Mukhtar Robow is a co-founder and former deputy leader of al-Shabaab in Somalia. Robow reportedly left the group in 2013 after disagreements with the group’s now-deceased leader Ahmed Abdi Godane. In August of 2017, Robow surrendered to Somali authorities.Omar Nor, “Former Al-Shabaab deputy leader surrenders,” CNN, August 13, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/13/africa/al-shabaab-robow-surrenders/index.html. In late 2018, Robow attempted to run for president of Somalia’s South West state before being arrested by Somali’s federal government.Christopher Anzalone and Stig Jarle Hansen, “The Saga of Mukhtar Robow and Somalia’s Factitious Politics,” War on the Rocks, January 30, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/01/the-saga-of-mukhtar-robow-and-somalias-fractious-politics/.
Robow has publicly acknowledged that he grew up in Mogadishu, but there is some uncertainty surrounding his exact birthdate and birthplace.Will Connors, Siobhan Gorman, and Sarah Childress, "Somali Militant Group Built Training Camps, Al Qaeda Links," Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703722804575369112124063190. The U.S. government lists his place of birth as Xudur, Somalia, with an alternate place of birth of Keren, Eritrea, based on an Eritrean passport registered to “Mukhtar Abdullahi Ali,” one of Robow’s aliases. The government lists Robow’s birthday as simply “1969,” while acknowledging that his Eritrean passport provides an alternate birthdate of October 10, 1969.“Treasury Targets Somali Terrorists,” U.S Department of the Treasury, November 20, 2008, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/hp1283.aspx.
Robow studied law at the University of Khartoum and taught Arabic in Mogadishu.Will Connors, Siobhan Gorman, and Sarah Childress, "Somali Militant Group Built Training Camps, Al Qaeda Links," Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703722804575369112124063190. In 1996, he founded the first Islamist training camp in Somalia in al-Hudda, Bakool region."Are These the Faces behind Westgate Mall Attack?" Daily Nation, September 29, 2013, http://mobile.nation.co.ke/News/Are-these-the-faces-behind-Westgate-mall-attack/-/1950946/2012542/-/format/xhtml/-/m3ga9k/-/index.html. In 2000, Robow traveled to Afghanistan and trained alongside al-Qaeda and the Taliban for approximately one year. It was there that he reportedly learned guerrilla warfare tactics and bomb-making skills, which he transported back to Somalia.Will Connors, Siobhan Gorman, and Sarah Childress, "Somali Militant Group Built Training Camps, Al Qaeda Links," Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703722804575369112124063190.
In 2003, Robow and some other younger members of the Somali Islamist group al-Itihad al-Islamiya (AIAI) broke with the organization to form Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujhadeen, now known as as al-Shabaab. Robow was joined by future al-Shabaab leaders Godane, Aden Hashi Ayrow, and Ibrahim Haji Jama. Their stated goal was to establish a “Greater Somalia” state based on sharia (Islamic law).Dagne, Ted. "Somalia: Current Conditions and Prospects for a Lasting Peace," Congressional Research Service, October 8, 2010, http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/RL33911_20101008.pdf.
The new group joined forces with an association of sharia courts called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) to provide an alternative government for Somalia. Robow was appointed to serve as a high-level militant commander in the fight against local warlords in Mogadishu. When members of the ICU fled Somalia in 2006 in the wake of an Ethiopian invasion, Robow became the head spokesman for al-Shabaab while also continuing to serve as a militant commander. Under his leadership, al-Shabaab conducted a series of suicide and conventional attacks in 2006 and 2007 against Somalia Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Kenyan, and Ethiopian forces within Somalia.“Mukhtar Robow,” National Counterterrorism Center, accessed November 25, 2014, http://www.nctc.gov/site/profiles/robow.html.
Robow is a Salafist who has sought to impose sharia beyond the borders of Somalia and to cultivate a closer relationship between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab. Robow backed sending al-Shabaab forces abroad and has encouraged non-Somalis to join al-Shabaab in Somalia.Abdulkadir Khalif, "Defiant Al-Shaabab Reaches out to Somalis in Diaspora," Daily Nation, September 19, 2009, http://www.nation.co.ke/News/africa/-/1066/660576/-/136eb3uz/-/. Robow also sought to expand al-Shabaab operations to other countries, but he differed with other al-Shahab leaders—notably former emir Ahmed Abdi Godane—over whether to expand al-Shabaab beyond Somalia. Although Robow supportive of the al-Shabaab relationship with al-Qaeda, for example, he believed that Somalia and the Horn of Africa should be the focus of al-Shabaab operations.
Robow had a contentious relationship with Godane, who was killed in a 2014 U.S. airstrike. Godane ousted Robow as al-Shabaab’s spokesperson in 2009 following Robow’s apparent attempt to negotiate with Somalia’s transitional government. Robow also withdrew militants loyal to him from Godane’s control following the failure of a 2010 al-Shabaab offensive. Tensions between Godane and Robow apparently reached their height in 2013 and Robow was forced into hiding amid violent clashes between the two camps.Nathaniel Horadam, "Profile: Sheikh Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansur)," Critical Threats, November 14, 2011, http://www.criticalthreats.org/somalia/al-shabaab-leadership/sheikh-mukhtar-robow-abu-mansur-november-14-2011. “He refused to listen to us and is interested in nothing else, but in power,” Robow commented about Godane in June 2013.Ahmednor Ugas, “Al Shabaab Leader Speaks out,” Somali Current, accessed November 27, 2014, http://www.somalicurrent.com/2013/09/20/al-shabaab-leader-speaks-out/.
