‘I’m a human being, not a monster’: Mukhtar Robow the al-Shabaab defector turned government minister

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The former deputy leader of al-Shabaab, Mukhtar Robow, is now Somalia’s religious affairs minister. Photograph: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP
The former deputy leader of al-Shabaab, Mukhtar Robow, is now Somalia’s religious affairs minister. Photograph: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP

By: The Guardian

My whole family is fighting al-Shabaab,” says the former jihadist Mukhtar Robow, peering through his glasses from behind a pile of leather-bound Islamic texts. The normally media-shy former al-Shabaab commander has invited the Guardian into his home in central Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, at the request of the country’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. His tone is, by turns, angry and indignant.

Explaining why he decided to join Mohamud’s new cabinet, he cites the toll that al-Shabaab, which has been waging a guerrilla insurgency against Somalia’s fragile central government for about 15 years, has had on his own family: his son was recently killed on the battlefield and his brother-in-law was beheaded by the militants.

“The only crime he had committed was being married to my sister,” Robow says bitterly.

Personal tragedy is not the only reason for his frustration. For the four years leading up to Mohamud’s re-election in May, Robow, who was trained in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad there, had been kept under house arrest by the controversial former president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmaajo.

Robow’s “only crime”, as he puts it, was standing for election as governor of one of Somalia’s five federal states – several years after he had laid down arms and renounced violence to pursue politics – but Farmaajo’s government, wary of Robow’s local popularity, locked up him rather than let him run for office.

Mukhtar Robow faces the television cameras in October 2018
Mukhtar Robow faces the television cameras in October 2018 to speak about running for the regional presidency in Baidoa, Somalia. Photograph: AP

“No court case has ever been filed against me,” says Robow, who believes he survived assassination attempts while in detention.

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