The C Word: Why Robow Matters

Robow speaks to the media at the City Palace Hotel in Mogadishu on Tuesday, swapping the black flag of al-Shabaab for the Somali national flag

ABU MANSOUR MOKHTAR ROBOW, former Deputy Emir of al-Shabaab, entered into discussions with the Federal Government of Somalia this week. In an information vacuum (where, bizarrely, the potential defector seemed to be taking the lead in explaining what was happening), there was much speculation about the significance and even the desirability of negotiating with someone like Robow.

Despite his ideological and military credentials, Robow had become a source of great aggravation to al-Shabaab after he split with the group’s leadership ‘over ideological differences’. For 6 years he inhabited a grey space between al-Shabaab and the Federal Government, a state of limbo where his clan-based personal militia afforded him enough protection to deter al-Shabaab from simply killing him but where, at the same time, his stern refusal to renounce either violence or a broader Nationalist Islamist agenda that transcends a mere organisation like al-Shabaab (an ideology that still receives much tacit support in Somali society) precludes amnesty. This makes his defection to the government challenging to say the least.

It is unclear what turned the uneasy stalemate between Robow and al-Shabaab into open hostilities, with al-Shabaab massing forces in Bakool and launching a series of unsuccessful assaults on Robow’s rural stronghold. Perhaps al-Shabaab received word of Robow’s negotiations with Southwest State and senior members of his clan (Rahanweyn) in the national parliament in Mogadishu. Or perhaps the time had come for someone to rid al-Shabaab of ‘this turbulent priest’. It is unlikely we will ever know since key players in Somalia’s insurgency seldom get to write their memoirs. What we do know is that the attack forced Robowe into the arms of the government, although 19 of Robow’s men didn’t get to join him.

Robow allowed himself to be moved to Mogadishu, his security guaranteed by no less than the Somali Minister of Defence himself (although Robow was, it is rumoured, initially resistant to the move to the capital). Once there he entered a process that some described as a negotiation, others as a debriefing. He spoke to the media at the City Palace Hotel (across the road from the Somali National Intelligence & Security Agency’s headquarters), reading a prepared statement and answering no questions – and, notably, not condemning violence, not rejecting the broader Nationalist Islamist ideology (just the manifestation of it that is al-Shabaab), nor confessing his crimes and seeking forgiveness.

One line of response focussed on the lack of a rejection of violence, the failure to address all those crimes. This wasn’t new: when Atom defected in 2014, there was a similar furore from those who had suffered when his localised dispute with the local government in Puntland merged with al-Shabaab’s parallel antipathy for the Puntland Authorities. But Atom, while deeply religious, was never an ideologue. If anything he was a criminal, a bandit, a gun-runner. It was a relief when he finally said the right things to the media and was re-located to a Gulf State for the rest of his days. When Aweys, who actually was an ideologue, defected, he was not perceived to have blood on his hands. But Robow is both: violent and ideological and, apparently, not yet reconciled.

Atom, 2014 sketch by Our Man on the Horn

For that reason many local commentators and even the worthies at Human Rights Watch, taking advantage of the unique view you get into Somalia from the raised balcony of a coffee shop in an affluent part of northern Nairobi, feel that there must be justice. But justice in Somalia involves a wooden post and some from-the-hip automatic fire. (Reconcile that.) As a Briton and a former British Army officer at that, I can’t help but note that we would still be fighting in Northern Ireland if we had stuck to that line of uncompromising, inflexible ‘justice’. But we aren’t because we found it in ourselves to forgive and to reconcile (however tentatively).

Other commentators conjectured that, while Robow was once a significant figure within al-Shabaab, he was now little more than a propaganda symbol since he had been isolated from the hard core of the group for so long.

And, as is so often the case when international commentators look at Somalia, a deep lack of understanding of how Somalia works is exhibited, coupled with an absence of imagination, a lack of vision as to how Somalia might eventually ‘work’ in the future. And that means ‘The C Word’.


