September 2017: That Was The Month That Was

TWTMTW

l-r: weapons seized from gun-runners off the coast of Puntland; the unburied bodies of the casualties of the Barire incident; Prime Minister Khayre addresses UN GA; an AMISOM armoured vehicle shunts a civilian car in Mogadishu; and President Farmaajo heads to Saudi Arabia

SEPTEMBER started as it would end, focussed on the town of Barire in Lower Shabelle. A number of locals, armed and moving at night with an unidentifiable but presumably nefarious purpose, stumbled upon a Somali special forces unit who promptly engaged them, killing 8. The government agreed to compensate the dollar-hungry families of the unburied and decomposing casualties.

The business of government went on, with counter-terrorism legislation heading to parliament along with various other bills. The Media Law followed close behind, trailed by the ubiquitous chuntering. The PM headed to New York for the UN General Assembly where Somalia was deprived of its voting rights because of unpaid dues but the PM nonetheless managed to meet a selection of his influential counter-parts.

International relations interfaced dangerously with relations between the government and the Federal Member States. HirShabelle democratically removed its State President early in the month and quickly replaced him. But this was insignificant in comparison to the sudden alignment of Puntland, then Southwest, then Galmudug with Saudi Arabia & UAE against Qatar, in opposition to the government’s neutral stance. The President himself returned to Saudi Arabia for the third time since taking office, but the month ended with the situation apparently unresolved.

At a regional level, relations with Ethiopia caused problems. The extradition of an Ogaden National Liberation Front leader sparked an outburst of nationalistic fervour that mixers happily exploited: the President’s popularity plummeted. The fragility and disenfranchisement that came with a major clan/not-so major sub-clan President and Prime Minister appeared to spill over into violence, albeit concealed in a variety of Somali National Security Forces uniforms, when the Stabilisation Force attempted to disarm another unit (from a different clan block): 9 died.

There were some positives: football matches and civilian flights into Mogadishu Aden Abdulle Airport took place at night for the first time in nearly three decades. The Mogadishu Book Festival was a success, rivalling its elder cousin in Hargeisa.

Kenyan forces serving as part of AMISOM withdrew from Bardhere and Tarako: aS immediately occupied the towns. In Mogadishu, video of a road traffic accident, where an AMISOM armoured vehicle shunted a civilian car along one of the main arteries of the city, went viral on social media: AMISOM quickly apologised and offered compensation.

The security slugging match continued in the hinterland. aS continued to suffer from air, drone and special forces strikes, the Shadow Governor of Banadir being a notable victim. aS tried to use disinformation to counter the strikes, re-imagining them as civilian casualty incidents.

In reply, aS launched assaults on government positions across the country, from Af-Urur in Puntland to Bulo-Gaduud, Beled-Hawo, Kalabyr and El-Wak in south-central. In the city of Mogadishu aS kept up its campaign of assassinations of government officers, members of the security forces and NGO workers (although whether aS actually was responsible for every single killing remains unclear): the Deputy Commander of SNA Logistics was a notable victim. aS’s other urban trademark, the car-bomb, was less prevalent than in previous months, but some attacks succeeded in spite of the best efforts of the Stabilisation Force to secure the city.

The month ended where it began, in Barire. aS stormed the SNA garrison in the town, inflicting heavy casualties and seizing a number of vehicles including armed ‘technicals’. aS’s narrative predominated and steered attention away from its concurrent and grimly symbollic car-bombing of the Mogadishu Peace Garden.


 

al-Shabaab Spokesman Ali Dheere Speaks – and the Somali People Respond

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In January 2017, the al-Shabaab spokesman, Ali Dheere, spoke to AJE’s Hamza Mohamed (although the interview itself was released through a Somali Diaspora online news channel called Dalsoor). The first part is here and the second here.

About a month later, two cheap-and-cheery locally produced products appeared, challenging Ali Dheere’s comments on the bombings of hotels (here) and the bombings of public places such as markets (here). The products experienced a surge in views this week in the aftermath of the bombing of the Wehliye Hotel on Mogadishu’s Makka ul Mukarama Road.

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The products are slightly clumsy and the English subtitles, which mimic the English subtitling of the original interview, might ring alarm bells for some, but it is nonetheless interesting to see the Somali people feeling confident enough to speak out openly against al-Shabaab.


