Vigilante model may just work against al-Shabaab


EDITORIAL | Somalia’s battle against the terror group al-Shabaab has been long and winding. But that is also mainly because it takes one predictable method of attack: using foreign troops to provide security.

A few days ago, however, something emerged. Villagers organizing themselves into local vigilante groups have been beating down a Shabaab reinforcement.

In the Hirshabelle and Galmudug regions, the local Mawislay* groups in southern Somalia have provided the much-needed shields to communities where al-Shabaab would naturally roam and maim.

Our sources indicate government authorities already like this idea, both the federal and state administrations are providing coordination between the vigilantes as well as intelligence on the movement of al-Shabaab fighters.

One obvious advantage is that the vigilantes are composed of local lads and hence can be easily trusted by villagers as opposed to foreign troops. What is more is that there is a personal stake for every vigilante: An obvious safe village is good for everyone to go about their life without looking over their shoulder.

This is not the first time villagers have organized themselves in batches against al-Shabaab. In the past, voluntary, moderate groups in Galmudug could outsmart the terror groups. However, it didn’t seem like authorities were interested in supporting these groups. Perhaps it was also a matter of who should take credit for any successes against al-Shabaab. The old administrations may have opted for a different kind of approach.

Under President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, his administration has said it will seek to have Somalia at peace with itself and with the world. It is obvious the first step is to have villages at ease, then have a federal government working in cooperation with states.

That doesn’t mean everyone is happy that vigilantes are wiping the floor with al-Shabaab. After reports emerged last week of the initial successes, some politicians badmouthed the President and regional leaders. Some argued that the government was dodging its responsibility to protect. Others argued the vigilantes could quickly morph into new armed groups targeting authorities.

There may be valid arguments here. But the basic point is that vigilantes and the government have one common enemy: al-Shabaab. All the government needs to do is coordinate and hopefully know the identity of the vigilantes to ensure no one slides off. It is obvious this idea of giving power to villagers is not entirely sufficient, but we should not think of its weaknesses so much as to forget what successes it has or will bring.

Authorities will need to keep an eye on village elders because a sway by al-Shabaab on their mindset can easily derail this whole model. Authorities will have to entice them to see the point of the good in guarding against al-Shabaab, rather than joining their terror. Of course, al-Shabaab is also known to directly mete terror on these villagers' elders to enforce their control, which is why the government must protect the elders.

The vigilante model may have worked better in rural areas where villagers are homogenous or subscribe to one clan or identity. It may be a different ball game in the cities, which is why the government must continue to strengthen the Somali National Army and other security agencies.

Al-Shabaab is a hydra-headed monster whose cut parts have been known to sprout into new threats. We must adopt every method that will decimate the threat. But we must not ignore any signs of danger in this course.


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