Small Wars Journal

Weaponizing Moral Authority in Somalia

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Weaponizing Moral Authority in Somalia

Doyle Quiggle

The CIA reports that forty-five percent of all Somalis are under the age of 15. The median age is 17. The dependency ratio is 98.1. Somalia is a teenager state. These teenagers drink too little water, chew too much qhat, and sling too many Kalaschnikows. Most teen-aged Somali males grow up without any morally coherent parental guidance or any true parenting. Moreover, because they were born into a blood-soaked network of clan affiliations, these boys are compelled almost at birth by heavy adult burdens, motivated by deep-seated neurological, cognitive, psychological, and cultural pre-adaptations to find a way to enact their primary collective archetype of male identity: the honorable warrior.[i]

Typical NGO solutions to the pathology of conflict in this region have failed because they approach that problem -- the Somali boy's compulsion to achieve authentic manhood -- from outside a honor-shame clan paradigm and are highly prejudiced against any warrior archetype. They also typically fail to understand the evolutionary social-psychology of honor-shame dynamics and truculently dismiss any discussion of how these dynamics influence cultural cognition as racist. [ii] 

Instead of educating the innate warrior impulses of clan-born Somali males from within the dynamics of an honor-shame culture, NGO donors and organizations have typically ignored or sought to pacify the warrior desires of Somali males.[iii] In so doing, they have left teenaged Somali males highly vulnerable to the ploys of extremist recruiters who ingeniously put themselves forward as the mature warrior/father figure for which many of these young men have been seeking all their lives. We should not be surprised by the fact that so many Somali teenagers fall for this trick. We should be surprised that so many haven't.

Where are AFRICOM's trust partners in this region, those who represent the few remaining moral authorities and moral leaders on the ground in Somalia who can command respect from the young Somali males who will compose the Somali National Army?[iv]

Born into an honor-shame society, a Somali male is expected from the git-go to negotiate a very complicated network of unpaid, unsettled clan, honor debts. It is the honor-debt system that binds together all clans.[v] The trans-clan debt ledger itself is what JSOC should be seeking to leverage as a tool for de-clanning and professionalizing the Somali National Army and Police Forces.

In Somalia, loyalty is conceived and propagated not only as neurologically compulsive commitment to the clan’s specific honor code, but as limbic captivity to the whole honor-shame debt system that binds competing clans together. All clan groups in the system (especially those blood feuding) are enchanted by the same network of invisible loyalties to a mutually understood “payback plan.” This is a kind of meta-loyalty system.  Loyalty to the debt system of honor itself is what regional experts should be tracking through Somali clan-level trust partners.[vi] 

From the perspective of debt collection and payment, however, honor-shame economies are as rational as any Harvard MBA zero-sum calculus. However, from the outside, etically, clan loyalty to “debt repayment schedules” appears highly irrational, unpredictable, the bane of stability efforts. Emically understood, honor-debts can be seen to compel a feeling, a compulsion, a hot emotional response to honor symbols, gestures, acts of dis-honor in clan members, especially in young men seeking warrior status. That feeling is shame.

Honor-culture shame exploits the limbic system’s highly contagious nature to spread itself horizontally throughout the clan.[vii] In this regard, honor-shame binds individual neural networks into one collective neural network or limbic unit. Symbols, whether transmitted through the internet or through local narratives and rituals, and their attendant magio-religious “logic,” perpetuate limbic synching and, therefore, contribute to clan-on-clan violence.[viii] JSOC/AFRICOM must filed an on-the-ground capability that can enables us to understand the honor-debt logic of Somali clans (cognitive dynamics) as they themselves feel compelled by those debts. This knowledge, derived from local indigenous trust partners, is what will enable VSO operators to predict loyalty vectors, which is the key to professionalizing the Somali security forces.  The stability value of an our ability to leverage the cognitive dynamics of clan loyalty-debt networks to integrating and balancing the SNA should be self-evident.[ix]

The young men who now compose the SNA have not been properly educated in the warrior arts by traditional clan elders or local moral authorities. That moral vacuum in Somalia has been ruthlessly exploited by Al Shabaab (AS) leadership who have adopted the tactics of cognitive warfare that Abu Bakr Naji delineates in "The Management of Savagery," wherein AS seek to cause so much confusion and psychic pain in young Somali males that they eventually beg for extremist leadership to relieve them of it.

