I’ve recently finished reading a highly interesting book – The World’s Most Dangerous Place – by James Fergusson.
So where is this “world’s most dangerous place”, you ask? Syria? Iraq? Gaza, which would get my vote? Well, not according to the book. The subtitle says it all: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia.
[The author admits that the title is controversial and that the Somalis he’d talked to don’t like it. I wouldn’t, too, if I were a Somali. I wouldn’t even though I am not a Somali, because to anyone except the blind and deaf, there are far more dangerous places to be right now.]
Not all that long ago, most of the world had never heard of Somalia, an amazing feat for possibly the single most strategically positioned nation on earth. That changed in 1992, when an American raid on Mogadishu ended with US soldiers’ corpses being dragged through the streets.
I won’t rehash what I’ve already said on that episode, or the racist and militarist film Hollywood made on it, Black Hawk Down. You can read all about it here if you want. This piece begins where that article leaves off – what happened after the “heroic” Marines and soldiers left Somalia, at the end of their murderous “humanitarian” mission.
After decades of dictatorship, outside meddling and civil war, Somalia had essentially fragmented into three parts. To the extreme north-west was the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. South-east of that was Puntland, which had declared itself autonomous but not independent. And to the south was Somalia proper, which had had no government since 1991, and which shall be referred to as “Somalia” for convenience for the purposes of this article. What it had was warlords leading clan armies which carved out areas of influence and fought each other bitterly for control.
But in 2006, Somalia finally got a measure of government, by a loose coalition of mullahs and other fundamentalist Muslim factions, known collectively as the Islamic Courts Union, which drove out the warlords. Though the ICU had imported Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia, a form of Islam hitherto unknown to the mystical Sufi religion of Somalia, they actually provided some good governance, at least compared to the warlord hell that had gone before. So they had popular support, and might have stabilised the situation – but for one factor.
That factor was George W Bush.
On the pretext that Somalia was sheltering Al Qaeda, something which was at that time a complete fantasy, Bush encouraged Ethiopia – Somalia’s traditional enemy – to invade Somalia and overthrow the Islamic Courts Union. Now, as stated, the ICU was a combination of disparate groups, with the moderates under Sheikh Sharif Ahmed in charge. They had kept the radicals under control, but once ousted from power, that restraint was removed. The most radical of the radical groups was Al Shabaab, an outfit remarkably similar in its modus operandi to Boko Haram in Nigeria – a group with which it later developed linkages. Unlike Sheikh Sharif, who decided to cooperate with the Ethiopian invaders and their American masters and was rewarded by being reinstated in – carefully supervised – power, Al Shabaab fought an increasingly effective campaign against Ethiopia, and by 2008 had successfully driven out the proxy troops and recaptured Mogadishu and most of Somalia.
At this stage, Al Shabaab faced an existential crisis. Its stated raison d’être – the war against the hated Ethiopian invaders – had been won. It could either disband itself, thus losing the ample sources of revenue it had secured over the years of struggle, or it could continue the fight, now against the “government” headed by Sheikh Sharif. Not too surprisingly, it chose the latter.
In order to protect the “government”, and its “army” of militias, a multinational African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) army entered the country. This chiefly comprised Ugandan and Burundian troops; Uganda, of course, is one of the US’ most complete vassals in Central Africa. By 2011 they were fighting Al Shabaab in vicious trench battles in Mogadishu, adding more layers of ruins to the already many-times destroyed city.
That’s the point where the book I was reading begins – as the AMISOM troops fought their way slowly across Mogadishu towards the main market, and while wounded, sick and starving Somalis flocked to a camp at the fringe of the airport where doctors tried their best to give them what help they could.
Al Shabaab responded to its attackers with its own peculiar brand of viciousness. One of its staples was child soldiers, whom it recruited from the hordes of refugees criss-crossing what was left of the nation. Unlike West African warlords, who typically conscripted child soldiers after murdering their parents, it preferred to recruit children by promising them food and glory, along with a promised salary; a promise rarely kept. Much like ISIS today in Iraq and Syria, it also attracted recruits in fair numbers from abroad, especially from the Somali diaspora – this is something that I will be talking about in more detail later.
