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CVE Strategy in Somalia: the importance of context, coordination and ownership

Violent extremism is at the top of the global agenda today. In 2017, the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, made his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia. On 21st May 2017, the President Trump met leaders from more than 50 nations at the Arab Islamic American Summit to discuss ways to cooperate against the threat of global terrorism and violent extremism. During the visit, the Global Counter Extremism Centre was inaugurated in Riyadh.[1]

Since the 9/11 attacks, various Counter Violence Extremism (CVE) related initiatives have been undertaken at both global and national level. The earliest practical CVE strategy was the United Kingdom’s Prevent programme[2], while the 2016 “UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism” is the most comprehensive global initiative. Regionally, in the Horn of Africa, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has also formulated a CVE strategy for the region and a Centre of Excellence. Within the Horn of Africa, Somalia, given its unique and intractable political and security challenges, is expected to have a special focus and context specific CVE strategy.

As the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS), with the support of its international partners, moves towards developing and implementing a comprehensive CVE strategy and program, it is imperative to review the context for a successful strategy and outcome. While there is a dearth of robust outcome studies to identify which interventions are most effective at preventing violent extremism, there is sufficient empirical evidence to start learning and understanding about the effective practices in general activities and how specific interventions can be useful in targeted groups and areas. The purpose of this article is to review the context and key actors, highlight the opportunities for effective CVE in Somalia, and given the delicate nature of the subject, avoid the pitfalls.

Historical Context

In as much as violent extremism is a global and regional issue, particularly in the Horn, its specific context and history in Somalia is extremely essential if it is to be understood, and hopefully addressed by, policy makers and practitioners. This is more so because time and events have changed the perceptions and alliances of different groups with respect to violent extremism.

Somalia is almost 100% Sunni Muslim, which before the civil war has for centuries followed the Ash’ariyah version, Shafi’i jurisprudence, and Sufism.[3] With the collapse of the state in 1991, Salafi groups led by the Saudi supported Al-Alitihad Al-Islamiyah became very active in the politics, economic, justice and social sectors in Somalia.[4] In the ‘90s, Al-Itahad attempted and failed to maintain control over territories they had seized including Bosaso and Luq. Following the unsuccessful attempts at direct political activism, Al-Itihad focused on business, justice and social sector (particularly education). In Mogadishu and its surrounding areas, which at the time was under feuding warlords, in a bid to counter lawlessness, the group and its affiliates meted out justice through various independent clan-based Islamic (Sharia) Courts.[5]

Following the formation and sudden advance of the Islamic Courts Union in Southern and Central Somalia in 2006, Al-Shabab, an offshoot group that is related to, but technically autonomous of, the broad-based Courts movement, made their formal emergence. The group’s first two leaders stated that their distinct ideology was formed in the early 1990s as a result of Al-Itihad’s capitulation and lack of conviction in pursuing unrelenting Jihad—Al-Shabab leaders viewed the Al-Itihad establishment as individuals who had abandoned their convictions and were immersed in concerns such as business, education, family.[6]

Disagreement between the two groups over the call for “Jihad” simmered for years. Until 2010, the Al-Itihad establishment was loath to openly criticise the actions of Al-Shabab. At around the same time, Al-Itihad’s name was replaced by Al-Itisam. Before 2011, it was impossible to openly discuss CVE or criticise extremist groups in much of Somalia. Even in areas under government control, authorities were unable to apprehend or detain extremists known to have perpetrated acts of violence because of overwhelming clan, religious and public support.[7] That all changed at the end of 2011 with the killing of a prominent Sheikh in Bosaso.[8] The gradual, and at times sudden, loss of fear and public support was not the result of CVE initiatives or external influence. It was the inadvertent outcome of extremists’ groups actions. Extremists moved beyond attacking government officials and soldiers. The infighting between extremists, the killing of prominent Salafi Sheikhs who disagreed with them, and the indiscriminate bombings of civilians in markets and other public places gradually led to the contraction of support for extremists. Moreover, areas and clans that have once sheltered extremist groups have been severely affected by them – when clans reverse their alliance from militants towards the authorities, either because their previous grievances have been resolved or they do not like the policies of the extremists, they face the most ferocious retaliation which in turn intensified the clans’ revulsion against extremists.

Following the emergence of Shabaab, the veteran Al-Itihad members, went into reflection. The founders of the group begun to effectively counter the extremist narratives by revoking their fatwas. Sheikh Abdulkadir Nur Farah, one of the key spiritual leaders of Al-Itihad, had not only turned against the senseless violence but also lamented the turn of events and partly blamed themselves for the violent extremism. Because his words carried a great deal of influence and cost the extremists substantial support, the Sheikh was killed whilst praying at a mosque near his home in 2013.[9] This act only further entrenched the opposition to, and alienation from the Al-Shabab, as well as the resolve to counter them by religious groups and the larger public.

