Deradicalization and Reintegration as Strategies for Counterterrorism in Somalia

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Combating physical threats is challenging enough, but how do you defeat an idea? 

This is precisely why countering extremism and terrorism is so difficult. In Somalia, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, along with Somalia’s international allies, have relied on military force and authoritarian crackdowns to try and fight the radical group Al-Shabaab. [1] [2] However, is this really the best way? The evidence suggests not, as Al-Shabaab maintains a strong presence and routinely carries out acts of violence despite current efforts. [3] Surely, there must be a better way. Enter deradicalization, rehabilitation, and reconciliation efforts. These “softer” methods attempt to address the root problem of radical ideology and provide incentives for members of Al-Shabaab to defect. The Somalian government and perhaps even its international and regional allies should adopt these softer methods of addressing extremism to make progress towards ensuring peace and stability. 

Somalia has long dealt with violence and instability. Ever since the fall of former President Siad Barre’s regime in 1991, Somalia has been in a state of civil war. [4] The Somali Civil War has lasted so long in part because of the presence of various types of combatants. The major forces in this civil war include the Somalian government, international allies of Somalia, local militias, and terrorist groups. [5] [6] The most notable terrorist group is Al-Shabaab, which has continued to maintain power and territory despite longstanding offensives against them from the African Union. [7] In recent years, the Somali government has struggled to slow down the resurgence of Al-Shabaab. The government has attempted to remove key leaders involved in Al-Shabaab, including the assassination of its second highest ranked leader, Abdullahi Nadir. [8] Despite this, Al-Shabaab has yet to be constrained, continuing to carry out devastating attacks and violence in Somalia. [9] In 2021 alone, Al-Shabaab was responsible for 534 deaths. [10] Defeating Al-Shabaab’s leadership alone is unlikely to be sufficient, as radical ideologies continue to cycle through to other members of Al-Shabaab, even if the leader is terminated. 

“Safe Corridor” as Model Policy

Somalia is hardly the only country that has faced major issues in its counterterrorism efforts. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has wreaked havoc on the country, perpetrating violence and creating instability. [11] Boko Haram has largely had such a prominent rise to power because of the failures to dismantle dangerous ideas from their roots. A project known as Operation Safe Corridor sought to address this issue by reintegrating ex-Boko Haram members into the community. During the process, authorities sought to understand why Boko Haram members had joined in the first place and then later, left the group. [12] Operation Safe Corridor hoped to prevent ex-Boko Haram members from rejoining the group or falling back into patterns of violent behavior. This reinvolvement can be a major contributor to the resurgence or at least continuing presence of groups such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. 

Analysis of the Operation Safe Corridor project indicates that the program was very successful in demobilizing Boko Haram members, suggesting that “soft counterinsurgency” methods can be very effective. [13] However, a major issue with the project lies in community trust. In the eyes of the community, the government was rewarding these violent members as opposed to helping victims of acts committed by Boko Haram. This is something to keep in mind for future deradicalization, rehabilitation, and reconciliation efforts. More focus needs to be placed on the victims, combining aspects that include both restorative justice and punitive action.

Reintegration in Somalia

Back in Somalia, this lesson is personified by Mukhtar Robow, a former Al-Shabaab leader who was named to the Somali cabinet in August of 2022. [14] Somalia has not fully embraced soft strategies, but reintegrating Robow into civil society was a step in the right direction. Still, the public has been very reluctant to accept Robow as a leader, especially after his history in Al-Shabaab and his imprisonment by the Somali government during his presidential campaign. [15] [16] It is very difficult to expect the public community, especially victims, to feel comfortable with a former terrorist in a position of power. But this is exactly the type of reintegration that needs to be normalized.

Beyond just reintegrating public figures such as Mukhtar Robow, there have been several examples of Somalian rehabilitation and deradicalization programs. In one rehabilitation program for former members of Al-Shabaab, “low-risk” former members were able to receive counseling on how to reintegrate into society. [17] The five parts of the project included outreach, reception, screening, rehabilitation, and reinsertion support. Throughout the interviews conducted by this program, authorities found that people often defect from Al-Shabaab for practical reasons such as economic incentives and excessive violence rather than disagreements with the ideology. This seems to imply that many Al-Shabaab members do not truly understand the ideology they are espousing, so it is hard to get them to abandon an ideology if they are not aware of what ideas Al-Shabaab supports. A more effective approach to deradicalizing and reintegrating Al-Shabaab members is to provide them with appropriate state and community support. Therefore, many scholars agree that approaches such as religious training in Somalia may not be extremely effective in accomplishing goals of deradicalization. [18] 

Another evaluation from the United Nations found that a separate rehabilitation project for “high risk prisoners” in Somalia was a very promising effort, as it was able to reincorporate prisoners back into civil and economic society. [19] The biggest conclusions drawn from the evaluation indicated that the project needed more funding and adequate time to succeed. These are an excellent set of guiding principles for how local authorities in Somalia can expand rehabilitation, reconciliation, and deradicalization efforts and refine current initiatives. 