Continuity and Change: The Evolution and Resilience of al-Shabab’s Media Insurgency 2006-2016 by Chris Anzalone


Quality analysis of al-Shabaab’s communications by Chris Anzalone of the International Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University:

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There is also an associated podcast, also featuring Dr. Stig Jarle Hansen and moderated by Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council.

 

‘But They’re So Much Better Than Us’

The Myth of Terrorist Communications Superiority

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The moment an al-Shabaab cameraman is shot and killed while filming the attack on Janaale, captured on camera: it is unclear which direction the bullet came from

Another day, another al-Shabaab attack video.

Janaale, near Marka town, was occupied by Ugandan People’s Defence Forces serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) flag. The camp was in the process of being dismantled as part of AMISOM force re-posturing, recognising the danger posed to isolated positions in the hinterland by al-Shabaab’s continuing ability to mass hundreds of fighters for set-piece attacks. Unfortunately for the Ugandans that day the re-posturing meant that, while the artillery and armour had been withdrawn, the infantry remained. At dawn on September 1st, al-Shabaab destroyed a nearby bridge (denying reinforcement by land) and then, under a low grey sky (denying air support), attacked.

The President of Uganda and senior military figures are mocked in the video

Released 6 weeks later (this appears to be the standard period), the video unfolds to the usual pattern: a lengthy educational introduction by a luminary, then the attack itself. A suicide attacker initiates the assault (just as it did during the attack on the Burundian position in Leego) and seemingly hundreds of troops fight through the spartan, disorderly seeming AMISOM position. Heavy weapons blaze away, fighters fire from the hip and over their heads. (Did I see two pale fighters, about half way through?) An occasional Ugandan is seen in the distance. At the conclusion of the attack, stockpiles of captured weapons, ammunition, uniforms, identity cards. The dead are made more dead by being shot at close range.

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A captured Ugandan is displayed

A novelty: a captured Ugandan chats amiably about being woking up by the explosions, only to find he had been abandoned. Connections, quite possibly artificial, are made: to the killing of civilians in nearby Marka town by AMISOM forces in the aftermath of an IED attack, to the anniversary of Godane’s death in a US airstrike. The product is bookended by footage of the Ugandan president and senior military figures, set-up to look like bluffers, African Comical Ali’s, as they mock al-Shabaab’s weakness and praise their own forces.

Captured AMISOM equipment is displayed

The videos are definitely improving in production quality. The Janaale video is tighter, certainly tighter than the ponderous Mpeketoni video that spent 45 minutes focussing on President Uhuru Kenyatta’s denials of al-Shabaab involvement in the attacks before it actually got down to showing al-Shabaab involved in attacking Mpeketoni (another 45 minutes). The edits are good, split screens, multiple angles. Six different cameramen were involved, laboriously proven by six different views of the suicide attack that initiated the attack. And the gamer’s eye view of an attack can’t be beaten. It almost feels like you’re there.

Oddly, though, no mention of the ongoing purge within al-Shabaab of those who seek a shift of allegiance to the Islamic State.

 


 

‘Slick,’ says a colleague, also former military, also in his 40s. ‘Sophisticated,’ says a female acquaintance working for a friendly government, also in her 40s. ‘But they’re so much better than us,’ despairs another (also in his 40s). 

But a 14 year old wouldn’t say that: they would find these products laughable. Why is it so long? (Tut.) And why don’t you actually see anything? (Sigh.) Are these videos actually authentic? (Tut.) Haven’t they heard of Go-Pro? (Tut.) And how are you meant to download something 30 minutes long onto your phone? (Tut.) Aren’t there highlights of the best bits? (Sigh.) Booorrriiing. (Tut. Sigh.)

Situations Vacant: al-Shabaab Cameraman

The Janaale video is ripe with specifics for the 14 year old to rip apart. During one of the many scenes of ‘men standing in a field firing at distant bushes,’ there is a puff of earth in front of the cameraman… A pause… The image slides to the left and hits the ground… ‘The martyrdom of the cameraman, brother Abdulkarim al-Ansari,’ announces the slate.

How amusing would a 14 year old find that? Your cameraman gets shot and you actually include it in the video…? Epic fail. Lucky they had six of them! Who’d be an al-Shabaab cameraman?

 


 

What we are facing in the information war is not the over-whelming creative sophistication and technological aptitude of the other side: the problem there lies more with the lack of creativity and the technical ineptitude of many of those we choose to implement our response. Sometimes it is much simpler: volume and a bit of initiative, for example. While institutions focus on what might go wrong, the enemy is focussing on what might go right.

As Dr Neville Bolt of the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, points out, we are moving towards a new phase in the way institutions communicate: we have moved from 80s-style complete control of communications (think Falklands – print this); through the millennium period of ‘control-management’ (think spin-doctors and embeds); and, now, institutions engage in management-responsiveness (‘I will be answering your Tweets questions at midday today…’).

But the process of development is not finished: next, predicts Dr Bolt, comes Pro-active Responsiveness, the ultimate delegation of messaging (with all the risk that brings). He attaches an arbitrary ‘2024’ deadline for that to come about. There is now so much communicating going on that governments, militaries and other lumbering monstrosities cannot hope to control it but must instead engage with it through trusted and maybe not-so-trusted advocates, and in the knowledge that there will be ‘epic fails’.

In some ways, that is how terrorists and insurgents are already communicating, as if it is Dr Bolt’s 2024: totally off the lead, making mistakes (like getting shot dead while filming), but getting a message out nonetheless.

But it is also how gaming communities and trendy clothing brands and media houses and bars and restaurants are already communicating – groups that are on our side but not yet On Our Side. (They probably are not yet On Our Side because we haven’t asked them if they want to be on our side, because they have beards or piercings or didn’t go to the same schools as us.)

Come to think of it, it only seems to be 40-somethings like me and my chums, and institutions, with their collective, 40-something mindsets, that aren’t communicating this way. Like all wars this war this will be a young man’s game, but this time we should perhaps consider giving the young men and, increasingly, the young women, a say in the strategy rather than just asking them to do the dirty business of getting killed (albeit now on camera).

Al-Shabaab’s Da’esh Problem

Mumin

Abdul Qadir Mumin, who swore allegiance to the Islamic State/Da’esh on Thursday

There have been rumblings of a shift of allegiance by al-Shabaab from al-Qa’ida to the Islamic State/Da’esh for some time. In February, for instance, there media reported that a senior leader, Karate, was strongly in favour of the move, in direct opposition to the relatively new and unestablished leader of al-Shabaab, Diriye. (The story was grossly exaggerated, though, claiming that, in a moment of tension in the discussion, Karate had threatened to behead Diriye: while authentically Da’esh, the likelihood of even a senior leader making such a threat and surviving is very unlikely.)

During the Holy Month of Ramadan, the rumour appeared again, with claims of an announcement of the change of allegiance to come at Eid al-Fitr. But it didn’t. Eid al-Adha brought a different, albeit indirect message, hidden within a video product focused on al-Shabaab’s attack on the Burundian camp in Leego: quotations from Usama Bin Laden, but also from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qa’ida. Al-Shabaab was never going to answer the rumours directly, but this concluded the discussion.


Except that it didn’t conclude the discussion. Abdul Qadir Mumin, a relatively well known al-Shabaab religious ideologue, declared his allegiance via an audio message on Thursday evening along with 20 of his followers, somewhere in Puntland.

‘Da’esh has an appeal,’ says a chum in the Somali intelligence community. ‘Da’esh are Manchester City right now, al-Qa’ida are… Born. Mouth.’ (Ah, Bournemouth, I realise after a moment.) ‘The young people, the footsoldiers, and the foreign fighters, they are taken by Da’esh, by their daring, by their media. Al-Qa’ida is for the old men.’

Foreign fighters can mean both non-Somalis but also Somali Diaspora. Which does he mean?

‘A group of foreigners declared in the mosque a few weeks ago, two Arabs and three Kenyans. In a village somewhere between Barawe and Jamame, where they have no internet, no television or radio. They didn’t know what was happening and they were arrested by the Amniyat.

‘But it is not just foreigners – another groups, Somalis, all from the same clan, they decalred their allegiance to Da’esh and are strong enough with their own clan militia that al-Shabaab has sent religious men to negotiate with them.’ (Where? Near Jilib, also in the hinterland between Mogadishu and Kismayo.)

