As with many non-state armed groups, Al-Shabab’s relationship with civilians has been essential to its resilience and staying power. This report examines how the dynamics between Al-Shabab and civilians have differed and why, in three areas of prolonged Al-Shabab control (Adan Yabal, Moqokori and Jilib). This report is based on in-depth research inside Somalia, including 70 interviews with businesspeople, government officials, elders, aid workers and supporters of Al-Shabab.
Al-Shabab’s relationship with civilians is essential to its survival, and it has developed a clear political strategy for engaging with clans and communities. Al-Shabab exploits civilian frustration with political exclusion and government neglect, gaining traction with disaffected populations. Alongside this, it plays savvy clan politics, manipulating existing grievances and divides. But it also provides services, such as justice, and has allowed space for civilians to influence how these are provided. Communities voice their needs, seek assistance in times of crisis and even challenge the group’s decisions in certain instances. Clans and communities, in turn, use this as an opening to negotiate with whatever influence they can muster.
Civilian leverage with Al-Shabab depends on an array of factors. These include the unity of clans within a given area, historical relations between communities and Al-Shabab, and the strategic value the group places on a given community(i.e., its military or political importance). Military dynamics also play a key role. When under military pressure, Al-Shabab tends to be more conciliatory, making peace with clans and relaxing the harsher aspects of its governance. But once it regains the upper hand, Al-Shabab tends to reimpose stricter conditions and civilian influence diminishes.
Integrating civilians, particularly clan elders, into governance structures has been essential to Al-Shabab’s political strategy. Although often harsh, the group’s practices were seen as fair by some in our research areas, thanks to Al-Shabab’s religious arguments and the inclusion of influential figures in its governance structure. The group’s approach to clan structures and incorporating some traditional leaders into its governance system has allowed it to create a sense of ownership and buy-in among local populations. Some aspects of Al-Shabab’s rule are more negotiable than others. Still, the involvement of clan elders in governance enables dialogue (if not always negotiation) and confers legitimacy.
All of that said, Al-Shabab’s manipulation of clan dynamics can backfire, spurring uprisings against the group. And while it may bring stability and order to communities for so long as they remain under Al-Shabab control, it also creates potential for conflict and competition between clans down the road. Amid the ongoing government offensive to retake Al-Shabab areas, civilians in many areas are caught between a rock and a hard place: some have sought refuge deeper within Al-Shabab-controlled areas, while others have fled to government-controlled territory, though Al-Shabab continues to monitor them closely.
While the group has lost significant territory, Al-Shabab is playing the long game. When the government fails to fulfil its promises to retake communities, Al-Shabab has seized the opportunity to negotiate truces with disaffected clans. This tactic is not new; Al-Shabab has long employed peace deals with various communities and clans. But it underscores the importanceof understanding the group’s strategy towards civilians and the factors that shape people’s everyday bargaining and survival strategies vis-à- vis Al-Shabab.
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