Tag: Al-Shabab

My close encounter with Somalia’s whip-wielding al-Shabab

It started as a request from my close friend, Awil Abukar, to accompany him as he took his frail mother to their ancestral hometown.

Awil, as he always does, assured me the trip would be smooth.

I should point out that in his world smooth means not getting killed – everything else is caadhi (fine).

Just after 1pm on August 22, our vehicle rattled into Goob Weyn, a sleepy town with more palm trees than people. This picturesque place is about a thirty-minute drive from Kismayo, Somalia’s third biggest city.

Unlike many towns in Somalia, locals here aren’t armed to the teeth. The few hundred of them tend to their farms or fish for half the day, then sleep the rest of the time. The town is peaceful, and is neither in the hands of the government nor al-Shabab.

But sleepy Goob Weyn and its residents were to get a rude awakening that evening when members of al-Shabab, the hardline al-Qaeda-linked rebel group fighting the Somali government, paid them a visit.

Al-Shabab enforces a strict version of Sharia law that prohibits things like music, cigarettes and alcohol in the areas it controls.

That evening, the town was lively. Men in sarongs sat in front of their red mud houses chewing khat – the green narcotic leaves commonly consumed by east Africans – to pass the hours. Garami (soft, melodic music) blasted from their small battery-powered radios.

Women wearing baati, the traditional Somali dress, with the odd baby strapped to their backs cooked dinner of rice and beans on open fires.

Awil, his son and I sat in front of his mum’s house drinking tea made with water from the muddy Jubba River. Local youths gathered around my iPhone to watch and listen to the western music loaded on it.

In short, the evening was a picture of tranquility and I was loving it.

Just before 8pm, a lorry with its headlights turned off rolled into town. It was strange – vehicles don’t come to Goob Weyn that often and definitely not at this time of the night. In fact, Awil’s car was the only vehicle in town until now.

The atmosphere quickly changed. The music stopped. People fell silent.

Then the creaky lorry door opened and a masked man jumped out.

Al-Shabab was here and many of us were in the middle of doing things al-Shabab does not approve of.

Fifteen other masked men jumped out of the lorry and started moving from house to house, asking all the men inside to come out.

I quickly dashed into Awil’s mum’s house and threw on a sarong over my knee-high shorts. A tall man in shorts is a sight al-Shabab sheikhs don’t approve of.

Then I wrapped my iPhone in a waterproof plastic bag and dropped it in the cockroach- and faeces-filled hole in the ground that the family used as a toilet. Given the prized photos, videos, music and texts on my phone I had to hide it by all means. Retrieving and cleaning it would be a minor inconvenience compared to getting lashes from an al-Shabab fighter’s whip.

The women who were busy cooking got busy changing into al-Shabab-compliant clothes. Off went the baati and on came the jilbab – a long, loose garment that covers the whole body.

The men who were religiously chewing khat leaves frantically started brushing their teeth and washing their mouths. They threw the remaining leaves into the open cooking fires, resulting in thick smoke that made those standing nearby cough nonstop.

(Graphic: Kenny Leung)
(Graphic: Kenny Leung)

By then the al-Shabab fighters were busy herding the men of Goob Weyn towards a football field in the centre of the town. The women were instructed to remain in their homes.

As we walked to the field a young man made a dash for it, running down the small moonlit alleyways between the mud houses. He didn’t get far as fighters hiding behind houses, not far away, caught him. He was taken to the lorry and we could hear screams in the distance as he was lashed. I later found out the young man is the local khat dealer and was wanted by al-Shabab for bringing the stimulant drug into the town.

We sat in the centre of the football field under the full moon as more and more of the town’s male residents joined us. There were about 150 of us in total.

Then the shortest of the al-Shabab fighters stepped forward. He was slightly taller than his AK-47 rifle, his skin-and-bones frame was covered in an oversized camouflage uniform. He wore oversized sandals that looked too heavy for his tiny feet. With a stainless steel torch in his left hand, he started collecting everyone’s cellphones. Surprisingly he had a deep chesty voice for someone of such a small frame, which made the orders he was barking sound more serious and threatening.