Its cruelty to the people under its own control, too, rather like that of ISIS, beggars belief. In one instance the book describes, it amputated the right hands and left legs of some people it decided were thieves – before the stumps had a chance to heal, it then decided it had cut too far down, and cut the limbs all over again. All this was without anaesthetic, of course. And as a crippling drought ravaged Somalia, causing famine, it not only did not provide any relief, it denied that there even was a drought. It tried to stop Somalis from crossing the lines to the side of the “government” or across the border to Kenya or Ethiopia where there was at least something to eat. It literally preferred to starve the population over which it ruled rather than let them get access to relief supplies. If it caught a civilian with medical papers from the aid agencies, it would murder them on the spot. And it painted all its opponents, even those who had formerly been allies and mentors from the days of the ICU, as “infidels”.
Obviously, all this did not make it popular with the Somalis. Even those who despised the so-called “government” and the foreign AMISOM army preferred them to al Shabaab, and the group would probably have collapsed handily – but for factors that I’ll be talking about later in this article.
This book, basically, is in two parts; the first set in Somalia (all three parts of it) and the second in the West, primarily in Britain and the US. I’ll discuss them separately.
James Fergusson is a good author, and while reading his travels in Somalia – crouching along trenches interviewing AMISOM soldiers with Al Shabaab fighters just fifty metres away; driving through the Somaliland desert to a historic fort bombed by the British in 1920 to put down a nationalist rebellion; talking to politicians who gave up comfortable jobs in the west to come back and try and help the people as much as they could; trying to find pirates to interview – it’s easy to become so carried away by what he says, well-researched and presented as it is, that one fails to notice what he doesn’t say. For example, his silence over the US role in destabilising Somalia, and essentially destroying it, is almost total. He hardly even alludes to the Black Hawk Down episode, and any criticism of American actions he makes is muted to the point of being toothless. He’s quite willing to criticise his British compatriots, especially in Part II of his book; but his reluctance to confront the crimes of the United States borders on the farcical.
[Let me repeat something here, which I said in greater detail in my article on Black Hawk Down (linked above): the United States is more responsible than anyone else for the situation in Somalia. First, it propped up the Siad Barre dictatorship during the period of its worst repression; then, it devastated what was left of Somalia during its “humanitarian” intervention in the early 1990s; and then, when Somalia was finally approaching something like a stable government in 2006, it had its puppet, the Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi (inexplicably spelt “Zeles Menawi” by Fergusson on the one instance he refers to this war criminal, on Page 81 of his book) invade and destroy the country all over again; something which the Somalis now call Burburki, “the destruction”.]
Also, for a book which takes extreme pains to give the viewpoint of people on various sides of the conflict – from AMISOM officers to aid workers, from Somaliland politicians to Puntland warlords, and which describes the phenomenon of Somali piracy briefly but almost with sympathy – there is one glaring hole. There is nothing in it from the viewpoint of al Shabaab. We only get to see the organisation through the eyes of others, all of whom have it in their interest to paint it as black as possible.
This is not to say that al Shabaab are saints, of course. Their bloody record proves them to be anything but. Fergusson does say that unlike the Taliban, which always goes to great lengths to put out its viewpoint to the world, al Shabaab does no such thing, and it’s remarkably difficult to contact them. Even if that is true, some actual documented attempts to make such contact would have helped the book, especially since – unlike the conglomeration of disparate entities on one side – al Shabaab is one of just two villains on the other. (The only al Shabaab he talks to are members of a camp for defectors from the group, whose inmates are – according to Fergusson himself – so thoroughly infiltrated by al Shabaab agents that they don’t trust their own shadows anyway, so their testimonies are suspect.)
I’ll come to which the second villain is in a bit.
Fergusson does make some very valid points about al Shabaab, even given his one-sided point of view. He says that the movement was hardly a unified one; there were multiple factions, one of which, headed by Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, was much more moderate than that controlled by Ali Godane Zubeyr. Robow’s forces, in fact, had been known to protect aid convoys from Godane’s men, and the two nearly fought an internecine war over whether civilians should be given food aid in the midst of a famine.
The point of that division in the ranks – which Fergusson, regrettably, fails to discuss – is that if, instead of attacking al Shabaab as a unitary movement, the “other side” had engaged with Robow’s faction, they could have easily split the rebel ranks and ended the insurgency quickly. Instead, by attacking al Shabaab indiscriminately, they drove the insurgents together to make common cause against the enemy and caused it to metamorphose into a transnational insurgency – much like its ally Boko Haram in West Africa is in the process of doing.
There’s also the important factor of Somali Islam. Now, until very, very recently – till the 2000s, in fact – Islam in Somalia was more a notional quantity. The Somalis were – apart from a few who, Fergusson says, went to Yemen or Saudi Arabia to ‘better themselves’ – not interested in religion as a fact of daily life. The Islam they had was heavily influenced by the Barelvi Sufi tradition of South Asia, very akin to Hinduism, with its mysticism and reverence for saints. Even this Islam had been targeted by the old Siad Barre dictatorship, which had attempted but signally failed to erase it; instead, there had been a backlash, with women who had never before worn anything but Western clothes adopting the abaya and veil as a mark of their Muslim identity. But, even then, the religion stayed very muted in the lives of ordinary Somalis until the civil war destroyed society in the 90s and early 2000s.
Today, a different sort of Islam has taken root in all parts of Somalia, one influenced heavily by Saudi Wahhabism, though without its most extreme elements. Fergusson quotes extensively from Western-educated, liberal diaspora politicians and technocrats in Mogadishu and Hargeisa, people who might be assumed to be completely on the side of liberalism, who however make the point that Islam is now an indelible part of Somali identity, and some form of Sharia has to play a part in any durable political setup in future. Exactly how much, and what kind, of influence this has to play is what is up for debate; not the fact itself.
Al Shabaab, of course, has been neck-deep in its own version of Islam as well, one in which children in the areas it controlled were allegedly rewarded with AK series rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers for excellence in Koran-recitation competitions. But, as I’ll discuss in a moment, the rest of Somalia dismisses the al Shabaab version of the religion as “not Islam”.
In Hargeisa, up in “independent” Somaliland, a city once bombed to knee-high rubble by Siad Barre, a council of Muslim Ulema now keeps order well enough that money changers can leave their boxes of cash on the pavement unattended without fear of theft. It’s hardly the only place this kind of thing has happened, and there is a reason.
All through Somalia, the civil war has devastated society. The modern state – with its constitution and legal system – collapsed with Siad Barre. The civil war, by killing and displacing adults in huge numbers, by putting guns in the hands of children, destroyed the traditional clan law, called xeer. What on earth was left except Islam? And, given that traditional Somali Islam hardly had any influence on anyone, what was left except Sharia?
It’s not, perhaps, an irrefutable agreement, but it’s a compelling one. The only alternative I can think of (it’s not something Fergusson suggests) would be recolonisation with the white man’s justice being reimposed until the (already failed) Siad Barre style state could be rebuilt from the ground up.
I just talked about clan law, xeer. Now, the other villain of the piece I’d mentioned is the clan nature of Somali society. Like tribalism in the rest of Africa, clannishness is the bane of Somalia. The clans had to find a way to coexist with each other, with mechanisms for redressal of grievances so that they didn’t tear each other to pieces. Xeer provided that mechanism. Once it vanished, the clans were set free to fight each against the rest, while inside each clan, the sub-clans fought each other, and no group – not even al Shabaab – was free of the old Somali proverb:
I against my brother
I and my brother against my family
I and my family against the clan
I and the clan against Somalia
I and Somalia against the world.