(This raises an interesting point, the clan dynamics of al-Shabaab. As much as the group claims to be above clan, no Somali is not influenced by clan and al-Shabaab itself regularly mediates in clan disputes, using the ancient system to their advantage. And as much as al-Shabaab has representatives of virtually every clan within its ranks, the leadership of al-Shabaab, the Shura Council, is dominated by one clan. It was only a matter of time before the clan issue appeared.)

So this isn’t a one off. There are elements within al-Shabaab, not just one isolated group, but groups of foreigners, Somali Diaspora and ‘real’ Somalis, swearing allegiance to Da’esh. The response from al-Shabaab depends on how strong the individual group is. For now, at least.


Kulwa, an al-Shabaab leader in Puntland, condemns Mumin’s move and states that al-Shabaab will fight anyone who opposes ‘the movement’. This is a standard approach by al-Shabaab, low level responses first: a tweet here, a statement to local media there. Al-Shabaab then assesses the response. If the story goes away, they leave it at that. But if the story is ‘sticky’, they respond commensurately: a more senior leader responds, a statement might be issued, it might even go all the way up to Diriye if required. (‘If only the government adopted that approach,’ my intelligencer acquaintance wryly comments.)

But al-Shabaab isn’t just about communications. It is also about deeds.

In 2013, when Godane purged al-Shabaab of those who opposed his ideology of the Global Jihad and his alliance with al-Qa’ida, there were no Tweets or statements. Al-Shabaab’s actions spoke for themselves, and there is no reason to doubt that al-Shabaab won’t adopt a similar course in the coming months against its errant, vacillating members.

Al-Shabaab’s Eid Message: the Attack on Leego

Al-Shabaab’s latest video, produced by al-Qa’ida, reminds us of some old lessons and also teaches us some new ones.

The Attack Begins with the detonation of a Suicide Bomber

A suicide attacker initiates the attack on the AMISOM base in Leego

 

It’s sometimes hard to tell if al-Shabaab’s timing is as intentional as the media sometimes interpret it to be. Was the attack on Ugandan troops serving with AMISOM in Janaale on September 1st really in memoriam Godane, marking the first anniversary of his death in a drone strike? Was Monday’s attack near the perimeter gate of Villa Somalia really meant to coincide with the anniversary of Westgate? And was Thursday’s release of the obligatory video product that follows every major attack, this time of an attack on Burundian troops under the AMISOM flag in Leego, really al-Shabaab’s message for the people at the time of Eid al-Adha?

It doesn’t matter, of course, because whether it was or wasn’t, that is how social meeja and subsequently the media have interpreted it. And perception is reality, some say.

Once again the video product was produced by al-Kutaib, al-Qa’ida’s production house. Once again, al-Shabaab and Somalia provide the cast and the set for the ailing al-Qa’ida studio. The quality is consistently improving: there are at least three different cameramen (occasionally filming each other – how very Vice) and the editing is slick, with lots of split screens and the like. The subtitling again is in English and Arabic. The product as a whole is tighter, too, only 27 minutes this time, as opposed to the sprawl of some previous products, notably the 90 minute ‘Western Shopping Mall’ product (that fleetingly mentioned western shopping malls). It is undeniably exciting to watch the attack unfold, as graphic as the violence is and as ambivalent the thrill might be.

aS Parade Prior to Leego Attack

Al-Shabaab footsoldiers parade prior to the attack on the AMISOM base in Leego

The video itself begins and is subsequently punctuated by a series of inspirational comments from Osama Bin Laden, Godane and Zawahiri. Various scarfed footsoldiers prance around for a while but any comic value (they make the Italian Army on parade look intimidating) is lost when the camera pans out to reveals hundreds of fighters. A lengthy interview with a combat medic who has decided Allah has a greater role for him sings a song, looks wistfully into the distance.

A Lengthy Interview with the Suicide Attacker Who Initiates the Attack

A suicide attacker, eulogised, initiated the assault on the AMISOM base

Darkness falls, broken first by the flash of the self detonation of the healer-turned-killer in the distance, then webs of tracer rounds from 7.62mm PK light machine guns and then the heavier 12.7mm Dushkas, mounted on the backs of 4×4 ‘technicals’. (A sharper eyed/more spotterish colleague spies even heavier ZSU 23mm anti-aircraft cannon mounted on technicals too. There are at least four different technicals involved, possibly more.)

