Skip to content

Rehabilitation and Reintegration of former al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia – Dr. Anneli Botha

December 4, 2017


Rehabilitation and Reintegration of former al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia

By Anneli Botha

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 25 (December 2017) 

Since the formation of al-Shabaab in Somalia, the organisation went through periods of growth and decline. Periods of decline were particularly sparked by inner conflict and the loosing of territory. Consequently, members representing all levels within the organisation started to doubt their commitment to the organisation, its cause and the individual’s willingness to risk life and limb for the organisation. In dealing with individuals disengaging from al-Shabaab the Federal Government of Somalia introduced the National Program for the Treatment and Handling of Disengaging Combatants and Youth at Risk in Somalia developed through its Inter-Ministerial Task Force on Disengaging Combatants. According to this program, Somali institutions will receive, rehabilitate and reintegrate an estimated 4,500 fighters or former combatants who renounced violence, voluntarily surrender or are captured from al-Shabaab or other armed groups, with the framework of international humanitarian and human rights laws and restorative justice. To facilitate this process at least four ‘transition centers’ or ‘rehabilitation centers’ were established in Mogadishu, Baidoa, Beledweyne and Kismayo. Additionally, these institutions were also designed to protect former al-Shabaab members from retaliation from their former comrades.[1] According to Cabdirashiid Ibrahim Maxamed, the director of the Somali Defector Rehabilitation Programme (DRP) in December 2017, 2000 defectors had already been successfully reintegrated into society since the programme began in 2011.[2] This programme is supported by the United Nations through the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) and other international organisations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and other donors that finance the implementation of these programs.

The term ‘disengagement’ within the Somali context however does not distinguish between defecting and detained members of al-Shabaab although a distinction is made between high-risk and low-risk. Once received, the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) screens the individual to categorize them as high-risk or low-risk. While low-risk combatants are being transferred to rehabilitation centers, high-risk combatants are being prosecuted. Combatants who complete the rehabilitation phase in the rehabilitation center are released and reintegrated back into the community.[3] The rehabilitation program for low-risk combatants consists of family reunification, religious education, vocational and literacy training, civic education, and social reintegration.

Considering above figures and existing constraints the practical realities of rehabilitation programs requires attention. Most prominent is the temptation to put all recipients through the same program. In reality, interviews conducted with former al-Shabaab respondents have identified a number of categories based on the reasons why former al-Shabaab members joined the organization in the first place that also sheds light on the level of radicalization that is not always being considered. For example, based on a sample that differentiated between mid-ranked leaders of al-Shabaab the majority of leaders cited religious reasons (52 percent), followed by personal reasons (28 percent). In contrast to leaders, the majority of ordinary al-Shabaab members indicated that they joined al-Shabaab for themselves, followed by religious reasons. This was further supported when respondents were asked to indicate if an external stimulus played a role in their decision to join the organization. Assessing the response, most leaders were motivated to join al-Shabaab in response to AMISOM intervention (27 percent), Somali government action (27 percent) and Ethiopian specific intervention (21 percent). Ordinary members interviewed were motivated by Ethiopian intervention (31 percent) and government action (24 percent). Al-Shabaab respondents perceived the main threat to Islam in Somalia as not coming from within the country, but rather beyond its borders. Interestingly, 71 percent of respondents in the leader sample, versus 25 percent of ordinary al-Shabaab members believed that al-Shabaab represented the best interests of Muslims in Somalia. It is important to note that 75 percent of the rank-and-file did not believe that al-Shabaab represented the best interests of Muslims. In other words, whereas leaders are convinced of the organisation’s religious agenda, rank-and-file members who participated in this study were less convinced.

Underscoring religion as a prominent component in the conflict, 68 percent of leadership respondents considered Islam to be under threat at the time they joined al-Shabaab. In contrast, only 45 percent representing ordinary al-Shabaab members expressed the same concerns. When asked to identify the origins of the threat, both leaders and members identified external actors, most notably Western countries, followed by AMISOM according to ordinary al-Shabaab members and neighbouring countries according to leaders. Identifying the combination between al-Shabaab’s nationalistic and religious agenda, the first question mark rests with addressing the negative perception that exists amongst Somali nationals directed at international actors when developing and implementing deradicalisation programs within the Somali context. Although religious education will most probably correct misinterpretations in the Qur’an jihadist manipulated, but as presented in this sample, purely religious indoctrination (associated with a conflict between different interpretations of Islam within a country) was not the most prominent reason for joining al-Shabaab, but rather the perception that Islam was under threat following the ‘invasion’ into Somalia.

Vocational training is another prominent component in deradicalisation programs. Determining the role financial incentives played in recruitment, 15 percent of ordinary members and 11 percent of leaders interviewed joined al-Shabaab for the employment opportunities the organisation presented. However, when respondents were asked to assess being employed by al-Shabaab played a role in their decision to join the organisation, 75 percent of leaders, but only 47 percent of ordinary members agreed that being employed was a factor. 25 percent of the leadership sample even strongly agreed that being employed by al-Shabaab was an incentive. In contrast, 37 percent of members who did not agree that being employed by al-Shabaab was an attractive incentive. Being an employee or being part of the organisation for its financial gain open the possibility of offering better employment opportunities to encourage disengagement. However, when respondents were asked if they were paid, the majority (84 percent) of ordinary members indicated that they were not paid, while 31 percent of the leadership sample were not paid.

Although only two main factors – religion and financial benefit – were presented in this commentary, in theory it is clear that developing tailored rehabilitation and reintegration programs will enhance the effectiveness of these initiatives. However, in practical terms, capacity, even with the assistance of international actors will remain a concern. Secondly, developing and introducing programs that address the real reason why individuals joined al-Shabaab – perceptions around Western and neighbouring countries (most notably Ethiopia and Kenya) – might not always be that acceptable to those facilitating the implementation of these programs.



[1]Muggah, Robert, and Chris O’Donnell. “Next generation disarmament, demobilization and reintegration.” Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 4, no. 1 (2015). p.4

[2] Somalia Relief Web. Somalia sets priorities for defector rehabilitation. 1 December 2017.

[3]Parrin, A., 2016. Creating a Legal Framework for Terrorism Defectors and Detainees in Somalia. Colum. J. Transnat’l L.55, p. 257

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: