NAIROBI, Kenya — In 2007, US Special Forces tried to kill Ahmed Madobe. Today, he is a key ally, working to run Al Shabaab out of Somalia.
It’s been a long-fought battle with the Al Qaeda affiliate, one that may reach its end — at least in conventional military terms — in the days ahead as a regional coalition makes its way to the port town of Kismayo, the militant group’s last remaining stronghold.
Madobe’s remarkable turnaround from terrorist enemy to trusted friend is emblematic of the pragmatism and shifting allegiances that have helped make Somalia a graveyard for foreign peace efforts over the last two decades.
Speaking to GlobalPost in a hotel suite in Nairobi, where he was holding meetings with clan elders and military chiefs, Madobe explained his change of heart.
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“I saw something worse than all other enemies: Al Shabaab. It is the worst we have ever seen, so all of a sudden my former enemies became normal to me. Nothing compares with this group’s philosophy, it changed me,” he said.
So, perhaps, did two years of interrogation, solitary confinement, house arrest and eventual rehabilitation.
Madobe is a past governor of Kismayo and was a senior member of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a Somali Islamist group the US branded a terrorist organization. For a few months in 2006, before a US-backed Ethiopian invasion that Christmas, the ICU had pacified a lawless Somalia by ousting its venal clan warlords.
After the January 2007 air strike, Madobe bled in the sand for hours before being picked up by American soldiers and sent to Ethiopia. Two years later he was flown from Addis Ababa to Mogadishu, where he was briefly a parliamentarian before rejoining the Ras Kamboni Brigades militia in the south, this time to battle his former protégés — Al Shabaab.
Madobe’s story isn’t unique. Former President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was hunted by the United States in 2007, only to be lauded two years later as the country’s “best hope” by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Madobe’s trajectory has been similar, albeit with more modest aspirations: he does not want to rule all of Somalia, only Jubaland, a putative semi-autonomous southern state.
To do that, Kismayo must fall. Since pulling out of Mogadishu 14 months ago, Al Shabaab has withdrawn from town after town across southern Somalia with barely a shot fired.
Kenya’s army, under the banner of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), will lead the assault on Kismayo, alongside Madobe’s Ras Kamboni Brigades. Expectations of a victory are high. The Kenyan military issues daily statements trumpeting the capture of obscure villages near the port and insists a major assault is “imminent.”
For its part, Al Shabaab has dismissed as “blatant lies” reports that its fighters and commanders were fleeing Kismayo. The militant’s radio station resumed broadcasting on Wednesday after two days of silence and eyewitnesses reported Al Shabaab reinforcements entering the town.
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The United Nations has urged all parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties as thousands flee ahead of the expected attack. Civilians died last month when Kenyan navy vessels shelled Kismayo, according to Human Rights Watch. This week, the UN refugee agency said that close to 2,500 civilians have been leaving the city each day.
Despite the rising tensions, few expect Al Shabaab to put up much of a fight for the port.
“Kismayo is just a mindset. From a military point of view it’s not a big problem,” said Brig. Paul Lokech, a senior AMISOM commander based in Mogadishu.
After the assault, Al Shabaab is likely to melt away into Somalia’s vast hinterland. The government — and its foreign allies — control most of the country’s towns and villages, but the administration’s writ scarcely extends to the stick huts and thorny fences on their outskirts.
Beyond them is Al Shabaab territory, and that is unlikely to change if Kismayo falls.
Like everyone else, Madobe expects a spike in Al Shabaab’s signature attacks: suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, hit-and-run assaults and assassinations.
“After we control Kismayo, for the first six months, they will kill a lot of people, [that is] what I think,” Madobe said. He expects that an asymmetric war, employing guerrilla and terror tactics, “will continue for a long time and no one knows when that will be eradicated.”
Thursday served up another reminder of Al Shabaab’s efficacy when a double suicide bombing targeting a Mogadishu restaurant killed more than a dozen people.
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To win over hearts and minds, analysts say Somalia’s new rulers will need to do a better job than Al Shabaab providing basic services, administering the country and treating its civilians well. But before any of that, they will need to avoid starting another fight, this one among themselves, for control of Kismayo and its lucrative port.
That, Madobe said, has been his key focus and the reason behind the slow progress and false starts in retaking Kismayo.
“The problem, what we are talking about, is what we do after Kismayo, how do we deal with that situation? We need to settle the situation before we go to Kismayo because if we enter it will become another problem, even Al Shabaab can come back,” he warned.
And so there have been months of consultations and meetings. Trains of clan elders entered and exited Madobe’s hotel suite before and after the interview with him, his phone buzzed throughout while advisors and attendants shuffled about hurriedly.
“We need to talk to every person to settle this thing of Kismayo the tribes, local elders, even the Ethiopians and Kenyans because they have their own interests,” he said.
Madobe hopes his efforts will pay off and Somalis will elected him to govern Jubaland.
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“I have been fighting for more than three years against Al Shabaab, to root them out from the region, and the people know that. I am not telling them that I will be president but it is the people who will make the decision and [they] know who fought for them.”
Although Madobe can now be found at smart Nairobi hotels wearing the kind of lounge suit and leather slip-ons that are more palatable to politicians and diplomats, at home he remains among his soldiers, dressed in fatigues, his thick beard dyed red with henna in the traditional Somali style (this week he was on the frontlines at Bibi, close to Kismayo). And some say he hasn’t changed that much after all.
“Madobe is still an extremist, but people seem to like doing business with him,” said one Somalia analyst who knows him well. “He’s a bush guy, he stays there, he fights his wars, he gets his support and is effective on the battlefield.”