He passed the phones to his colleagues who went through them one by one to check for music and adult content. Those who had music on their phones received stern warnings and their memory cards were destroyed. One young man had adult material on his phone. He was taken aside and lashed in front of everyone. The al-Shabab guys were very unimpressed when they found out he was married with two wives. You could feel the disappointment behind the masks as they shook their heads and talked between them. They didn’t only destroy the young man’s memory card but his phone too.

One of the fighters realised I had not handed hand my phone over. Shining his torch at me he asked Awil who was seated next to me: “Is this one Somali and where is his phone?”

Awil, ever diplomatic, replied: “He’s Somali, speak to him.”

He looked at me without saying a word, unconvinced, turned his masked face back to Awil and again asked: “Where is this one’s phone?”

“He’s not mute. He can speak. He’s fluent in Somali. He’s not an alien. I swear,” said Awil, sounding slightly impatient.

I sensed my chance and joined the conversation. “Sheikh, I’m a British tourist and your seniors know we are here. You can call your emir [leader] to check. There is no need to keep me and Awil here.”

After three years working in Somalia I’ve managed to interview al-Shabab commanders. Before we made the trip they had assured us we were free to pass through or stay in areas they controlled.

Satisfied, the young al-Shabab fighter moved on.

Like a dentist, the short al-Shabab fighter then started closely inspecting everyone’s teeth for telltale signs of khat. Al-Shabab forbids the chewing of the narcotic leaves. The man pulled me aside, then asked me to open my mouth. Realising that my 6-foot-3 frame was much taller than his, he ordered me to bend down so he could take a closer look. I obliged. He placed his torch so close to my mouth that it touched my bottom lip and I could feel the warmth of the light coming from it. He asked me to move my tongue up, down and side to side.

After staring into my mouth for what seemed like an eternity, he said: “You are missing a tooth.”

Feeling annoyed but staying calm, I replied: “Sheikh, that’s not haram [forbidden].”

Ten men were taken aside by the short al-Shabab fighter. They were the unlucky ones who couldn’t conceal the fact they were chewing khat earlier. The green leaf pigment was either found on their tongue or stuck to their teeth. They were given an Islamic lecture before they each received five lashes.

The short al-Shabab guy wasn’t finished. He frog-marched one of the guys to the local kiosk. Before they reached it, he told the guy to order cigarettes from the female shopkeeper. Thinking that the al-Shabab men had left, she produced one from her secret hiding place. A big mistake. Cigarettes worth more than $200 were confiscated and set alight in front of everyone.

To my surprise she wasn’t flogged like the men who were caught with the khat. She was just given a religious lecture and a final warning.

Before they let us all go back to our homes, the al-Shabab fighters gave us a long lecture about jihad and asked us if anyone wanted to join them and defend the country against the “infidels”.

All I wanted to do was run back and save my phone, which wasn’t insured.

Just past midnight, they finally let us go but they took about a dozen of people with them.

Back at Awil’s mum’s house, a few locals blamed our presence in the town and our car for attracting al-Shabab. We told them we would be happy to leave the next morning.

After a short sleep, we were ready to head back to Mogadishu. A couple of locals asked us for a lift but they first searched the car extensively for explosives before jumping in.

Back in Mogadishu and still feeling disrespected by the short al-Shabab soldier with the torch, I called one of the al-Shabab commanders to relay the events of the previous evening.

He laughed throughout the conversation. Then he quipped: “If you had called me right then, I would’ve told them to fire a few shots inches above your head to welcome you to the Muslim land.”

I should’ve listened to Awil and not called to complain to the commander. What happen was caadhi after all!

As for my iPhone, I managed to retrieve it but it has never fully recovered from that trip down the hole-in-the-ground.

Hamza Mohamed is a British-Somali journalist working for Al Jazeera English. Connect with him on Twitter.

Britney Spears’ music used to scare off Somali pirates

In an excellent case of “here’s a sentence you won’t read every day”, Britney Spears has emerged as an unlikely figurehead in the fight against Somali pirates.

