Photo credit: Jeffrey Onyango
Photo credit: Jeffrey Onyango

Thinking beyond ‘countering violent extremism’ in Somalia: local views on an international ‘project’

The ‘countering or preventing violent extremism’ (C/PVE) agenda is taking hold in Somalia, but is it benefiting people? In the second of our series on Somalia, we hear the concerns of Somalis on C/PVE and ask whether it is time to think beyond this international 'project'. 

Tall and softly-spoken, Sharmarke cuts a calm figure amid the car horns and chatter of Mogadishu’s streets. Although not originally a local, he now calls this city – one of the most dangerous capitals in the world – his home. Despite the many resources and troops pouring into Mogadishu over the last three decades, those who walk the streets don’t feel much safer. They know that an explosion could go off anywhere, at any time. This is true even in the heavily guarded buildings and compounds of Somalia’s political elite and international agencies and embassies.

Feeling like a bystander in the ever-fluid ecosystem of United Nations agencies and non-governmental organisations, Sharmarke speaks wearily of the many phases of international intervention in Somalia over the past few decades – each one promising finally to end the country’s messy and protracted conflicts.

The latest approach to take hold in Somalia is the ‘countering or preventing violent extremism’ (C/PVE) agenda. Propelled into the international lexicon by an Obama administration wary of repeating the worst scourges of the ‘war on terror’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, C/PVE has become the latest supposed panacea to insecurity in Somalia, and with it has come significant donor funding.

The C/PVE agenda is supposed to be a shift away from hard security focused on primarily military methods for defeating armed groups. Instead, it aims to achieve the same goal but by addressing the underlying factors that motivate their recruits. At first glance it seems a welcome alternative to airstrikes and boots on the ground. But Sharmarke is far from convinced: “People think CVE is the silver bullet to solve these issues in Somalia… [but] the perception is that there is no difference between counter-terrorism and CVE.” Instead, he calls this ‘narrow thinking’ that will not bring peace to his country.

Nonetheless, the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States have all poured C/PVE funds into Somalia. The UN has also bought into it. The Federal Government of Somalia wasted no time jumping on board by developing its own ‘National Action Plan’ for C/PVE in 2016, which the United Nations Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) is now mandated to support. As the author and long-time Somalia follower, Mary Harper notes, ‘suddenly the world is awash with CVE “experts”.’

A recent study from the Institute of Security Studies found that at least 27 different organisations in Somalia are now working on C/PVE projects. They are partnering with youth and religious groups, women, ex-members of al-Shabaab, government agencies and civil society organisations on various tasks including awareness raising, capacity building, tolerance promotion, increased participation, counter-narratives, and rehabilitation and reintegration.

Sharmarke will not be joining them. “The UN approached us to partner with them on a CVE programme and we opted to turn it down”, he says. “[This is] because we don’t want to engage in a programme that is doomed to fail – and we know it will.”

Hoda*, a young development worker, sees things from a different angle thanks to her role working on one of the many C/PVE projects in the country. However, she is equally frank about the limitations of this agenda in Somalia. “It does not address the individual grievances which lead [individuals] to join Al-Shabaab, such as clan conflict, unemployment, lack of governance, need for adventure, or whatever is influencing the individual at any given time.” For Sharmarke, this is the main reason why he doesn’t support C/PVE in Somalia. “It unfortunately does not address the root causes: abuse, exploitation, and poverty.”

“The UN approached us to partner with them on a CVE programme and we opted to turn it down. [This is] because we don’t want to engage in a programme that is doomed to fail – and we know it will.” – Sharmarke.

Broader research corroborates these concerns. UNDP recently found that those joining violent groups in Somalia, Sudan, Kenya and Nigeria did so for many reasons, whether acute poverty, neglect and political marginalisation, or because they believed that their religion was under threat. Yet while many C/PVE programmes are preoccupied with the development drivers of recruitment and the theological or rhetorical allure of armed groups, the UNDP study concluded that people tended to join armed groups most frequently in response to ‘government action, including the killing of a family member or friend or arrest of a family member or friend.’

Previous Saferworld research in Afgoye and Baidoa told a similar story. Evidence suggests that some elders have supported al-Shabaab’s continued presence, largely because of civilian casualties from Federal Government of Somalia and AMISOM operations. Our research has also shown that not all those fighting for al-Shabaab do so out of choice – but instead are either forced to fight or are exploited in cases such as the cook who was forcibly recruited when al-Shabaab took control of the village where he lived. People we interviewed told us that “Clan elders often decide whether or not youth join Al-Shabaab”. Such experiences call into question the theory of change underpinning de-radicalisation and counter-narrative projects.

