly from the beginning, the more extreme version that was pursued by al-Shabab was a contradiction of traditional Somali values, and there were inherent tensions in that relationship from the very beginning. Over time, those tensions have been reinforced in matters both large – such as the abuses I have indicated – and small – such as imposing bans on playing soccer or watching movies.

In terms of their sources of support, they continue to impose taxation on the areas they control. We have seen in many areas that as they come under increasing pressure, they further expand their own exertion of pressure on the business community to increase their payments to them in order to sustain their operations. We believe this too is creating additional tensions in the relationships that they have with the communities. They also continue to rely heavily on several ports, particularly Kismail, and the trade of certain commodities and the smuggling of others, most notably charcoal exports. Although the Somali government has banned the production and export of charcoal, this continues in [areas controlled by] al-Shabab. The charcoal is traditionally exported to the Gulf States. I think the three largest importers are the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman. We were pleased to see that in the UN Security Council Resolution 2036, which was adopted on February 22nd, this included an international ban on the importation of Somali charcoal. We certainly look forward to all UN members respecting that and cutting off that source of revenue for al-Shabab”.

Swan explained that “we’ve seen from the beginning that al-Shabab often recruit from outside their own borders, and in the past there have been a number of extremists affiliated with al-Shabab, including Harun Fazul, who was killed just last year by Somali forces.

It’s hard to know the exact numbers, but as we look at al-Shabab we can see that it is not only Somali fighters, but also foreign fighters. There are ethnic Somalis that hold passports from other countries, and that includes not only East Africa, but also Western countries. [The movement] also includes others who prior to participating in al-Shabab’s activity had no specific connection to Somalia previously, but have opted to join that movement because of ideological affinity. It is a mix that reflects the complexity that is al-Shabab”.

Regarding the military aspect, and the role of US drone aircraft, the US Special Representative to Somalia said: “There are actually very good communications among the Ethiopians, Kenyans and other troop contributing countries, facilitated through the AU, which has developed a broad strategic concept of how all the security actors will operate in Somalia. The AU has convened a number of meetings and created an overarching strategic concept that will guide the deployment of AMISOM forces. UN security resolution 2036 did call for an increase in AMISOM troop strength from current levels of about 10,000 to 17,731. Although Ethiopia is not part of AMISOM, it is an IGAD [Intergovernmental Authority on Development] member, and there has been active IGAD collaboration. Somali forces have been very active themselves in the discussions. Unfortunately we don’t comment on any intelligence related matter – so I won’t say anything about the drones”.

Swan told Asharq al-Awsat specifically: “I don’t think that we have an exact count of how many Westerners are part of al-Shabab. We’re certainly following the case of [Abu Mansoor] Al-Amriki closely, and a number of competing reports from different al-Shabab and al-Qaeda sources in terms of what may have happened to him. I think that also speaks of the tensions of both al-Shabab and al-Qaeda in terms of their operations in Somalia, as they come under increasing pressure. The linkages between al-Shabab and al-Qaeda are quite well documented. More broadly, we are concerned about any area in Somali that’s under al-Shabab control because its leadership continues quite clearly to have an extremist agenda”.

In response to Asharq al-Awsat’s question about how much of Somalia al-Shabab actually controls, Swan said: “Well it has reduced substantially over the last year and a half, but they are certainly still present in central Somalia, along the coast, both north and south, in Mogadishu, and other regions. They still have a substantial territory, but it has been reduced considerably. It has been eaten from the outside, both from Mogadishu pushing out, and the border areas pushing in”.

Touching on the problems of daily diplomatic work in in Somalia, Swann revealed: “We’ve seen increased travel since the summer of 2011. We have our staff over there quite regularly to ensure good contact and communication with the Somali players, and of course we are also in touch with them using modern communication means to make sure that we stay in regular contact”.

Ambassador Swan said: “Although it may somewhat be the result of improved climate conditions, seasonal conditions, we have seen a reduction in the number of attacks and hostages being held over recent months.

We see this as a result of successful multifaceted ‘at sea’ efforts by the US, the EU, NATO, and bilateral forces. We have also seen more pressure applied to pirates through stepped-up judicial methods and prosecutions. Recently a group of 17 pirates were transferred from the Seychelles to be imprisoned in Somaliland. Both we and other countries have actively prosecuted pirates involved in actions against our ships and out citizens.

Finally, we think there has been a very helpful ramping-up of counter measures taken by private commercial shippers, in terms of improving the security measures that they have placed aboard their own vessels.

With respect to the al-Shabab links to pirates, we know that there are some geographic overlaps between the two, and we believe collaboration is more opportunistic that strategic. In all likelihood there are some pirate taxes being paid to al-Shabab, and other indirect benefits. To this point however, we have not established a strategic link between the two”.

On the subject of the relationship between militant elements in Somalia and Yemen, Swan said: “I think we continue to be concerned about al-Qaeda and al-Shabab elements wherever they may be. There is geographic proximity to Yemen, and there certainly are multiple indications – as al-Shabab are under pressure in the south – that some of its members are moving further north, which would put them in close reach to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. I think that this underscores that al-Shabab is not only an internal danger and threat within Somalia, but through its linkages to international networks it poses a broader transnational threat.