Technical Mounted Heavy Weapons During the Assault

One of the many technicals mounting heavy weapons that were used in the Leego attack

The assault itself takes place, strangely lacklustre after the build-up and the previous video products. Burundian troops are seen in the distance, in a mixture of states of dress, confused and meandering around entrenchments aimlessly.

Burundian Troops Move Along a Trench System

Burundian troops under fire meander along a trench

Sniper Shot

A sniper targets a Burundian soldier: probably a post-event overlay

The Burundian Church is Destroyed

The Burundian church is destroyed

It is after the assault that the most striking images appear: a sniper scope view of a Burundian killed by a headshot, so derivative of many similar clips produced in Iraq; the destruction of the Burundian church tent, the cross stomped upon until it splinters; the seizure of quantities of ammunition, weapons (including heavy mortars), AMISOM uniforms and Burundian rank-slides; and finally, dead bodies. Many dead bodies.

Captured AMISOM Burundian Uniforms and Rank Slides

Captured AMISOM Equipment including Heavy Mortars and Ammunition

Significant quantities of arms, ammunition and uniforms were seized in the attack

Bodies are finished off with headshots; a series of single images of corpses build into a cascade, designed to justify the assertion that 80 Burundians were killed in the attack; bodies are strung together and dragged behind a technical.

Many of the messages from this video are not new. The video shows once again that al-Shabaab can concentrate large numbers of troops and weapons systems against isolated positions, seemingly at will. We knew this in December, when al-Shabaab attacked Interim Jubba Authority troops on Kodhay Island, but now the focus is on AMISOM. We also know that al-Shabaab will always produce a communications output from their operations and it is likely that they may even design their operations around the communications output. We also see that AMISOM, while they certainly outclass al-Shabaab in the offence, are weak in defence. The fact that al-Shabaab can mass vehicles and fighters and assault AMISOM positions with impunity shows that AMISOM has not yet adjusted to the physical terrain or to counter-insurgency: no aggressive foot-patrolling, no dominating ground, no exploitation of the technical advantage, no offensive spirit, obviously no support amongst the local population: all the tactics you would expect in rural counter-insurgency.

But there are is a new, albeit indirectly stated message: al-Shabaab’s allegiance remains with al-Qa’ida. Any doubt about that is confirmed by the fact that it is not just Bin Laden who is quoted in the video, but also Zawahiri. The media flurry around al-Shabaab’s supposed shifting of allegiance to the Islamic State can now be seen to be a red herring, although it allowed the Daily Mail to fill a few pages with pictures of Samantha Lewthwaite and stills from the latest ‘ISIS-style’ video release by al-Shabaab (who were producing such video products long before the Islamic State came into being).

One final, ominous thought. Al-Shabaab is releasing video products somewhere between 6 weeks and 3 months after each major attack. That means we can expect a video product based on the assault on the Ugandan-manned AMISOM base in Janaale earlier on September 1st (in memoriam Godane) in the coming weeks. That incident, rooted as it was in the loss of confidence of the local community after the massacring of members of a wedding party in nearby Marka (which in turn was in revenge for an IED attack on AMISOM forces) will once again cast doubts on AMISOM’s ability to operate in the rural environment. The subsequent confusion in reporting (12 dead, say Uganda; 25 dead say local sources; 50 dead say al-Shabaab), compounded by claims and counter claims of Ugandan hostages taken, prepares the ground for al-Shabaab’s next video. It is a sorry state of affairs when we have to rely on al-Shabaab to provide clarity on what is going on in the hinterland of southern and central Somalia.

POLICY: out of respect to fallen combatants and on the grounds of decency this site does not carry graphic imagery. If you wish to view the video for research, please send a request via the comments section below. 

Do We Want al-Shabaab to Join the Islamic State?

The Daily Mail Certainly Seems to.

Tom Evans DeadWannabe hero of the Glorious Jihad, Tom Evans – now brown bread

“When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, choose the legend.”

