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In Somalia, U.S. counterterrorism laws are counterproductive

In Somalia, U.S. counterterrorism laws are counterproductive

Published: September 19, 2013

Young men ages 14 to 26 took part in an electrical installation training in Israac Village.

Photo: AFSC
Somalia map


Photo: AFSC

Editor's note: In light of the violence at Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, AFSC offers our condolences to all those who are affected, and we continue to pray and work for peace in Somalia, in Kenya, in the U.S., and around the world.

This article, published Sept. 19, 2013 as part of a focus on foreign policy approaches that would make all of us safer, is a reminder of how youth can harness their creativity and energy to nurture themselves and their communities.


The chance to make a living, peacefully

In Galcayo, Somalia, Hassan bakes bread to sell at the market. His baking business helps his family make a living and provides a new food source for his neighbors. The life he lives contradicts the dominant U.S. media portrayal of young Somalis, who are typically depicted as drivers of violence and chaos, fueling decades of civil war. 

Hassan’s reality is just one small part of an untold story of resilience, conflict transformation, and constructive engagement within many unseen communities dedicated to a peaceful future in Somalia.

Throughout Somalia, teenagers and people in their twenties are becoming entrepreneurs instead of joining armed groups, with the help of trainings by AFSC partners—small, local organizations and communities laboring to replace decades of animosity with collaboration and hope. Community members are coming together across lines of age and gender to talk about what they need in order to reconcile differences, and how they can forgive and begin to heal.

Despite the groundswell of Somalis collaborating with organizations like AFSC on peaceful initiatives, the degree to which affected communities can be engaged is limited by U.S. counterterrorism policies.

Can we stop the next war if we don’t open dialogue with community stakeholders most familiar with the roots of conflict in their region? Can Somalia build a secure future if young people like Hassan are denied the chance to make a living peacefully?

Jobs, not war

Economic hardship, often more so than ideological conflict, fuels enlistment in armed groups. That’s why a large part of working for peace is finding sustainable ways for young people to make a living and providing hands-on job training so they are prepared to do the work.

learning about the flow of electric currents

In Israac Village, young men including Mohamed
Abdihayir, age 26, and Zacaria Said Ali Abdirahman,
age 15, learn about the flow of electrical currents.

Skills training is informed by each community’s needs, which vary from one place to another. In Somalia as elsewhere, AFSC works with local people to identify needs in the community, including what businesses are most needed and likely to thrive. 

Young Somalis then receive six to twelve months of training, including a week of concentrated conflict-resolution education—which has led many to play active roles in their community and become valued as resources instead of burdens and detractors.

Diving into running a business is no easy task. Upon graduation, participants receive a starter kit with tools and materials they need to start working as well as seed funding to cover initial costs, like renting a business space.

Parents have told us that this program means they no longer have to worry about their children joining armed groups for the $100 monthly salary.

Creating space to shake hands

Our locally driven programs develop some intriguing solutions to conflict. Ask a Somali teenager what would make her community more secure, and you’re likely to get a different answer than what an outside organization might see.

In Beled Hawa, where AFSC runs a student civic engagement program, the community identified that the town social hall, destroyed during the war, needed to be rebuilt. People had used the hall to address grievances, ranging from personal disputes to inter-clan fighting that led to revenge killings.

Because the youth spoke up about the need to rebuild, AFSC supported the project with materials; the community provided additional materials and labor. 

Another program shows another solution. For years, only armed groups had traveled between the towns of North and South Galcayo.

Young people (peace ambassadors supported by AFSC) from each town wanted to change that. They approached community leaders for permission to bridge the divide. The leaders said yes, but were skeptical that a transition was possible.

On their first journey across the divide, youths from each town brought messages of peace to clinics, markets, and any other place where people gathered in the other town. After a few months of that work, the youth organized a soccer match and invited people from both towns.

It was the first time in years that leaders from the two towns had shaken hands. 

This exposure started a conversation that has contributed to greater integration; the towns are even sharing an airstrip, and commerce flows freely between the two locations.

Seeing peace take hold in these communities shows what a conflict transformation approach can achieve in Somalia.

Left out by law

Somalis living in areas controlled by al-Shabaab do not have access to AFSC’s programming because of U.S. counterterrorism legislation.

hairdressing training in somalia

Rahmo Abdi Rahman, 17, Baarlin
Hassan Hashi, 26, and Mumino Adan
Ali, 23, take part in a hairdressing
and beauty class.

It is illegal for organizations to work with members of “blacklisted groups.” For example, if a member of a blacklisted group receives trainings on nonviolence, a U.S. organization could be sanctioned or have its leadership sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. This is a serious impediment for peace workers. In order to promote peace and security, it is vital that peace workers’ activities are legally protected.

The State Department can give waivers to peace and humanitarian organizations, but such waivers require prior government approval of a work plan. This is difficult for organizations that want to remain independent from political influence or the appearance of taking sides.

Laws that isolate, rather than engage, people are counterproductive. They restrict effective peace programs in the communities that need them most. By limiting nonviolent engagement, we in the U.S. are limited to only approaching conflict areas with military tools—tools that displace and destroy communities, disregard the spiritual belief in “that of God in every one,” and perpetuate cycles of violence.

Opening the way for inclusive peace-building

There is still hope for the kind of inclusive peace building that eradicated the fear separating North and South Galcayo.

AFSC and a community of peace organizations are calling for changes in the law, urging U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to use his powers to lift barriers to peace-building programs that reach out to all parties in conflicts through nonviolent and inclusive processes. We have the support of figures such as President Jimmy Carter and former U.S. ambassadors.

We will continue to bear witness to the successes of our partners in Somalia, gained through the power of nonviolence. 

Author Alissa Wilson is AFSC's Public Education and Advocacy Coordinator for Africa