Robow is a Rahanweyn from the sub-clan Leysaan and the sub-sub-clan Orsi. al-Shabaab were well aware of the significance of this: that is why they sent the Shadow Governor of Galgaduud, Sheikh Hassan Yaqcub, to lead the assault on Robowe’s hideout in the hinterland, because he too was a Rahanweyn-Leysaan-Orsi. They were probably also very aware of the predominance of Rahanweyn in the organisation itself, with perhaps more than half of the organisation coming from the clan, at the foot-soldier level at least (although understanding of the demographics of al-Shabaab remains hazy even 11 years after the Ethiopian invasion).

And that is where the real significance of Robowe might lie. If Robow can find it in himself to put aside not just his violent, xenophobic, Nationalist-Islamist agenda, if he can commit to working with the government to rebuild Somali, but, most importantly, if he still has influence over his Rahanweyn clansmen, even a proportion of them, and if he can bring them out with him, then Robow might be the most important defector from al-Shabaab to date.


If you’re about to comment on the Barcelona attacks, pause…

Spanish Flag


If you’re about to comment on Barcelona attack, pause: imagine what the terrorists behind the attack would like you to post.

  • Anti-Islamic? Tick.
  • Anti-immigrant? Tick.
  • Anti-refugee? Tick.
  • This is a war? Tick.
  • A bit of ‘whataboutery’? Our tragedy is greater than your tragedy? Tick.
  • This is the UK’s/the US’s/Europe’s/the Arab governments’ fault? Tick.

Don’t let the terrorists work you like a ventriloquist’s doll. Unless, of course, you enjoy having someone’s hand up your arse.

[This is an updated version of a posting from November 2015, written in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. I suspect I might have cause to update it again. And again. And again.]

Al-Shabaab is a Vital Part of the Global Jihad. No, Really, It Is!


Al-Shabaab spends 53 minutes trying to convince us of its pivotal role in the Global Jihad – and comes out looking like a local insurgency struggling to hold it all together

It is the start of Ramadan in Somalia and that means another gory video from al-Shabaab. (And a spike in assassinations and car bombings in Mogadishu and attacks against the Somali security forces and AMISOM out in the hinterland – although this year, after the President’s ‘declaration of war’ against al-Shabaab, this year might see a spike in a spike.) This year al-Shabaab, through its media outfit, al-Kataib, reminds us of the events in Kulbiyow in Lower Jubba in January of this year, when al-Shabaab fighters clashed with Kenyan Defence Forces serving under the AMISOM banner and al-Shabaab briefly overran the position, killing 67 Kenyan soldiers (al-Shabaab version) or the Kenyan Defence Forces bravely resisted a strong attack (Kenyan government version).

Islam under attack in Palestine and elsewhere

The video follows the standard format of attack products. It sprawls over 53 minutes, of which only 10 minutes is focussed on the attack itself. The remainder is message-laden: a succession of horrific images of atrocities against Muslims (especially Muslim children) in Palestine, Iraq, Libya, Burma, Chechnya, Kashmir, West Africa and Turkmenistan; imagery of US forces (some lifted from ‘Blackhawk Down’, also I suspect al-Shabaab don’t worry much about copyright) and then, right back at you, al-Qa’ida attacks on the US; accusations of atrocities committed by black African Christian troops against Somali Muslims (many Somalis don’t consider themselves to be either black or African in spirit) with special focus on the sexual abuse of Somali women, dutifully supported with words and pictures from Human Rights Watch (made all the more easy by provocative, racially and religiously charged emphasis on lines like ‘he ripped off my hijab and then he attacked me’); and all punctuated by the musings of a diverse group of jihadist thinkers like Sheikh Ahmed Abdirahman, Usama Bin Ladin, Sheikh Qassim al-Rimi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Shabaab’s spokesman, Ali Dheere, Abu Yaya Al Libi and Aboud Rogo amongst many others. Many, many others.