At its height, in 2007, Al-Shabab could rely on significant local support from many who saw the Ethiopian incursion as a Christian crusade into a Muslim country and who were outraged at reports of alleged atrocities.[10] The effect of the group’s propaganda and its public support has waned considerably overtime. The eroding support for their ideology of violence and bloodshed is reflected in social media, where compared to a decade ago, there is now little or no gloating over violent attacks perpetrated by extremists on social media.

Effective CVE programming

The design of a CVE strategy must take in to account the above historical and local context for effective and tailored programming. There should be two sets of CVE activities: broad and specific; each addressing the pull and push factors of radicalisation. The first, specific activities, should be target high risk groups, active militants and former combatants. This should only be addressed by specific religious groups. The second, broader set of activities, should be aimed at raising the confidence in the public vis-à-vis the authorities as well as reducing the conditions that foster violent extremist groups. This includes activities such as good governance and socio-economic development—a role more suited to government, civil society and their international partners.

Examples of key distinct activities

Government and Civil Society led activities Religious groups led activities
·         Economic and livelihood

·         State building (local government)

·         Youth employment

·         Women engagement and awareness

·         Justice and the rule of law

·         Culture, sports and arts

·         Human rights

·         Media

·         Mosque related activities

·         Reintegration of former combatants

·         Specific and high-risk groups

·         University students

·         Quranic teachers

·         Special forums and conventions

·         Dialogue with militant groups


Somalis are inherently opposed to a foreign driven agenda. There is a deep distrust of international support, particularly Western support and NGOs, even if it is humanitarian.[11] Given this propensity, rivals accuse each other of being foreign agents because it resonates and wins debates. For instance, despite the de facto and pragmatic status of the ‘federal’ system that was adopted by the Somali government, the most effective criticism by its opponents is the fact its origins have international influence and support.[12] No topic is more sensitive and off limits to foreigners, particularly the West, than that of religion in Somalia. Religious interference would exasperate suspicions of foreign agenda and would attest to Quranic warnings. This fact should be taken into consideration when initiating CVE efforts including determining an apt Somali reference for CVE itself.

Most of the social norms advanced by Salafi groups, such as Al-Itisam, may not align with international values and norms, particularly in the area individual and groups rights. However, one area the mainstream Salafis and the international community have in common today is on CVE. As the purveyors of Salafi teaching in Somalia, they have profound writ that extends to across the country and most of its populace. They are simply the most effective force against violence extremism. Only they have the required access and the ability to reach the most vulnerable and high-risk groups. These would include places such as mosques, universities, Quranic schools.

The bid is how to support those already engaged in countering violence without sullying religious leaders’ efforts with taints of external influence. The most well placed to coordinate with religious leaders is the Ministry of Religious Affairs. They should be linked with other major CVE centres and initiates currently operating in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE). The religious leaders’ current efforts should be strengthened and extended to support the reintegration of former combatants. Several rehabilitation facilities for defectors and ex-combatants in Somalia have been marred by controversies including over the treatment of minors, the lack of transparency in camp administration and the Camp’s rumoured role in intelligence gathering and counterterrorism operations.[13]  The reported returning of juvenile militants to Shabaab after rehabilitation and the use of them by government security agencies as spies has caused both local and international outrage.[14] While defectors and combatants require comprehensive support, the best antidote for the ideology of violence is provided by the non-violent Salafi Sheikhs (this may include the very religious leaders who once advocated for violence but are now facing the full wrath of Shabaab for turning against violence).

The ultimate goal, should be overcoming the governance challenges Somalia faces. Holistic development of the kind the UN is pursuing under Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will undoubtedly have a positive impact on CVE indicators. There are many indirect programmes that are conducive to the CVE objectives including good governance, economic growth (including youth employment), education, inequality, justice and rule of law and human rights. In fact, many seemingly livelihood and infrastructure projects have CVE objectives. Stabilization and development projects have significantly contributed to raising public confidence and the economic recovery of the country. Realisation of the plans detailed in the National Development Plan (NDP) and the New Partnership for Somalia (NPS) will make a significant impact on CVE.

