Westgate Mall, Just Peacemaking, and al Shabaab

In a recent post, we wrote about the FBI showing up at one of our Peace Feasts and how our peacemaking efforts help protect young Somali men in America from the recruiting efforts of al-Shabaab.

Today we'd like to talk more about the situation and share with you this analysis by Peter Sensenig. This post was originally published here, and we are sharing it with his permission.


by Peter Sensenig

Some historical context may help us understand a bit better how something like the mass murder at Nairobi's Westgate Mall last September happens and how such evil takes root. And it will also help us engage the Just Peacemaking practice of acknowledging responsibility in what has happened to Somalia.

The dictator Siad Barre ruled Somalia with an iron hand from 1969 to 1991. The abuse of power in the Barre regime was so great that it cultivated a deep distrust of centralized authority. When his government fell, Somalis turned to Islamic revival in lieu of a centralized government. In the mid 2000s an alternative movement called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) managed to bring relative peace to war-torn Somalia, reducing weapons and even clamping down on piracy off the coast. The ICU had legitimacy in the eyes of the Somali people, because it was perceived as a grassroots movement that was successful in bringing about some stability.

But the US did not trust the ICU, which included both moderate and radical elements. The US hired warlords in Mogadishu to kill and capture suspected al-Qaeda operatives. The ICU opposed these US-supported warlords. Furthermore, neighboring Ethiopia feared that Somalia might be reuniting under a powerful Islamic movement. On Christmas Eve 2006, a coalition of US and Ethiopian forces rolled into Somalia in tanks, killing rather than capturing both ICU leaders and civilians.

The invasion by Ethiopia and the US achieved the opposite of its intended outcome. The annihilation of the Islamic Courts Union all but destroyed the moderate presence in Somalia, radicalizing both the religious and political leadership and the general population. It was the in wake of the ICU’s demise that al-Shabaab was formed, and aligned itself with al-Qaeda.

Simply put, the US played a major part in the creation of al-Shabaab.

Journalist Eliza Griswold describes both the invasion and the Bush administration’s policies in Somalia, including supporting notorious warlords and launching Tomahawk missile strikes against civilians, as a complete backfire. The fighting stemming from the invasion killed at least 8,500 people by the end of 2009, leaving 1.5 million homeless and 3.8 million at risk of famine. The battle for the hearts and minds of Somalis was lost, allowing al-Qaeda to plant a “friendly flag” among a population increasingly willing to side with anyone against the barbarity of the West. The long hatred for the Ethiopians (and subsequently Christians) was rekindled; Griswold reports widespread sentiment regarding the thousands of dead Somalis, including many civilians, that “Muslims wouldn’t do anything like this” (Griswold, Tenth Parallel, 130). The US and its allies had ushered in the enemy they had claimed to be destroying. Somalia was back to square one on insecurity and anarchy.

Just as tragically, the invasion and overthrow of the ICU was a lost opportunity for peacemaking. If the international community had recognized that the ICU was a genuine grassroots government with broad support from the Somali people, the focus could have turned to peacebuilding strategies rather than the endless tasks of state-building. It was an ideal moment to construct a genuinely Somali, bottom-up government, a moment that was utterly squandered by the Bush administration’s war on terror, which painted all kinds of Islamic organizations with broad and often deeply mistaken brushstrokes. The lesson of the previous military actions in Somalia – including the famous Black Hawk Down events – was still not learned: Somalis unite against foreign military intervention, to the benefit of groups like al-Shabaab.

Glen Stassen has demonstrated convincingly that combating terrorism with war, torture, and threats only increases terrorist activity. The utterly unimaginative, alienating, and futile attempts to destroy al-Shabaab with force will only yield more bitter fruit like the Westgate Mall attack.

In the same vein, John Paul Lederach argues that it is a mistake to employ a strategy of isolation rather than engagement with groups like al-Shabaab. He criticizes the tactic of creating wide ranging terrorist lists that seek to control acts of terrorism but have no long-term strategy for transforming the factors that cultivate terrorism. What is needed instead is a multifaceted approach grounded in a compelling theory of social change. Neither isolating al-Shabaab nor pursuing the organization militarily will have any lasting impact for peace.

Last month I was in Somaliland, visiting a university that has an institute for peace and conflict studies. At this institute, students from various parts of the Somali region study the power of nonviolent strategies, conflict transformation, and trauma healing. It is in places like this that the futility of both military intervention and militant Islamism are laid bare. This – not the barrel of a rifle or a tank – is the real battlefront against the violence of al-Shabaab.


PCI recognizes that blogs posted on the PCI website do not necessarily reflect the views of PCI, nor does it mean that the author is in full agreement with the views of PCI.