The second part of the book, and one I found significantly more important, is set in the West, primarily among the Somali diaspora. Normally, I steer very clear of diaspora tales, especially since I know – from my own experience regarding my relatives living abroad – that the diaspora usually have little to no clue about what is actually going on in the “old country”. However, the vast majority of the Somali diaspora are actually extremely recent migrants, dating back to the civil war; and a significant part of the war continues abroad, in the form of a battle of ideas among the young.
And it is from among these young that al Shabaab draws many of its suicide bombers, who go off to blow themselves up in Somalia and elsewhere in East Africa.
Fergusson goes into some detail in his interactions with the members of the diaspora, in the UK and the US in particular. This diaspora, which – relative to the size of the “mother country” – is huge, is of growing importance as a “second Somalia” abroad, dispersed among the nations of the west, and elsewhere in Africa, too, primarily Kenya.
The diaspora is important in three respects. The first is the politicians it sends back, truly dedicated men (and a few women) who give up comfortable lives in France or Britain, the US or Norway, to try and bring a semblance of order to their native land. But they, too, suffer from two insuperable handicaps: first, they’re almost all of the older wave of emigrants, from the 1970s or even earlier, who had grown up in the Somalia before the civil war, and therefore completely out of touch with the local realities of today. The second handicap is the clan rivalries and corruption of today’s Somali society, which would make it virtually impossible to govern without imposing yet another crushing dictatorship. Most of them rapidly found themselves sidelined, rendered irrelevant, and forced to return to their jobs and lives in the west with nothing to show for their efforts.
The second respect is the money that the diaspora sends back to Somalia. After the destruction of the decades of war, virtually ceaseless from the 1980s to today, the economy of the country is almost at a standstill. Apart from livestock exports from Puntland and Somaliland to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and the temporary boom of piracy, nothing is left of the nation in terms of economical prospects. The money sent back by the diaspora, primarily by hawala channels, is what keeps the country (barely) afloat. The diaspora has even pooled cash to ransom pirate captives; unlike a lot of other countries’ expatriates, they haven’t shaken the dust of the motherland from their shoes and never looked back again.
The third, and in terms of the book, most important, respect in which the diaspora is important is the young, who, as I said, comprise a very significant recruiting pool for al Shabaab. As I’ll point out, like several other jihadist groups, western intervention designed to “destroy” it has merely forced it out of its formerly restricted area of operations and made it a diffuse, but significantly more resilient, group. The illiterate child soldiers who were mowed down by AMISOM in the trenches of Mogadishu have been replaced by an entirely different breed of recruit; tech-savvy, educated young men with Western passports, who can provide significantly more “bang for the buck” where al Shabaab is concerned.
(I’ll resist the temptation to compare al Shabaab to the jihad gangs in Syria and Iraq, particularly ISIS, which has similarly gained recruits from educated Westerners, including converts; the parallels are tempting but not within the scope of discussion of a book whose timeline ends at the autumn of 2013.)
The young Somali diaspora, actually, are a quite fascinating mix of the modern and the traditional. Very few of the young, for example, have any patience for the clan structure which still rules many of their parents’ lives. A lot of them can hardly even speak Somali. Almost none of them chew qat, the addictive leaf whose use is endemic in Somalia and even more in Yemen, and which is banned almost universally in the West except for Britain. But at the same time, very few of them have any respect for the family or for xeer; educational success is rare among them, and they tend to congregate in ultra-violent gangs (so violent that in some areas they have forced out the white, South Asian and Jamaican gangs which formerly ruled the streets). In the absence of parental authority – especially since so many of them are from single-parent households, one parent having been killed in the Burburki or having stayed back in Somalia – they look for authority in the gangs. And a lot of them “find god” as a way out of their “lives of sin”, a process which not infrequently sends them right into the arms of al Shabaab recruiting agents.