Dulyadeyn with his trademark brew mug

A lengthy section focuses on Dulyadeyn, the architect of the Garissa University attack (oddly there is no mention of that), and in whose honour the attack on Kulbiyow was named. (No coincidence that Dulyadeyn was a Somali-Kenyan, either.) He tours the troops, boosting their morale with his mere presence, and lectures them at length with a tea mug attached to his combat jacket (brew theft appears to be an issue in al-Shabaab, even for a notoriously blood-thirsty senior commander).


Conspirators in the war on Islam: Asaad, Putin, Netanyahu, Trump and Kenyatta

Finally, after 27 minutes shaping our perceptions (we now hate the West and the African Union and realise that Muslims are under attack pretty much everywhere – if only there were more people like Dulyadeyn fighting back against Trump, Netanyahu, Putin, Assad, Kenyatta et al, who appear and grinningly shake each others’ hands on what is clearly a deal to kill Muslims), the attack begins.


The camp beds of the heretics must die too

The product lacks the excitement of Janaale or El Adde (even I had twinges of excitement with them – but maybe I’ve been out in the sun too long). But there is gore. Dead bodies are made deader by being shot again and again in the head. The beds in the accommodation tents are shot again and again, which is a pity, since camp beds and sleeping bags are useful things. The camp church is smashed up. Finally, with everyone involved having fired a few rounds into something (even if it was a camp bed), weapons, ammunition and vehicles are commandeered and the fighters depart. (They were probably edgily watching the sky the longer they hung around, although that is obviously omitted.)

So, too, are any casualties, barring a select few. Six ‘martyrs’ are honoured and they are, of course, suitably diverse in terms of clan (even the much-put upon Galgale minor clan are represented – because al-Shabaab is above clan, remember?). One is a Kenyan with a typically non-descript moniker in place of his real name – Abu Naseeba, the father of ‘Lucky’ (although her father apparently wasn’t so lucky). Another is a cameraman – maybe that is why the footage is so limited. Maybe it was the briefness of al-Shabaab’s apparent occupation of the camp before the Kenyans counter-attacked.

A few minutes are filled with Kenyan denials that anything ever happened anywhere and then a lot more time is filled with a further reminder that this is part of the Global Jihad. More stock footage: training, an IED going off in Mogadishu (in 2014). The End.

Yes, the video gets its message across about the Kenyan government claiming there was ‘nothing to see’ in Kulbiyow when there clearly was something to see (and the footage has been verified as being Kulbiyow by the ever-efficient Bellingcat).


Near enough to film but apparently not near enough to shoot

But this is a strangely unsatisfactory product. We see shadowy figures moving maybe a hundred metres away but no-one shoots at them – why not? Why do dead bodies have to be made deader? What threat do camp-beds pose? And a lot of the images in the cascade towards the magic, claimed 67 dead look very similar to ones in other video products, despite maybe being flipped and re-filtered on Photoshop.

That is because this is an edited version of an event: this is propaganda. Or it might be a bit of the event, mixed with other events (the ground we see the troops advancing through changes dramatically on a number of occasions). It might not even be the event.

But the overall effect is that this is too much talking and not enough doing, too many foreign jihadis chipping in their ten shillings/rials/dirhams worth, too much emphasis that this is not about Somalia, this is about Islam under attack and the Global Jihad.

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Abu Naseeba, a not-so-lucky Kenyan Foreign Fighter

Which is a giveaway. The reality is that, inside al-Shabaab, foreigners have never really been welcome. Even members of the Somali Diaspora are viewed as ‘foreign’ (which is why they tend to head to Iraq and Syria these days). These days the ‘Foreign Fighters’ tend to come from the disaffected Muslim community in Kenya. So it is no coincidence that a Kenyan is one of the six selected martyrs.

But this conceals a fracture within al-Shabaab, between Kenyans (and, increasingly, younger Somalis), who genuinely do want to wage Holy War, and a majority whose focus is much closer to home, within the bounds of the fabled ‘Greater Somalia’, and much more akin to a nationalist insurgency driven by the desperate need to control resource than the genuine Global Jihad it claims to part of  – for a painfully dull 53 minutes.