Most CVE related projects in Somalia are in the form of stabilisation interventions. These are quick impact projects are focused on winning over local communities in newly recovered territories or areas of high risk.[15] The United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union and Norway fund stabilisation projects in south-central Somalia. Key stabilisation projects include the Somali Stability Fund (SSF), jointly funded by the UK, Denmark, the EU, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Arab Emirates. SSF primary focus is conflict resolution, employment creation, institution-building and governance projects in line with the government’s stabilisation policy. The United States has its own stabilisation programmes in Somalia under USAID Transition Initiatives for Stabilization (TIS+), which aims to ‘increase confidence in all levels of government through targeted, strategic interventions that improve service delivery and government responsiveness’. USAID also funds the Somalia Stabilization Initiatives (SSI) under to Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) to “promote stability and political transition, and counter violent extremism, in Somalia”. Similarly, with UK Department for International Development (DfID) and EU funding, AMISOM also implements quick impact projects, including the construction of schools, health centres and police stations.[16]

In terms of media, the UN supports AMISOM with Somali language broadcaster, Radio Bar Kulan, in Somalia. The radio’s mission is to “counter the misinformation of violent obstructionist groups and political spoilers, while creating awareness about AMISOM, UN and peace building initiatives”.[17] Similarly, the US State Department’s Global Engagement Centre (GEC) has online presence and engages in Somali to counter extremist propaganda and misinformation.

Internal evaluations of the respective stabilisation projects show these programmes are having the desired effects, such as increase in public confidence in government.[18] However, the absence of coordinated, systematic and independent assessments of these stabilization projects makes it difficult to judge their impact and sustainability.[19] Government leadership and coordination would contribute the effectiveness and the attainment of the political goals of stabilisation projects.


No country in Africa has been faced with the level of extremist violence that Somalia has been subject to since 2005. Violent extremism in Somalia is a national issue which can only be effectively countered by its citizens. Understanding and analysis of violent extremism through thorough research as well as the planning and development of strategies should be led by Somalis. If the message is seen as being countered by the very people whom it is against, i.e. if a western message, not only will it fail but it will be counter-productive.

Extremist are dependent on maintaining a steady follow of new recruits, not least because of their high attrition rate. Despite reports of forced conscription including children, the main source of recruitment is in education institutions, including Qur’anic schools and higher education, and mosques. CVE programs in Somalia should target the most at risk group as well as proponents and sympathisers of violent extremism. The most suited group and best conveyors of the counter-narrative messages are the very group that once led them and turned against violence. Their efforts should be encouraged through government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and the linkages with CVE initiatives in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Donor funded stabilisation and development projects aligned with CVE are very important, at least in the short term. A more effective and durable outcome will require better coordination, ownership and leadership by the government. A comprehensive and rigorous studies of CVE related projects is needed for effective future programming and policies.


Sharmarke Farah is the Co-founder & Executive Director of a Somalia based Think-Tank, Hayaan Institute, that specialises in research on economic growth, institutional development, public sector governance and public service delivery. Whilst managing Hayaan Institute, he provides regular consultancy to governments and international partners on national policy and strategy development, economic policy development, public financial management, economic growth strategies, sectoral planning and environmental management. He may be reached at: or


[1]Arab Islamic American Summit to align cooperation between the Muslim world and the United States on countering violent extremism and global terrorism.

[2] Qureshi, Asim. 2015. ‘PREVENT: creating ‘radicals’ to strengthen anti-Muslim narratives’, in Critical Terrorism Studies. Vol. 8, No. 1. Pgs. 186-187.

[3] Abdurahman M. Abdullahi Baadiyow. 2012 “The Islamic Movement in Somalia: A Historical Evolution with the case study of Islah Movement (1950 – 2000), Ph.D Thesis, Mac-Gill University

[4] Ibid

[5] Abdulshakur Mire Aadam. 2010. The Resurgence of Somali Islamism1952-2002. Horyaal Printing:Bosaso, Somalia).

[6] Hansen, Stig Jarle. 2013. Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013

[7] Ibid



[10] Swedberg, Jeffrey and Reisman, Lainie Reisman. 2013. “Mid-Term Evaluation of Three Countering Violent Extremism Projects,” USAID, 2013

[11] Menkhaus, Ken.2010. ’Stabilisation and humanitarian access in a collapsed state: the Somali case’, in Disasters, Vol. 34, No. 3.

[12] Mosely, Jason. 2015. ‘Somalia’s Federal Future: Layered Agendas, Risks and Opportunities’, Chatham House, Royal Institute for International Affairs

[13] Felbab-Brown, Vanda. 2015. ‘DDR—A Bridge Not Too Far: A Field Report from Somalia’, in James Cockayne and Siobhan O’Neil (eds.), UN DDR in an Era of Violent Extremism: Is it Fit for Purpose?, United Nations University, 2015


[15] Hagmann, Tobias. 2016. ’Stabilization, Extraversion and Political Settlements in Somalia’, Rift Valley Institute.

[16] Ibid.


[18] USAID, “Final Performance Evaluation Of The Transition Initiatives For Stabilization Project (TIS): 2011-2016”, Evaluation Summary, 2016

[19] Hagmann, Tobias. 2016. ‘Stabilization, Extraversion and Political Settlements in Somalia’, Rift Valley Institute.

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