According to reports, Britney’s hits, including Oops! I Did It Again and Baby One More Time, are being employed by British naval officers in an attempt to scare off pirates along the east coast of Africa. Perhaps nothing else – not guns, not harpoons – is quite as intimidating as the sound of Ms Spears singing “Ooh baby baby!”

Merchant naval officer Rachel Owens explained the tactics to Metro: “Her songs were chosen by the security team because they thought the pirates would hate them most. These guys can’t stand western culture or music, making Britney’s hits perfect. As soon as the pirates get a blast of Britney, they move on as quickly as they can.”

Britney Spears. (Pic: AFP)
Britney Spears. (Pic: AFP)

Britney is currently preparing to release her eighth album, Britney Jean, in December. It follows the single Work Bitch, although producer Will.i.am claimed the sound of this track is not indicative of the rest of the record. No doubt the record’s eclectic sound has been designed to keep any potential pirates on their toes.

Britney Jean will be Spears’ first album since 2011’s Femme Fatale. When it’s released, perhaps the British military can stockpile copies down a bunker in Norfolk in preparation for the third world war.

Tim Jonze for the Guardian

From ‘Zulu’ to the ‘White Widow’, why do all African stories need a white face?

This is a true story. Somewhere in Bujumbura, the capital of the small African nation of Burundi, a colonel is building his house. He has laid the foundations, put up a staircase and the exterior walls, now he is fixing a roof. The economy in Burundi, like much of the African continent, is growing, and the price of land is on the rise. But people like our colonel, employed by the public sector, don’t always share in the spoils. In his case, the reward for years of distinguished service in the country’s military is only a few hundred dollars a month.

But the colonel also serves on the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), the UN-backed peacekeeping mission. For this he is much better-paid – earning a few thousand dollars per month. Peacekeeping in Somalia is not for the faint-hearted. Since the country descended into a more or less continuing state of anarchy in 1991, it has harboured fighting clans, factions and terrorists. Amisom forces regularly clash with al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-inspired group behind last month’s deadly attack on Kenya.

Al-Shabab are now the main cause of instability in Somalia, and instability in Somalia means instability in the whole region. Our colonel – like most people who care about security in Burundi and the rest of East Africa – is concerned about the state of Somalia. “I would like to see peace in Somalia,” the colonel says. “But not yet. Not until I’ve finished building my house.”

The truth is that instability in Somalia has costs and it has benefits. The fact that al-Shabab is able to use large parts of the country as a terrorist training ground presents a horrific cost. Not least the death of 67 innocent people at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi when members laid siege, gunning down families as they sat at cafes and shopped at the supermarket.

The benefits, however, are financial, immediate and far-reaching. One senior Kenyan politician told me that Somalia is a “free-for-all”, giving foreign powers the legitimacy to maintain a military presence in the country and control over the lucrative trade in commodities such as charcoal – once a major source of income for al-Shabab.

And so there was little protest when European donors meeting in Brussels last month decided that the time was right to pledge an extra £1.5-billion for “rebuilding the nation”, despite the fact that, according to a UN group of experts, 80% of withdrawals from Somalia’s central bank are known to be used for private purposes and not for the running of government.

Former Conservative party leader Michael Howard has just spearheaded Somalia’s first new oil deal, despite the widely held view that chaos still reigns in its natural resource sector. Howard, who is non-executive chairperson of new company Soma Oil and Gas, signed the deal in Mogadishu in August, months after the Somali government said the fragile state was not yet ready for oil exploration, and the UN warned such deals could “threaten peace and security”.

The US has recommended the arms embargo on Somalia be lifted despite the fact that Somalia has no proper warehousing, chain of custody or management system for weapons. Recommendations that the UN conduct systematic asset-freezing of senior al-Shabab figures at the heart of the murky trade and transactions in and out of significant parts of Somalia have been largely ignored.

