Defection of senior al-Shabaab official rekindles debate over amnesty programme

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MOGADISHU — The defection of former al-Shabaab intelligence chief Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi has sparked debate on the Somali government’s amnesty offer and the benefits of pardoning al-Shabaab officials who seek to leave the group.

Hersi, who surrendered to Somali troops stationed in Gedo region on December 27th, was wanted by the US government for a $3 million bounty. He defected from al-Shabaab with a few of his men days before the amnesty extended by Somali President Hassan Shaikh Mohamud was set to expire.

“I can confirm that a few days ago Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi came under the custody of the [federal] government and is now being held by security agencies in Mogadishu,” government spokesperson Ridwan Haji Abdiweli told Sabahi on Friday (January 2nd).

Abdiweli said he was not aware whether the president’s amnesty offer would continue into the new year, but said an announcement on the matter would be made at a later time.

Hersi’s surrender offers an opportunity for the Somali government to increase access to the inner workings of the militant group and to engage others who would like to defect, security analysts say.

It also provides an opportunity for the government to re-evaluate how it deals with al-Shabaab defectors, said retired Colonel Ahmed Omar Ga’al, who served as the deputy intelligence chief in Gedo during the Mohamed Siad Barre regime.

Hersi left al-Shabaab months ago after clashing with former al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed in a US airstrike in September, but could not find an opportunity to come over to the side of the Somali government, Ga’al said.

“I was told by his relatives that this man wanted to give himself up before, but he was afraid as he did not have much confidence in the government’s amnesty programme,” he said.

When the president announced that the government would extend amnesty to al-Shabaab defectors, there should have been a plan in place to infiltrate the group as a way to gather intelligence and to provide fighters with information on how to leave, Ga’al said.

Somalia’s security agencies should have known about Hersi’s fallout with Godane and should have reached out to him to offer amnesty, he said.

To make the amnesty programme work better in the future, the government should adopt three strategies, he said.

“First, it should use money to entice many people to leave al-Shabaab. Second, it should take advantage when conflicts arise within the enemy group and [members] are willing to spy on one another. Third, patriotic people should be planted within the enemy so that they can save their country.”

Ga’al said following those steps would make it easier to acquire valuable intelligence and defeat al-Shabaab. “It is when you have information that you have an advantage over your enemy,” he said.

Lessons from past defections

Professor Yahye Ali Ibrahim, president of Somalia International University, said the Somali government should follow through on its commitment to welcome al-Shabaab defectors with open arms.

“How the government deals with Zakariya and men like him will determine whether or not many more al-Shabaab leaders and fighters will surrender,” Ibrahim told Sabahi, adding that if al-Shabaab leaders who surrender to the government are treated well, hundreds of fighters who are disillusioned with the group will be encouraged to follow suit.

The surrender of former al-Shabaab leader in Puntland Sheikh Mohamed Said “Atom” in June and former Hizbul Islam leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys a year earlier are examples that should be emulated, he said.

“As far as we have seen, Sheikh Atom and Hassan Dahir Aweys have been treated well and we hope that [the treatment of] Zakariya will be the same as them,” Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim called on the Somali government to extend the amnesty period to capitalise on the trying times al-Shabaab is going through.

“The government has to pay attention to the men who are lining up [to defect] and give them more time,” he said. “It will be difficult for a person to leave in a month or two months because there are many channels one has to go through to leave the group.”

Ibrahim also called on the Somali government to utilise traditional elders to negotiate with their clansmen who are part of al-Shabaab and want to leave the group.

“For example, Zakariya surrendered in the region he hails from even though he could have surrendered in another region. This shows that he had confidence in his clan,” he said.

“However, the government has to be cautious about those who play [as double agents], those who pretend that they are surrendering while they are still working for al-Shabaab,” professor Ibrahim added. “That issue has to be closely monitored.”

There is no question that Hersi should be granted a presidential pardon in the same fashion it was given to Aweys and Atom before him, said Ibrahim Berow Ibrahim, a 32-year-old Mogadishu resident.

“This man is like them. The amnesty was extended to any al-Shabaab member who defects and he came forward to take advantage of that,” Ibrahim said.

He defended the government’s amnesty offer to al-Shabaab defectors, saying they are no different from warlords who committed heinous crimes during the civil war and have now put down their arms and are even serving in federal and state administrations.

“For more than 20 years Somalia was at war, many people participated in those wars. If those warlords are prosecuted, than Hersi and others like him should be prosecuted as well,” he said, adding that amnesty should be honoured so that the country can move forward.

Justice is inevitable

But Badrudin Ahmed Egale, a 28-year-old Mogadishu resident, has a less forgiving perspective. He said there was no reason to pardon al-Shabaab leaders who have caused immeasurable destruction in Somalia and across East Africa.

“How is it possible to pardon a person who killed all those people without reason? Will that not lead to someone else doing the same thing tomorrow and receiving a pardon?” he told Sabahi. “These ones have to be punished so that no one else tries to harm this society.”

Egale said every citizen is equal under the law and anyone who commits a crime should be brought to justice and receive the deserved punishment.

“This person did not commit a crime against a president or minister, he harmed and killed the children of mothers and fathers, he made orphans of children and he made widows of young women who were just starting their lives,” Egale said. “How can a president pardon a person like that?”

“Zakariya currently held the post of the chief of intelligence or the Amniyat, which is the largest unit of al-Shabaab that has massacred innocent people,” he said. “I say that justice is inevitable and Zakariya and others like him have to face it.

Kasmaal Information Center/Mogadishu/Somalia