AS has been deliberately targeting and confusing the traditional warrior identities of Somali clan males so that these men will be cognitively vulnerable to the ploys of AS leadership. AS are effectively destroying the Somali warrior identity at the clan level so that they can remake it at the level of both regional and international terrorism. The ability to perceive the perniciousness of AS cognitive warfare (let alone neutralize it) is radically dependent upon on-the-ground trust relationships with indigenous moral authorities. Therefore, any attempt to de-clan and professionalize the Somali Army and Police Forces must first secure high-quality trust relationships with key Somali moral authorities. We field a capability that can perceive the dynamics of cognitive warfare in Somalia from an emic perspective--the precondition for neutralizing AS cognitive disruption of our efforts to bolster and balance the SNA.[x]

Where AS has been creating cognitive pain to create an army of extremist savages, we must begin building trust networks to create professional Somali warriors. [xi]

Fourth generation war poses an especially difficult problem to building national armies out of clan dynamics: Clan identity is difficult to operationalize. Fourth Generation opponents have strategic centers of gravity that are intangible. As a leading expert on 4GW notes, "These may involve proving their manhood to their comrades and local women, obeying the commandments of their religion, or demonstrating their tribe’s bravery to other tribes. Because operational art is the art of focusing tactical actions on enemy strategic centers of gravity, operational art becomes difficult or even impossible." AFRICOM must field assets in Somalia who are adept at illuminating the invisible networks of loyalty that link local communities to each other, to their past, and to their kith & kin on distant continents (their Diaspora).[xii] They need assets who can observe and leverage the multi-dimensional pathological drivers of multigenerational, violent communal conflict in the most dysfunctional state of East Africa.[xiii]

Stubborn and irreducible Somali fact: If we do not professionalize the natural warrior impulses of Somali males (including those living in the US), extremists will jihadize those innate, clan-compelled proclivities.[xiv]

Paramount, therefore, to an VSO approach to Somalia is co-opting and weaponizing local moral authority. We must find ways to educate and professionalize the innate warrior drives of local youth strictly from within psycho-mythic parameters (symbols and collective narratives) trainees recognize and in the direct presence and with the direct sanction of local leaders who command moral authority in the eyes of trainees. Local moral authority must be persuaded to place their trust in AFRICOM, so that we can educated the honor-shame compulsions of the Somali males who will be populating the SNA.

Why moral authority?[xv]

All armies are, first and foremost, moral constructs.

As we have learned on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, only local moral authorities can speak to the hearts and minds of local males. Somali war-fighting-aged males are pre-programmed to respond to ancient cultural symbols that not only activate but structure their innate Somali warrior psychology. Those symbols are inextricably clan specific. For example, clan honor-shame codes, a major source of clan-on-clan conflict, cannot be abstracted from their past economics of honor debt. Honor-shame clans, even rival clans, are mutually committed to the same network of invisible loyalties to past honor debts.[xvi] We must now making those loyalties visible for leveraging.[xvii]

Transforming on-the-ground trust in this region, assuming one has already gained it, into a resource for building a clan-transcendent, representative, and cohesive SNA requires the speed and agility characteristic of a self-sufficient, small-footprint entity that can provide its own security, logistics, med-evac, equipment, workplace infrastructure, personnel, lodging, transportation. At the prompting of the World Bank, State Department has requested but still not fielded such an entity. But even that on-the-ground capability will not be sufficient for stabilizing the SNA if we fail, as we have so far, to win the trust of local Somali moral authorities, authentic clan leaders who understand the limbic compulsions of honor-shame dynamics and who can educate the warrior desires of young Somali males.[xviii] 

Above all, we need to gain access to and win the trust of local Somali moral authorities who can compel limbic complicity from poorly parented Somali teenagers who seek a warrior identity. We need to weaponize local moral authority in Somali so that we can provide Somali teenagers a legitimate means by which to fulfill a culturally appropriate and sanctioned warrior compulsion. Weaponized moral authority is the best, possibly the only feasible, means to achieve a de-clanned, professional Somali Army.

End Notes

[i] Sznycer, D., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2017). Adaptationism carves emotions at their functional joints. Invited commentary in Psychological Inquiry, 28(1), 56–62

[ii] Hassan typically fails to address the seemingly intractable honor-shame dynamics in Somali that undermine stability operations: Sheikh, Hassan. ‘How to Administer Mogadishu’. In Whose Peace is it Anyway? Connecting Somali and International Peacemaking, edited by Mark Bradbury and Sally Healy, 80–83. London: Conciliation Resources, 2010. (

[iii] The following analyses are representative of NGO approaches that ignore and/or eschew the Somali "warrior" from their evaluation of the sources of Somali conflict, and they, therefore, fail to address the question of how that neuro-cognitive compulsion is, can, or should be educated for service in the Somali National Army.   Gardner, Judith and Judy El-Bushra. ‘The impact of war on Somali men and its effects on the family, women and children’. London and Nairobi: Rift Valley Institute, February 2016.

Menkhaus, Ken. ‘The Crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in Five Acts’. African Affairs 106/204 (2007): 357–390.

—. ‘Governance without Government in Somalia: Spoilers, Statebuilding, and the Politics of Coping’, International Security 31, 3 (2006–2007): 74–106.

—. ‘Non-State Security Providers and Political Formation in Somalia’. Center for Security Governance, April 2016.