Some of Fergusson’s interlocutors make a fascinating observation; the less knowledgeable one of these young people is about Islam, the more easily can he or she be radicalised. Those who have no idea what the Koran or Hadith actually says, and lack the motivation or education to find out for themselves, can be easily brainwashed by mullahs with an agenda. Fergusson talks about young Somali women who aren’t even aware that the Koran does not prescribe either the veil or female genital mutilation, both traditional practices long predating Islam; when a mullah pointed out that these weren’t obligatory under Islam, he was called an “infidel”.
The situation isn’t helped by official attitudes. While on the one hand the authorities try to “’engage with the youth” to prevent their radicalisation, they do such monumentally stupid things as to undo any good they might otherwise achieve. One young Somali, for instance, in Britain, was the target of a coercion attempt by MI6 to spy on his fellow expatriates, on the threat that otherwise any country he tried to visit would be told that he was a suspected terrorist. On another occasion, a scuffle in a mosque over whether the Somalis or the gaalos (foreigners) were responsible for the Burburki was presented to the world by officialdom as jihadism. In America – and this is just about the only occasion Fergusson can bring himself to criticise the United States – Somalis were racially profiled on one occasion to the extent that a visitor to a mall was detained for hours on the grounds that he wasn’t “holding his video camera the way a typical tourist would.”
[This brings me to a point that I have repeatedly made while addressing the idiocy of antitheism. Religions are not going to disappear just because Richard Dawkins or his Zionistophilic acolyte Sam Harris inveigh against them; in fact, by attacking religions without taking into account the differences between strains of thought or ideas in competition, all that these people do is drive the moderates into the arms of the hardliners. It’s more knowledge of religion – not less – which will lead to moderation and the ultimate discrediting of wars on the basis of religious belief.]
Not that this helped stop the flow of potential suicide bombers flying to Africa; most of those young men were, in fact, by no means “typical” Muslim radicals. In most cases even their immediate families had no idea that they had been recruited, until it was too late. And despite the best efforts of the Somali diaspora itself, whose members have no wish to see their children vanish into the jaws of the war they had fled, Fergusson says, the recruitment still continues.
In 2012 the Ethiopians, who had been driven out of Somalia by al Shabaab back in 2008, reinvaded that hapless country. Kenya, which had grown increasingly worried about the influence of al Shabaab on its not insubstantial ethnic Somali population, also launched a – laughably inept – expedition into Somalia. These forces, along with the warlord “army” of Somalia and AMISOM, finally expelled al Shabaab from the areas it had occupied, including the vital port city of Kismayo.
Was that the end of al Shabaab? Of course not.
Even before the fall of Kismayo, al Shabaab had begun to scatter. A lot of its members moved north to Somaliland and Puntland, which all this time had their own episodes of internecine fighting. Some crossed the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, there to find welcome in the ranks of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). And a lot crossed over into Kenya, into the very suburbs of Nairobi itself.
Just as the net result of the invasion of Afghanistan was the internationalisation of Al Qaeda, the net result of AMISOM’s venture in Somalia has been to turn al Shabaab into a branch of the international terror system.
The result was not long in coming. On 21st September 2013, a squad of al Shabaab Fidayeen attackers stormed the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. By the time – spectacularly incompetent – Kenyan forces ended the attack by blowing down the building’s roof, al Shabaab had emphatically made its presence felt in Kenya. And they said, clearly, that it was only the beginning.
In Somalia, too, things are not going as AMISOM’s backers would have liked. The warlord factions in the “army” are still fighting amongst themselves, and corruption remains a serious problem. Puntland and Somaliland are yet to be integrated back into the nation. Xeer still has not been re-established. The role Islam is to play in the future of Somalia is yet to be decided. And, of course, two forces remain waiting, to raise their heads again at the first opportunity.
One is al Shabaab. The other, the gaalos whose actions gave it birth in the first place.
The Burburki isn’t quite finished yet, and it could all too easily begin all over again.