Keys to Success

Ensuring the support of local and traditional authorities is the most important factor in the success of these initiatives in Somalia. Although some local authorities view deradicalization with skepticism, it is for the best of everyone involved. [20] Traditional authorities could also include respected elders in the community, in addition to government officials. Government funding and community support over long periods of time is exceptionally important to defeat Al-Shabaab. 

If this first local step in Somalia is successful, perhaps there is also opportunity for regional allies to help in the deradicalization effort. Many top government officials believe that they will need the help of their allies to defeat terrorism, and perhaps this is true, but not in the way that is traditionally held. [21] Instead of sending more troops to attack terrorists, countries can work together on projects such as prison rehabilitation initiatives or deradicalizing education and reintegration support. Breeding grounds in other countries are a common source of growth for terrorist groups, and Al-Shabaab is no different. Clearly, international authorities can also be involved in the “soft counterinsurgency” movement.

While these soft strategies have been discussed in the context of Somalia, they also apply to any other country facing threats of terrorism. Many countries throughout the Middle East and Africa face problems similar to Somalia and could adopt this approach of deradicalization, rehabilitation, reconciliation, and reintegration. Pending global cooperation, the “soft counterinsurgency” movement has the potential to be a very powerful tool in combatting terrorism worldwide.


[1] Liebermann, Oren. “US airstrike killed an al-Shabaab leader in Somalia on Saturday.” CNN Politics. October 3, 2022.

[2] “Somalia orders media not to publish al-Shabab ‘propaganda.’” Al Jazeera. October 8, 2022.

[3] Harper, Mary. “Somalia and al-Shabab: The struggle to defeat the militants.” BBC World Service News. August 24, 2022.

[4] Felbab-Brown, Vanda. “The problem with militias in Somalia: Almost everyone wants them despite their dangers.” Brookings. April 14, 2020.

[5] Felbab-Brown.

[6] Cade, Cabdi. “Somalia’s Vigilante to Eradicate al-Shabaab.” Allbanaadir. September 19, 2022.

[7] Klobucista, Claire, Jonathan Masters, and Mohammed Aly Sergie. “Al Shabab” Council on Foreign Relations. May 19, 2021.

[8] “Al Shabaab’s #2 man killed by Somali government forces.” Hiraan Online. October 3, 2022.

[9] Klobucista, et. al.

[10] “Number of deaths caused by Al-Shabaab in Somalia from 2017 to 2021.” Statista. June 8, 2022.

[11] Bukarti, Audu Bulama. “Violent Extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa: Lessons from the Rise of Boko Haram. July 2021. Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

[12] Owonikoko, Saheed Babajide. “‘Take them to Government House or Aso Rock’: Community receptivity to reintegration of Operation Safe Corridor’s deradicalized Ex-Boko Haram members in Norhteastern Nigeria.” Cogent Social Sciences 8, no. 1 (January 10, 2022).

[13] Owonikoko.

[14] Maruf, Harun. “Former Al-Shabab Commander, Al-Qaida Member Named to Somali Cabinet.” Voa. August 2, 2022.

[15] “Mukhtar Robow: I was in prison when I got the call to be Minister.” Hiraan Online. August 16, 2022.

[16] Anzalone, Christopher and Stig Jarle Hansen. “The Sage of Mukhtar Robow and Somalia’s Fractious Politics.” War on the Rocks. January 30, 2019.

[17] Khalil, James, et. al. “Deradicalisation and Disengagement in Somalia: Evidence from a Rehabilitation Programme for Former Members of Al-Shabaab.” Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. Whitehall Report 4-18. January 2019.

[18] Gelot, Linnéa. “Deradicalization as Soft Counter-insurgency: Distorted Interactions Between Somali Traditional Authorities and Intervening Organizations.” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 14, no. 2 (March 12, 2020).

[19] Khalil, James. “Pilot Rehabilitation Project for High Risk Prisoners in the Baidoa Prison – Final Evaluation.” United Nations.

[20] Khalil,

[21] “Editorial: In war against terrorism, Somalia will still need old friends.” Garowe Online. September 10, 2022.