Mukhtar Robow: I've lost family members in Al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia
MOGADISHU, Somalia - Former Al-Shabaab deputy leader Mukhtar Robow says he too has human compassion and has lost close family members to Al-Shabaab since he denounced the group's extremism ideologies and defected to the government where he is leading the crackdown against the militants.
Robow, now serving as minister for Religious Affairs and Endowment, says his family is fully immersed in the fight against Al-Shabaab who control large swathes of rural central and southern Somalia. Since he took up the role, Robow has been assisting the government to counter the militants.
In an interview with The Guardian, Robow, whose stand against Al-Shabaab remains unapologetic, noted that the group recently killed his own son before beheading his brother-in-law. “The only crime he had committed was being married to my sister,” Robow says bitterly.
The former Al-Shabaab leader was arrested and placed under house detention in 2018 after his attempts to run for Southwest presidency. It took almost four years to have him released following the intervention by the current President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who subsequently, appointed him as minister.
Robow’s “only crime”, as he puts it, was standing for election as governor of one of Somalia’s five federal states – several years after he had laid down arms and renounced violence to pursue politics – but Farmaajo’s government, wary of Robow’s local popularity, locked up him rather than let him run for office.
“No court case has ever been filed against me,” says Robow, who believes he survived assassination attempts while in detention. There is a time he works decried being denied the opportunity to share with his attorney and family.
Analysts believe his absorption to the government will help tremendously in the fight against Al-Shabaab. Already, he has started engaging clerics who play an important role in preaching against violent extremism in the Horn of African nation which is struggling with instability.
This forms a key part of what Mohamud calls “total war” against the militants, which also involves squeezing the group’s business interests, and a new military offensive by the national army in coordination with clan militias. “We can’t give him weapons and ask him to fight, but he can be useful,” the president told the Guardian in a recent interview.
The new strategy in the mobilization of clans, he notes, has significantly helped the national army to liberate many areas which had been under Al-Shabaab rule for several years. The strategy has potentially catastrophic effects but Robow says it was a timely move that will help the country to eliminate Al-Shabaab.
Robow calls his role the “ideological front”, encouraging religious leaders and scholars to speak out against al-Shabaab in order to “reclaim the Islamic narrative [and] confront their flawed ideology”.
This approach was demonstrated at a recent Islamic conference in Mogadishu in which Robow argued that the government should police the teachings of religious scholars, and introduce a licensing system for imams in schools. “People shouldn’t be free to preach whatever they want,” he said.
“Robow is becoming more vocal on the ideological front,” says one presidential adviser. “He is leading the charge and becoming the face of the government’s campaign.”
Somalia's government is now closing down websites and social media sites which are spreading Al-Shabaab ideologies. The government has also been targeting journalists in the crackdown which hasn't gone down well with human rights groups.
“For the first time the government is tackling their propaganda head-on,” says Robow. However, Human Rights Watch has accused the government of deliberately curtailing “legitimate news coverage and free speech by making baseless national security claims”.
The decision to involve Robow, who once had a $5m [£4.16m] American bounty on his head, in the counter-insurgency strategy has been questioned by critics. Many ordinary Somalis find the appointment of a one-time terrorist to a government position distasteful. Others question how effective he can be.
Various Salafist forms of conservative Islam are increasingly well entrenched in Somali society, meaning that Robow, himself a relatively pragmatic Salafist, may struggle to make headway against the more violent strands. What is more, many of al-Shabaab’s rank-and-file members join the group not because of religion but for reasons ranging from anger at successive foreign interventions in Somalia, to economic frustration and clan marginalization, the Guardian notes.
“It’s an important symbolic step to signal to current al-Shabaab members that if they are willing to leave the group and renounce violence, there is space for them,” says Omar Mahmood, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “At the same time, there are some who question if it is the right fit to have someone who formerly promoted al-Shabaab ideology now leading the religious affairs docket. Robow’s experience, however, makes him a key asset.”
His defection did not go well with Al-Shabaab who accuses him of betrayal. Spokesperson Ali Dheere termed him an "apostate" noting that “Shedding his blood is permissible.”
Robow insists that he has long had ideological differences with the jihadists, and disapproves of their brutality. “I disagreed with their culture and their morals,” he says. “I’m a human being, not a monster.” This is the first time he was given a lengthy media interview.