We are concerned by any claims that al-Shabab are linked in to other extremist organizations elsewhere in Africa, or anywhere in the word”.

Regarding construction and development in Somalia, Swan said: “This is of course a critical priority, particularly going forward. To a large extent, efforts of reconstruction and development have been impeded by the insecurity of much of the country. And as a consequence focused development programs have gravitated to parts of the country that are more stable, such as Somaliland. It is very much important that we continue to work on the development front.

In the case of the US, we have a number of programs in the development arena, but very significantly one that is called the ‘Transition Initiatives for Stabilization’, which works in Somaliland, Puntland, and in Mogadishu and other newly liberated areas. Effectively it seeks to link both the communities and the local administration”.

He added: “There are some other efforts under way that are beginning to develop longer-term reconstruction and development plans. The World Bank has initiated early discussions on these topics, and the government of Turkey will be hosting a conference on Somalia in Istanbul, and will be featuring development issues as a key element of that discussion.

In terms of ‘one Somalia’, we are following what we call a dual track policy. Track one is to work actively to support the political process, at the same time we are expanding out engagement with other parts of the country that may not fall fully within those institutions and where they have established a reasonable degree of stability, security and governance. That includes Somaliland. It will really be up to the Somalis to determine”.

Regarding Somalia’s transitional phase and the roadmap towards political stability, Ambassador Swan said: “Somalis themselves have taken the lead on the effort to conclude the transition by the 20th August. In September they adopted a roadmap to end the transition. This roadmap has since been refined in several meetings. The original signatories of the roadmap are key Somali leaders including the President, the Speaker of Parliament, the Prime Minister, and the leaders of Puntland, Galmudug, and also Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a. In these subsequent meetings they created a more detailed agenda of activities to bring the transition to an end in August. We are at a crunch time – a decisive moment – because a number of political elements for completing the roadmap are coming to a head literally in the next several weeks. These include the completion of a draft constitution, then a representative group of elders from the clan communities must convene to select the constituent assembly, and later to select a new parliament. It then means that the constituent assembly must convene; adopt the new constitution, and then Somalia can proceed to indirect elections through the parliament to elect the parliamentary leadership, but also the president of the country.

The Somalis particularly seem highly motivated to proceed with this. The draft constitution was completed on schedule on the 20th of April, although literally 29 minutes before midnight on the day it was due. There are still some refinements underway on that document before it’s furnished to the constituent assembly.

The government announced just yesterday, according to the deadline for the elders to convene on the 25th, that approximately 65 percent of those elders have been assembled in Mogadishu. Again, there is some additional work to be done, but these efforts clearly demonstrate that these deadlines are being respected.

From our perspective the process continues to require additional transparency. We would like to see the list of elders – who will play this critical role in selecting both the constituent assembly and the parliament – made public and distributed more widely for commentary. There have been initial consultations with the clan committee but some other public light being shed on this would add legitimacy to the process.

Similarly, the next phases of the process including the work of the elders selecting the constituent assembly and the parliament under earlier agreements were to be subject to support from a broadly based technical committee, and we’re eager to see that established to add some further legitimacy to the effort.

This continues to be very high priority, not only for us, but for others in the international community and for regional leaders. There is an incoherent message that the transition must come to an end on August 20th, and efforts [are underway] to complete the elements of the roadmap so that the deadline will be respected

Those are the main efforts that we are currently focused on”.

* The United States Special Representative to Somalia in brief:

Ambassador James Swan has served as the United States Special Representative for Somalia since August 2011. In this position, he is responsible for developing U.S. policy recommendations on Somalia and for coordinating all U.S. programs in Somalia. Current Somalia-related programs of the U.S. government totaled more than $250 million in the fiscal year 2011. These include major efforts responding to urgent humanitarian needs, improving security, advancing economic development, and fostering better governance. Due to continued insecurity in Somalia, Ambassador Swan and his staff are based in Nairobi, Kenya. Ambassador Swan reports to the Secretary of State through the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs in Washington.

Ambassador Swan has devoted most of his Foreign Service career to Africa, and has focused especially on countries facing complex political transitions in challenging security environments. As Ambassador to Djibouti (2008-2011), he led a significant increase in the U.S.-Djibouti security partnership, while also expanding assistance programs in the health, education, and governance sectors.

Prior to his assignment to Djibouti, Ambassador Swan served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (2006-2008) with broad responsibility for U.S. policies and programs in 23 Central and East African countries. Annual U.S. assistance to these countries totaled more than $2.75 billion. During this period, he was centrally involved in U.S. policy initiatives to address multiple regional crises, including in Burundi, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and Somalia. Previously, as Director of Analysis for Africa in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (2005-2006), Ambassador Swan led a team of intelligence analysts who produced assessments of significant developments throughout sub-Saharan Africa for senior U.S. policy officials.