Robow’s departure from al-Shabaab weakened the organization as it split the group between two camps. Robow is a member of the Rahanweyn clan, which reportedly comprised the majority of al-Shabaab’s initial membership. He is also one of the few founding al-Shabaab members still active. Robow was largely popular among al-Shabaab’s members while Godane, though said to be charismatic, grew unpopular as a result of his autocratic methods. Reports suggest that al-Shabaab’s new emir, Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah, had asked Robow to rejoin the group.Tres Thomas, "Analysis: Is Al-Shabaab Stronger or Weaker after Godane’s Death?" Somalia Newsroom, September 22, 2014, http://somalianewsroom.com/2014/09/22/analysis-is-al-shabaab-stronger-or-weaker-after-godanes-death/. Rahanweyn fighters followed Robow when he left the group and later reportedly fought against al-Shabaab on his behalf.Derek Gannon, “Al-Shabaab clash with militia of exiled founder Mukhtar Robow in southern Somalia,” SOFREP, August 10, 2017, https://sofrep.com/87492/al-shabaab-clash-militia-exiled-founder-mukhtar-robow-southern-somalia/; Feisal Omar, “Somalia Islamist insurgency splits as loyalty of key commander wavers,” Reuters, June 30, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-somalia-security/somalia-islamist-insurgency-splits-as-loyalty-of-key-commander-wavers-idUSKBN19L255.
In June 2017, the U.S. government canceled its $5 million reward for Robow, reportedly as part of negotiations to encourage Robow to defect from al-Shabaab.Feisal Omar, “Somalia Islamist insurgency splits as loyalty of key commander wavers,” Reuters, June 30, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-somalia-security/somalia-islamist-insurgency-splits-as-loyalty-of-key-commander-wavers-idUSKBN19L255. During the summer of 2017, Robow reportedly led his followers into combat against al-Shabaab in Abal, Somalia. On August 13, 2017, Robow surrendered to Somali authorities in the Somali town of Hudur, south of Mogadishu.Omar Nor, “Former Al-Shabaab deputy leader surrenders,” CNN, August 13, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/13/africa/al-shabaab-robow-surrenders/index.html; “Somali insurgent leader Robow defects to government: military,” Reuters, August 13, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-somalia-defection-idUSKCN1AT09P.
On October 4, 2018, Robow announced his candidacy for the presidency of Somalia’s South West regional state. He claimed that his deep experience with al-Shabaab’s internal workings made him the ideal leader to defeat them.Mohamed Olad Hassan, “Somali Ex-Militant Leader Runs for Political Office,” Voice of America, October 4, 2018, https://www.voanews.com/africa/somali-ex-militant-leader-runs-political-office. The following day, the Somali federal government said that Robow was forbidden from running for office because of existing U.N. Security Council terrorism sanctions against him.Mohamed Olad Hassan, “Somali Government Blocks Ex-Militant From Seeking Political Office,” Voice of America, October 5, 2018, https://www.voanews.com/africa/somali-government-blocks-ex-militant-seeking-political-office. Legally, however, the federal government’s power to prevent a regional candidate from pursuing office was unclear, and Robow continued his run for office.Leela Jacinto, “Trading Bullets for Ballots, Former al Shabaab No. 2 Tests Somalia’s Democratic Process,” France 24, November 26, 2018, https://www.france24.com/en/20181125-somalia-elections-al-shabaab-former-deputy-candidate-democracy-mukhtar-robow. Federal police, backed by Ethiopian peacekeepers, then arrested him on December 13, 2018, just days before the election, and detained him in Mogadishu without formal charge.Leela Jacinto, “Arrest of Ex-Shabaab-Leader-Turned-Politician Sparks Deadly Clashes in Somalia,” France 24, December 15, 2018, https://www.france24.com/en/20181215-somalia-arrest-ex-shabaab-leader-politician-deadly-clashes.
Robow’s arrest provoked widespread backlash in the region. There was a mass resignation of members from the South West Electoral Committee, who opposed the “direct interference and manipulation in the electoral process from the federal government.” Rioting in the streets of South West state resulted in the deaths of 11 people.Leela Jacinto, “Arrest of Ex-Shabaab-Leader-Turned-Politician Sparks Deadly Clashes in Somalia,” France 24, December 15, 2018, https://www.france24.com/en/20181215-somalia-arrest-ex-shabaab-leader-politician-deadly-clashes. On December 30, 2018, U.N. Envoy to Somalia Nicholas Haysom wrote to the federal government in Mogadishu to request an explanation for the legal basis of Robow’s imprisonment, and to demand an investigation into the deaths of protesters. In response, the government expelled Haysom and accused him of meddling with internal affairs.Abdi Sheikh, “Somalia Orders Top U.N. Official to Leave,” Reuters, January 2, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-somalia-un/somalia-orders-top-u-n-official-to-leave-idUSKCN1OW083.
On July 1, 2021, Robow began a hunger strike in order to protest his continued detention by the Somali federal government.“Ex-Al-Shabaab deputy leader goes on hunger strike in Mogadishu,” Garowe Online, July 4, 2021, https://www.garoweonline.com/en/news/somalia/ex-al-shabaab-deputy-mukhtar-robow-goes-to-hunger-strike-in-mogadishu.
The United States designated Mukhtar Robow as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist on November 20, 2008.“Treasury Targets Somali Terrorists,” U.S Department of the Treasury, November 20, 2008, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/hp1283.aspx.