For years he was the spokesman and deputy leader of al Qaeda inspired al-Shabab, Africa’s deadliest terror group. Now Mukhtar Robow is running for office in Somalia, a country struggling to emerge from decades of war.
While Robow has traded his military fatigues and black banner of jihad for the dapper look of a politician, his candidacy in the Dec. 5 elections has angered many in this war-shattered East African nation. It also raises questions about whether to emerge from decades of conflict, Somalia must also embrace some of the figures behind much of that violence.
“There are thousands and thousands of people who have died because of his ideology, because of his beliefs, because of his involvement in the al-Shabab organization,” said Abidrizak Mohamed, a Somali member of parliament. “How do his victims feel about him being a candidate?”
While Robow’s own campaign slogan is “Security and Justice,” his new public profile appears to present a choice between the two: Embrace al-Shabab defectors for the sake of security or hold them accountable in the name of justice.
During the height of its power al-Shabab, which was founded in 2006 and is fighting to establish an Islamic state, carried out near daily suicide attacks that killed thousands. The violence reduced cities to rubble, displaced millions and exacerbated the effects of a long-running drought and famine that left around a quarter million dead in 2011.
The group has also lashed out across the region, with devastating and coordinated operations including the 2010 World Cup bombing in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 74 people, and the 2013 assault of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, where at least 67 died.
In recent years the U.S. has carried out a campaign of airstrikes targeting militant training camps and al-Shabab leaders. The group has been pushed out of Mogadishu, although it continues to control rural areas in the south and central regions.
Robow, who according to American officials was born in 1959, was one of the founders of al-Shabab in 2006. Also known as Abu Mansour, he was inspired by al Qaeda and received militant training in Afghanistan where he has said he met with Osama bin Laden days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
He was then instrumental in deploying al Qaeda’s violent insurgent strategy to fight the Somali government and international forces.
In 2008, Robow was added to the U.S. list of designated terrorists and a multi-million-dollar bounty was put on his head.
But a rift within al-Shabab, between parts of the group seeking to establish a global caliphate and others like Robow who were more focused on national issues, set him on a new path.
Fearing for his life after a falling out with senior leader Ahmed Abdi Godane in 2013, Robow went into hiding protected by his own loyal militia, until announcing his decision to defect in August 2017.
In a public address at the time, Robow urged other fighters to leave as well.
“I left al-Shabab because of misunderstanding, and I disagreed with their creed which does not serve Islamic religion, people and the country,” he said, according to Reuters. “I urge the militants to leave al-Shabab.”
Robow’s transformation from militant leader who publicly praised successful suicide attacks to candidate for office was the result of the government’s program of encouraging al-Shabab defections.
Hussein Sheikh-Ali, a former government adviser who helped negotiate Robow’s move, said it took three years to convince him to change sides.
“It wasn’t straightforward,” he said. “It was on and off and eventually we figured out something and then he just jumped.”
His defection came just months after the U.S. removed a $5 million reward for his capture and took him off its list of sponsors of terrorism. U.S. sanctions, which prohibit U.S. citizens from dealing with him, remain.
Sheikh-Ali, who is also the director of the Hiraal Institute, a security research group in Mogadishu, believes Robow’s transformation is genuine.
“He wants to defeat al-Shabab,” he said. “He thinks that they are counter to Somali society. That is his position right now.”
Now Robow is running to become the president of South West State — one of six federal regions set up to help establish a functioning government.
And he is not alone.
A new report from the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia says about 20 other senior members of al-Shabab have defected “at Robow’s instigation.”
Non-Shabab commanders have also joined mainstream politics.
Ahmed Madobe, a former Islamist warlord who ran a powerful militia that fought against al-Shabab for control of the region and its lucrative port in Kismayo, reentered mainstream politics and was elected president of Jubaland State in southern Somalia in 2013.
But Robow’s running for office — a move announced in October — might be a step too far. The South West State’s regional assembly is set to vote on whether he is eligible for office. While local authorities cleared his candidacy, the central government has announced Robow cannot run because he remains under international sanction.
It is not clear who gets the final say because Somalia does not have a formal constitution.
And so far, Robow also has not been subject to any kind of judicial process or accounting for his past actions.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington and an expert on insurgencies, warned against integrating former combatants in this way.
“There is this tremendous risk that justice and victims’ rights will be sacrificed without there being any payoff in terms of reduction of violence or in terms of more effective, accountable stabilization in Somalia,” she said.
Rashid Abdi, the Horn of Africa director for International Crisis Group, acknowledged that Robow’s candidacy poses a moral dilemma. But in a country riven by conflict since the fall of the last government in 1991, it is not unheard of for former combatants to gain political power, he said.
“Of course it’s not ideal,” Abdi said. “But my argument has been, ‘Look, there have been very few people in the Somali political field today who can be held to be clean.’”