A joint World Bank-UN assessment of young people’s roles as peacebuilders In Somalia noted that under the premise of countering violent extremism, ‘young men in Mogadishu are routinely picked up by police and jailed simply for being young and possibly Al-Shabaab sympathizers, with or without justification for suspicion of the latter, other than age’. For Sharmarke, C/PVE programmes and policies too often focus on one side of the equation, ignoring the role of others who may be driving the conflict, and often – under the guise of CVE – allow for an extension of these abuses.

Somalia’s National Action Plan on CVE for example, does not mention the impact of authorities or security forces, or of common grievances among Somalis about civilian casualties or corruption. Instead, it rests on winning ‘the hearts and minds of the people’ against a radical ideology. “The whole thing is viewed with a lot of suspicion,” Sharmarke tells us. “Somalis do not trust anything that they feel is a threat and they feel there is some level of dishonesty in the whole idea of countering violent extremism”.

‘Young men in Mogadishu are routinely picked up by police and jailed simply for being young and possibly Al-Shabaab sympathizers, with or without justification for suspicion of the latter, other than age.’ – A joint World Bank-UN assessment.

Hoda also knows this fact too well: “There is a lot of suspicion among the Somalis, perceiving it as indiscriminately countering [our] values” – rather than something that is actually committed to countering violence. As a result, civil society organisations that do C/PVE have to sidestep its flaws if they are to avoid alienating communities they work with. “[We] avoid overtly branding the activities as P/CVE, due to the risk to [civil society organisations] and broadcasters. We disguise it as ‘peace messaging’.” But even so, she says, it’s hard to tell what sort of impact it’s having: “It is debatable whether counter messaging is effective, because [AS] is always two steps ahead of the game, constantly evolving and adapting, while the rest of us are playing catch-up.” As Sharmarke puts it, “this approach cannot be sold to the local population. One thing we should know also is that if you cannot sell your idea, you will be forced to lie so that people accept it.”

The aspect of C/PVE programming that is most clearly missing the mark is run by the ‘communications experts liv[ing] in shipping containers at the airport, designing messages to counter al-Shabaab’s enthusiastic propaganda machine’. A recent critical assessment of these efforts claimed that Somalis ‘were generally adept at recognising counter-narrative messages funded or created by non-Somalis…[and] in general, they reacted to them with hostility, sarcasm, amusement or scathing cynicism.’ This was summed up by a professional in Somalia who admitted to ‘receiv[ing] tens of thousands of dollars from international donors for counter-messaging projects which I know are almost entirely ineffective.’

Some donors have acknowledged the limits of their approaches in Somalia. USAID notes that ‘Somali youth in East Africa believe the US is engaged in the region to fight Islam rather than to fight terrorism.’ An evaluation of European Union aid shows that its programmes have ‘failed to generate the local political will to reform dysfunctional and corrupt administrations that…drive support for extremist groups and their ideology.’ But these admissions aside, there has not yet been wide enough recognition of the need to think beyond C/PVE in Somalia.

Somalis consistently say that they want an end to the violence in Somalia. But the current focus that pitches Al-Shabaab as the only problem isn’t working.

Recent upsurges in violence further underscore fears that current approaches in Somalia are not working. While some see C/PVE as a ‘silver bullet’ for Somalia, many practitioners are all too aware that impacts of C/PVE programmes in Somalia range from somewhat positive to largely pointless. But few have really acknowledged the potential for knock-on negative repercussions.

As Saferworld and independent rapporteurs working for the UN on both youth and human rights have noted, the tendency for donors, the UN and international organisations to brand young, predominantly Muslim men as potential ‘violent extremists’ or ‘terrorists’ carries serious risks. It not only perpetuates a system where communities get caught up in unaccountable and abusive counter-terror operations – but also carries risks for civil society organisations and the in-country UN presence, damaging their reputation among Somali communities. If C/PVE programs are tarnished for communities in Somalia, the UN and international organisations could face a strong backlash.

“Let’s put it this way”, says Sharmarke. “I once asked some elders how they feel about foreign aid and mainstream [international] support to Somalia, and they told me it is a ‘project’. I asked them what they meant by project, and they said it’s about deceiving others in the name of helping them, and that there has not been a time when these projects do any tangible thing for the community. Now what do you think will be their view on C/PVE if other [less controversial] interventions have been branded as a ‘project’?”

Somalis consistently say that they want an end to the violence in Somalia. But the current focus that pitches Al-Shabaab as the only problem isn’t working. Is it time to think beyond P/CVE in Somalia? Sharmarke seems to think so. “The way [P/CVE] is designed, it is like it will solve the complex conflict issues in Somalia but it is not doing anything…what we need is to have a conducive environment for all to work together towards the realisation of peace and stability.”

*Name changed to protect interviewees' identity.