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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I’ll come to which the second villain is in
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
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
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:
against my brother
and my brother against my family
and my family against the clan
and the clan against Somalia
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
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
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
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.
isn’t quite finished yet, and it could all too easily begin all over again.
|Somali government "soldier"|