                                                                                                            John Ford

The rumour of a high level meeting in Jilib in southern Somalia of al-Shaabab’s leadership has been rattling around Mogadishu for a few days. On the agenda is a discussion of what to do after the loss of the thin stretch of territory al-Shabaab still holds (something like 20% of South/Central Somalia, from what was once 80%) to impending military operations by Ethiopian and Kenyan forces operating under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) mandate.

Al-Shabaab has concentrated its 2015 Ramadan campaign on AMISOM bases in the hinterland of the country and on civilian centres in northern Kenya, ambushing an Ethiopian convoy on June 17th and over-running a Burundian base in the town of Leego on June 26th. It has, once again, mounted a successful strike on the Kenyan border town of Mandera and a failed attack on a Kenyan military base in Lamu County.

Al-Shabaab must have realised that such attacks would draw a response, particularly from the Ethiopians. And so they have, with 3000 Ethiopian troops and their local allies, the Somali Ahla Sunna wa Juma militia assembling near some of the few remaining al-Shabaab strongholds and Kenyan conducting airstrikes against targets in Gedo in southern Somalia (the Kenyans are less inclined to engage in a direct fight than their Ethiopian comrades – and perhaps have less trust in their local partners as a fighting force).

Perhaps this is what al-Shabaab wanted, to draw the Ethiopians and the Kenyans in, hoping to play on the historic and instinctive dislike of the Somalis for their neighbours and the perhaps inevitable ‘over-zealousness’ that sometimes comes with an AMISOM offensive, grist to al-Shabaab’s propaganda mill.

Or perhaps al-Shabaab isn’t operating in as unified a manner as we sometimes assume and the leadership have to meet to deal with unintended consequences. It’s a mistake we often make, assuming the other side fight, command, communicate and behave as we would.

Additionally, at the end of the meeting agenda, just before ‘AOB’, is the subject of a transfer of allegiance from al-Qa’ida (to whom the then leader of al-Shabaab, Godane, swore allegiance in 2012) to the Islamic State, or Da’esh.

The shift of allegiance to IS is a longer running rumour, stretching back to late February of this year. One senior leader, Karate, is an apparent proponent of the shift, supported by many of the younger membership of al-Shabaab. Godane’s successor, Diriye, however, remains loyal to his predecessor’s pledge to al-Qa’ida and the majority of the older leaders are with him.

But this week the rumour grew legs, picked up by the UK Daily Mail with the splash headline, ‘Somalia Terror Group al-Shabaab ‘to Pledge Loyalty to ISIS’ in Terrifying Expansion of the Caliphate’, according to a ‘source within al-Shabaab’ (there are quite a few of those – in the same way there were a lot of ‘sources within Somali pirate gangs’, who turned out to be Somali-Kenyan chancers, duping journalists for a giggle and a bit of spare cash).

The Daily Mail story itself was thin, based on local media reports of the impending meeting. But then fast forward: and the meeting has already happened and the deal is already done: al-Shabaab will swear allegiance to Da’esh.

Then the numbers start to ramp up – al-Shabaab’s 9000 troops (the largest estimate anyone actually in Somalia has come up with is 6000, most of whom are sympathisers, hangers on and facilitators – al-Shabaab’s combat strength is 1500 at most) conducted 150 attacks in June (which would be a rate of 5 a day – but unfortunately only about 20 seem to have been noticed by anyone, including the local media).

Da’esh’s wooing of al-Shabaab through a video appeal then takes to the stage – although surprisingly without reference to the fact that the video appeals to members of al-Shabaab to leave the group and travel to Syria to join IS, nor to the fact that the cool shades-sporting leader of the group featured in the video, Taymullah as-Somali, is actually blind, nor that his sidekick, Abu Hamza, can barely speak Somali.

And then the finale – the obligatory appearance of foreign fighters at the peak of the al-Shabaab feudal pyramid. Because Somalis, of course, couldn’t run an insurgency or a terrorist campaign without a whitey to guide them, could they?

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Samantha Lewthwaite, ‘the White Widow’

Samantha Lewthwaite, ‘the White Widow’, appears as she always does in any UK tabloid press story about Somalia, now an operational mastermind (the White Widow with the White Cat?) in command of ‘a terrifying army of 200 female jihadists… trained to infiltrate governments, carry out suicide attacks’. Which is interesting, as that would make al-Shabaab’s fighting component about 15% female, the highest in any Islamist terror group to date.

