Opportunity for negotiations with Al-Shabaab not yet mature, says Somalia leader

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Somalia is not ready to negotiate with Al-Shabaab militants at least at the moment, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has maintained with the government now preparing for the second phase of operations against the group which has been causing havoc in the country for the last 16 years.

In an interview with Financial Times, Hassan Sheikh said his administration intends to squeeze Al-Shabaab hard so that they can take negotiations for peace seriously at a later time. The group has a huge presence in central and southern parts of Somalia.

“Al-Shabaab still feels it can survive, and we also believe the opportunity for negotiations is not yet mature,” he said. “But in the end, this will end up with negotiations,” added the president, who is optimistic that the group will lose ground.

Omar Mohamood, a senior security analyst with Crisis Group, insists that the offensive against Al-Shabaab had “reversed some of al-Shabaab’s gains of the past few years, forcing the militants out of several areas, including some important towns. Yet big challenges remain.”

According to him, the toughest duty of the Somali National Army [SNA] and their partners will be conquering parts of Jubaland and Southwest where the militants have a huge presence. The group operates from Jilib town which is believed to be its headquarters.

“Al-Shabaab continues to mount resistance in parts of central Somalia and fighting al-Shabaab in its southern strongholds will probably be a tougher slog,” Mahmood said.

Already, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has reached out to Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia for military support as the country gets into the second phase of operations against the group. “We’ll have more forces and more capability right now than we had in the previous phase,” Sheikh Mohamud said.

Al-Shabaab, which combines a Salafi-jihadist and Somali nationalist ideology, came together in about 2006 during an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. It has become synonymous with suicide bombings and gruesome attacks, including the 2013 raid on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.

The US has called it “the largest and most deadly al-Qaeda network in the world”, saying that it provided the terror group’s central command with “tens of millions of dollars”. The US Africa Command estimated there were 5,000-10,000 al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia before this offensive. “But they’ve taken a lot of casualties recently,” said a Somali defence official.

The United States reinstated about 500 soldiers after their repositioning in 2021 following a directive by former President Donald Trump. President Joe Biden has been categorical about his policy in the Horn of Africa and has reiterated his commitment to secure the region from the militants who are fighting to topple the fragile UN-backed federal government of Somalia.