Somalia names former al-Shabab deputy a government minister

MOGADISHU, Somalia — A former deputy leader of the al-Shabab extremist group has been named a government minister by Somalia’s new administration in what some call a chance to persuade fighters to denounce violence.

Mukhtar Robow was given the post of religious affairs minister, the government of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said Tuesday. Not all Somalis supported his ministerial appointment, with some calling it disrespectful to those who lost loved ones in al-Shabab attacks.

Robow, who once had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, defected from the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab in 2017 and at first was greeted with praise by Somalia’s government. But when he tried to seek the leadership of the country’s Southwest region in 2018, he was detained.

The reason behind Robow’s arrest has never been made clear, Somalia’s current president on multiple occasions has said the detention had no legal grounds. Somalia’s government didn’t comment on his appointment Tuesday.

Robow, who is believed to be in his early fifties, studied Islamic law in Sudan and is believed to have participated in the anti-Soviet fighting in Afghanistan. He once praised Osama bin Laden and tried to impose an Islamic state in Somalia. In 2008, the U.S. imposed sanctions on him and named him a “specially designated global terrorist.”

He left al-Shabab after a dispute with the group’s hardliners. “I disagreed with their creed, which does not serve Islamic religion,” he said at the time.

His defection occurred shortly after the U.S. removed the bounty from his head at the Somali government’s request. Somalia has engaged in U.S.-backed efforts encourage fighters to leave al-Shabab in the belief that each defection exposes weakness in the extremist group, which has thousands of fighters and still controls large parts of the rural south and central regions.