—. ‘Somalia: A Situation Analysis’. UNHCR WriteNet Paper 7, November 2000. (

—. ‘Somalia: What Went Wrong?’. The RUSI Journal 15/4 (2009): 6–12. (

— and John Prendergast. ‘Political Economy of Post-Intervention Somalia’. Somalia Task Force Issue Paper #3, April 1995. (

Sheikh, Hassan, Joqombe, Ali, and Johnson, Pat. ‘A History of Mediation in Somalia Since 1988’. Mogadishu: Interpeace/Center for Research and Dialogue, May 2009. (

Bradbury, Mark. ‘The Search For Peace: A Synthesis Report of the Peace Mapping Study’. Nairobi: Interpeace, June 2009. ( content/uploads/2009/06/2009_Som_Interpeace_APD_CRD_PDRC_A_Synthesis_Report_Of_The_Peace_


[iv] This study provides a serviceable model for conceptualizing the meaning of "moral authority" in a Somali minority group: Adam, Anita. ‘Benadiri People of Somalia: With Particular Reference to the Reer Hamar of Mogadishu’. PhD thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, 2011.

[v] Robertson, T. E., Sznycer, D., Delton, A. W., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2018). The true trigger of shame: Social devaluation is sufficient, wrongdoing is unnecessaryEvolution and Human Behavior, 39(5), 566-573.

[vi] Sznycer, D., Lopez Seal, M. F., Sell, A., Lim, J., Porat, R., Shalvi, S., Halperin, E., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2017). Support for redistribution is shaped by compassion, envy, and self-interest, but not a taste for fairness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(31), 8420–8425

[vii] Now dismissed knee-jerk fashion by many Somali regional analysts, Lewis's groundbreaking study remains, nevertheless, essential and highly useful, if carefully read. Recent neurological insights into the social cognition of honor-shame cultures confirms many of his insights here: Lewis, I.M. Blood and Bone: The Call of Kinship in Somali Society. Lawrenceville, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 1994.

[viii] Sznycer, D., Tooby, J., Cosmides, L., Porat, R., Shalvi, S., & Halperin, E. (2016). Shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation by others, even across culturesProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(10), 2625–2630. 

[ix] Sznycer, D., Xygalatas, D., Alami, S., An, X.-F., Ananyeva, K. I., Fukushima, S., Hitokoto, H., Kharitonov, A. N., Koster, J. M., Onyishi, C. N., Onyishi, I. E., Romero, P. P., Takemura, K., Zhuang, J.-Y., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (In press). Invariances in the architecture of pride across small-scale societies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

[x] Otherwise informative about the current crisis in Somalia, this analysis fails to provide any understanding of the honor-shame compulsions of Somali males: Maxwell, Daniel, and Nisar Majid. Famine in Somalia: Competing Imperatives, Collective Failures, 2011-12. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[xi] See Colin P Clarke's intelligently useful, recent study of the ISIS-Al Shabab alliance in Somalia at RAND:

[xii] See, Hammond, Laura. ‘Family Ties: Remittances and Livelihoods Support in Puntland and Somaliland’. Nairobi: Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit–Somalia, June 2013.

[xiii] Read carefully, this now-dated collection of essays provides durable insights into the moral drivers of conflict in Somalia:  Ahmed, Ali Jimale, ed. The Invention of Somalia. Lawrenceville NJ: Red Sea Press, 1995.

[xiv] For a stellar example of the road to hell being paved with good, idealistic intentions, see this study which utterly fails to understand the moral-authority imperative among Somali male youth: Samuel Hall. ‘Investing in Somali Youth: Exploring the Youth–Employment–Migration Nexus in Somaliland and Puntland’. Nairobi: International Organization for Migration, 12 August 2015. Again, the legitimate warrior desires of Somali males are dismissed and ignored by Hall and the IOM.

[xv] Moral authority is the foundation upon which public authority (now critically absent) will be built in Somalia. See, Bagayoko, Niagale, Eboe Hutchful and Robin Luckham. ‘Hybrid Security Governance in Africa: Rethinking the Foundations of Security, Justice, and Legitimate Public Authority’. Conflict, Security, and Development 16/1 (2016): 1

[xvi] Sznycer, D., Takemura, K., Delton, A. W., Sato, K., Robertson, T., Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (2012). Cross-cultural differences and similarities in proneness to shame: An adaptationist and ecological approachEvolutionary Psychology, 10(2), 352–370.

[xvii] This report can be usefully read for information about who counts as "moral authority" amidst the current upheaval in Somalia:  Danish Refugee Council. ‘Report on Profiling of Internally Displaced Person: Mogadishu’. Nairobi: DRC, May 2007. (

[xviii] This report emerges from an on-the-ground entity. It is notable for its author's inability to gain the level of access required to render the study reliable and trustworthy to VSO operators: Sahan Foundation and IGAD Security Sector Program. ‘Human Trafficking and Smuggling on the Horn of Africa–Central Mediterranean Route’. Sahan Foundation and IGAD Security Sector Program, February 2016.

Categories: irregular warfare

About the Author(s)

Doyle Quiggle (PhD, Washington University) has had the honor and privilege of being a professor to US Troops downrange, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Africa and at FOB Fenty, Jalalabad, Afghanistan. He researches the anthropology of war from within the battlespace, focusing on counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency.