Somalia's prime minister has appointed the former deputy leader of the al-Shabab militant group, Mukhtar Robow, to the cabinet as minister for endowment and religious affairs.
Robow, also known as Abu Mansour, was in the Somali presidential palace Tuesday as Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre unveiled his new cabinet. The stunning development came a day after Robow was released from the headquarters of Somalia's National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA).
Robow has been in detention since December 2018, when Somali government forces supported by African Union forces from Ethiopia detained him in the Somali city of Baidoa, to prevent him from running for the leadership of Southwest federal member state.
Deadly protests followed his arrest as his supporters clashed with regional forces leading to the shooting death of 15 people in Baidoa.
The selection of Abu Mansour for the cabinet post is an apparent attempt to put him in charge of ideological confrontation against al-Shabab. His new portfolio will put him in direct collision with his former colleagues as he will attempt to implement President Hassan Mohamud's policy of waging war against al-Shabab on three fronts; economic, ideology, and military.
Other key Cabinet appointments include Salah Ahmed Jama as the deputy prime minister, Abshir Omar Huruse as foreign minister, and Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur, who retains his post as defense minister,
Who is Mukhtar Robow?
Before the creation of al-Shabab, Robow trained with al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
Five years ago, he told VOA Somali reporter Harun Maruf, in an interview for the book Inside al-Shabab, that he was training at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan on September 11, 2001 and saw camp members celebrate upon hearing of the attacks that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Robow rose to prominence as deputy defense chief of Somalia's Islamic Courts Union in 2006, when the group temporarily seized control of most of southcentral Somalia, defeating a coalition of U.S.-backed warlords.
Robow went on to serve as al-Shabab's official spokesperson and later as the group's deputy leader. In 2008, the U.S. designated al-Shabab a terrorist organization. In 2012, the U.S. offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Robow's capture, although that offer was withdrawn in June 2017.
Robow surrendered to the government in August 2018 after al-Shabab attacked his base in his home village of Abal, south of Huddur.
In December of that year, he announced his candidacy for the president of Southwest state. Many observers regarded him as a favorite because they thought he would confront al-Shabab. The government blocked him from running, which paved the way for a pro-federal government candidate, the current president Abdiaziz Hassan Laftagareen, to emerge as eventual winner.
The Somali government defended its decision to detain him, arguing he did not meet all the preconditions for running for office. It said he was still under sanctions by members of the international community for his prior membership with al-Shabab.
He was initially detained at NISA's headquarters. In August 2019 he was moved from prison to house arrest. He was returned to NISA headquarters after giving an interview to VOA Somali in Octoberof last year.
In that interview, the first he has given since leaving al-Shabab, he said he was being held for political purposes and to prevent him from running for office. He described what happened to him as an "abduction" and denial of his basic rights.
He said he was not giving up running for office, adding, "I will always be ready to work for the development of our people and our country. I will not be demoralized; if I don't die, I will continue that journey."