Into this fray steps a woman – originally from the United Kingdom – whose story as told in the British press is such an enthralling mix of the exotic, the horrific and the familiar that the ensuing intrigue can almost single-handedly power the Twittersphere. Enter Samantha Lewthwaite, aka the “white widow”, a British convert to Islam whose husband Germaine Lindsay killed 22 in the London 7/7 bomb attacks. She fascinates in the way that white women who wear hijab generally do – I’ve seen them stared at on the tube in London – and because we still don’t believe that women can be terrorists.

 A photo of a fake South African passport of Samantha Lewthwaite released by Kenyan police in December 2011. (Pic: AFP/Kenyan police)
A photo of a fake South African passport of Samantha Lewthwaite released by Kenyan police in December 2011. (Pic: AFP/Kenyan police)

Lewthwaite has caught the imagination of the Kenyan press for some time, since police disrupted an alleged terrorist ring she was financing, but somehow allowed Lewthwaite to escape, believing she was an innocent tourist.

But far from being anything so straightforward, Lewthwaite is a series of apparent contradictions. Born in Northern Ireland, her father fought against the IRA, yet the cause she has chosen is jihadism. When Lindsay blew himself up on the Piccadilly line, she described the attack as “horrific”, but it seems what she actually believes is that his act of terrorism was a sacrifice which meant that for her, “the hereafter promised to be sweeter”.

The ratings appeal of a character such as Lewthwaite is obvious. You only have to look as far as Homeland – an entire series based around our fascination with western-born, white jihadist terrorists, which returns to UK screens this weekend – to find evidence of this. One character in the hit US show, which centers on a US marine who turns into a would-be suicide bomber, is Aileen Morgan, an American woman who plays a key role in a terrorist plot.

“She has the face of an angel, but she’s a killer,” the US press cooed, presumably referring to the fact that actress Marin Ireland, who plays Morgan, is blonde-haired and blue-eyed, which is not how terrorists are supposed to look.

There are plenty of Somali-Brits, Somali-Canadian and other Somali dual citizens suspected of involvement with al-Shabab, but they are black and Somali-looking, and therefore their capacity for violence is apparently less surprising.

Nor is it just the fact that Lewthwaite is a woman that makes her story so unique. On the FBI’s most wanted list of terrorists is also Assata Shakur, a 65-year-old grandmother who has been hiding in Cuba for decades after she was alleged to have been involved in the shooting of a US state trooper – an involvement she has always denied. It is the fact that Lewthwaite is a white convert to Islam that fascinates.

The media obsession with Lewthwaite reminds me of something that has irritated me for years: I cannot name a major Hollywood film set in Africa that does not involve a white American as the main character. This goes back to Zulu – ostensibly about the Anglo-Zulu war, but really about Michael Caine; Out of Africa – set in Kenya but really about Meryl Streep and Robert Redford; Lord of War – set in Liberia but really about Nicholas Cage; Tears of the Sun – set in Nigeria but really about Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci; Blood Diamond – set in Sierra Leone but really about Leonardo Di Caprio … the list goes on. Even Amistad – a film specifically about the impact on Africans of the transatlantic slave trade – is as much a film about the character played by Anthony Hopkins than it is about any African slave.

Samantha Lewthwaite is the white, western character we need in order to remain interested in a story that is primarily African. That is not to suggest her role in the Westgate attack was pure fiction. Like many other journalists in Kenya during the aftermath of the attack – trying to sift through the uncontrollable stream of fact and fiction emanating from its tragic ruins, I heard credible reports of a white, female jihadist wielding a gun.

One witness said he saw two white women with weapons directing the attack. There were reports in the Kenyan press of a white woman smearing herself with blood so that she looked like one of the more than 1 000 innocent people injured or caught up in the attack, desperately trying to escape.

Whether or not she was involved in the Westgate attack, Lewthwaite is already wanted for terrorist offences in Kenya and is believed to be hiding in Somalia. It’s the kind of place the most wanted woman in the world would choose to hide out, because despite two decades and millions of dollars in aid, years of training the military, the arms embargos, UN monitoring, expert recommendations and reports, it remains in a state of chaos. That, of course is the real story. But it does not have the face of an angel.

Afua Hirsch for the Guardian