Killing People is Wrong

Al-Shabaab press officer, Hassan Hanafi, is executed by firing squad in Mogadishu

Execution is justice in a place where law is for sale

HASSAN Hanafi gulps in the hot, dusty air as he is tied to one of the four execution posts, near the beach in Mogadishu. Overweight and injured, it looks like he might cheat the firing squad by expiring from respiratory failure. (Hanafi had foolishly sought medical treatment in Kenya – as a former journalist turned press officer for Somalia’s al-Qai’da franchise, al-Shabaab, he was well known to the Kenyan authorities, even without his distinctive boss eye and dent-scarred forehead.)

It is an unusual execution – he is to be executed alone, whereas normally executions are conduct in small groups. His betrayal of both his profession and the five Somali journalists that he lured to their deaths on the promise of safe passage to exclusive interviews with al-Shabaab leaders earn him that distinction.

Normally those to be executed go to their deaths with stoicism. Perhaps that is what 25 years of chaos, of famine, disease and endemic clan violence engenders. Or maybe the Somalis are just naturally stoic in the face of death. (‘Allah has dug the grave, we just walk towards it,’ a Somali colleague said to me on the death of my grandfather, soon after I first went to Mogadishu – a different approach from the ‘sorry for your trouble’ and ‘he’s gone to a better place’ I got back home.)

Executions in Mogadishu are conducted against a backdrop of sand dunes, near the sprawling city burial ground and opposite the Police Academy (which is now producing policemen again – and policewomen). When there isn’t an imminent execution (they are infrequent) the posts become the goal for football playing teenagers hoping to follow Ismail Feruz to the Scottish and English Premierships. But you know an execution is coming when the quickly accumulated garbage is cleared away.

I occasionally get requests from millennial journalists who want to ‘experience’ an execution. ‘Bad juju,’ say my security staff, ‘and way too risky for a mzungu.’ (Swahili: white man – Somalis are linguistically eclectic.) You’re not the new Orwell, say I.

The executions aren’t pretty. The firing squad shoot on automatic, often from the hip – not that long ago the only rounds that hit the condemned man knee-capped him and he was garrotted by the ropes that held him to the post. Maybe Hanafi had heard about that.

But the executions aren’t characterised by jeering, blood-thirsty mobs either. The families of the victims often attend, but they too are stoic, not vengeful. In a world where justice can be bought, the people of Mogadishu overwhelmingly support executions because it is the only tangible form of justice on offer. Prison is something you can buy your way out of, but death is not. The statistics tell a story, too: a third of those executed are security forces gone rogue. 

It can be very easy, sitting on the balcony of a branch of the Bakehaus-style Artcaffe chain, somewhere on the affluent north side of sunny-but-at-altitude Nairobi, to say, ‘killing people is wrong.’ It’s not so easy, down at sea level, to go through 25 years of societal collapse, that thrusts people back to the basics, their family and clan – and the simple, tangible certainty of seeing killers get killed. 

First published on May 4th, 2017 in The Scotsman newspaper

Off to Somalia? Here’s Some More Preparatory Reading

Further to ‘Off to Somalia? Here’s Some Preparatory Reading’, here are additional suggestions from Max’ed Cumar/@samadoon:

  • Mohamed Haji Mukhtar, ‘Historical Dictionary of Somalia’
  • Michael van Notten, ‘Law of the Somalis: A Stable Foundation for Economic Development in the Horn of Africa’ (no e-book available but the Amazon link is here
  • Ali Jimale Mohamed, ‘DAybreak is Near : Literature, Clans and the Nation-State in Somalia: Literature, Clans and the Nation-state of Somalia’ (Amazon link here)
  • I M Lewis, ‘A Pastoral Democracy: Study of Pastoralism and Politics Among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa’ (Amazon link here)
  • Lidwien Kaptjiens, ‘Women’s Voices in a Man’s World: Women and the Pastoral Tradition in Northern Somali Orature’ (Amazon link here)

Other suggestions most welcome.