The Militant Makeover

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A former terrorist who once had a $5 million bounty on his head and trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan has been appointed Somalia’s new religion minister in an attempt to win over supporters of the extremist group al-Shabab and bring reconciliation and stability to the troubled country, Al Jazeera reported Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre chose former al-Shabab co-founder, spokesman and deputy leader Mukhtar Robow to join the cabinet.  Robow split from the group in 2013, but has been detained by domestic intelligence officials since 2018 because he attempted to win the governorship of Somalia’s Southwest State. The Somali leadership at the time reportedly feared his growing political power. The initial arrest set off deadly protests.

He was released this week.

Robow’s appointment may help newly elected President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud fulfill his vow to step up the fight against al-Shabab, analysts said. Robow still commands support in his native Bakool region, where the insurgents hold a substantial amount of territory, along with other parts of southern and central Somalia.

“The move will advance reconciliation and will serve as a good example for more high-level al-Shabab defections,” political analyst Mohamed Mohamud told Reuters.

Al-Shabab, which means “youth,” has long sought to eject the government and all Westerners, and establish a strict Islamic state. Since the early 2000s, it has targeted civilians and government officials, government buildings and tourist facilities. In February, it attacked election delegates in the capital, Mogadishu, killing six civilians.

It is also responsible for brutal attacks in Kenya and other neighboring countries. Last week, in an effort to advance its control over the Horn of Africa, 500 al-Shabab fighters engaged in a firefight at the Ethiopian border, a clash that killed 150 al-Shabab fighters and 14 members of an Ethiopian militia.

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