Tom Evans, ‘the White Beast’

‘The White Widow’ now has a companion on the pages of the tabloids – ‘The White Beast’, Tom Evans, who was killed in the assault on a Kenyan military base in Lamu County in June. The Buckinghamshire born also-ran was seen (in the midst of a night attack) and heard (over the sound of a fire fight) by a member of the Kenyan Defence Forces, in his final glorious moments shouting encouragement to his comrades (in English, oddly). The BBC duly regurgitated that fiction.

Putting aside the racist assumption that underlies the inference that al-Shabaab needs a White Something to function, the Daily Mail’s ‘interpretation’ of reality (which is not an isolated interpretation) prompts a number of questions.

Firstly, is it not possible that there might not actually be a Global Jihad, but that instead there is a series of loosely linked, small but similar and yet also distinct groups all fighting their own particular corner? Some groups may swell in influence and then decline (al-Qa’ida, for instance). Others may remain isolated. Marriages of convenience may be formed and dissolved as the circumstances suit. So why do we seem to be encouraging a expanding, unified Caliphate? Why do we demand that it be centralized and coordinated?

Those who really understand al-Shabaab and the Somalis knows that they are unwilling servants – al-Shabaab, for instance, would never be led by a foreigner as al-Qa’ida in Iraq was (by a Jordanian and then an Egyptian). Even individual foreign fighters have never sat comfortably with al-Shabaab – Faisal was betrayed to AMISOM by Godane, meeting his end in an ambush at a checkpoint, al-Ameriki met his death in the hinterland at the hands of al-Shabaab’s internal security force, the Amniyat, along with a British-Pakistani colleague. Al-Shabaab even calls Somalis holding foreign passports ‘foreign fighters’. Foreign fighters heading to Somalia, be warned.

Al-Shabaab might well shift allegiance to IS, but this has to be seen in context – al-Shabaab received very little from the declaration of allegiance to al-Qa’ida (some bomb making expertise; a media team) and it was striking that the death of its leader, Godane, did not warrant any recognition by al-Qa’ida’s leadership. Da’esh should be aware of this, just as it should be aware of the internal fractures within al-Shabaab between nationalists and global jihadists, between the young footsoldiers and the older (30s) leaders, in the ever-present clan dynamics within al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab’s leaders might not even know what its members in northern Kenya are planning, or its members in Mogadishu.

And yet we feel obliged to centralize and empower them, because that is what we would do.

Which leads to a wider question: a question about truth, and perception, and reality. Truth seems to have become malleable in the face of fulfilling or even shaping expectations, and not just in the Daily Mail.

This isn’t such a revelation as it might seem – as the American political commentator James P Farwell notes, the obsession with telling the truth within institutions is actually an obsession with telling selected truths to suit a purpose. It is no coincidence that the motto of NATO’s Strategic Communications department is ‘Perception becomes Reality.’ Truth has become abstract.

But the problem with the Daily Mail’s abstraction of the truth about al-Shabaab’s possible shift of allegiance to Da’esh (and it is still only a possibility) is that it is shaping the perception on which future reality may well be based. And that is precisely what the likes of al-Shabaab and Da’esh rely on the media to do.

John Ford advises, ‘When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, choose the legend.’ But that doesn’t mean that when you are presented with the choice between the truth and the nightmare scenario, you have to choose the nightmare scenario. Because it might just become reality.


Dead Man Hopping

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‘The brave man dies once – the coward a thousand times’

SOMALI PROVERB

04OCT14        A UPDF[1] soldier is waving an AK at me and shouting in his tribal language with a few words of English thrown in, the hope being that I will understand why he is shouting at me. A heavy set, very dark specimen of Ugandan military prowess, he is wearing a helmet with a humungous camouflage cover and a ragged set of body armour over a grey t-shirt and camouflage trousers, topped (or should it be bottomed?) with pink flip-flops. He is pointing the AK towards but not quite at me and fortunately holds it by the magazine (so at least there’s not as much of a chance of it going off).

I think I’m right about which way he is gesticulating so I slowly lean that way towards the ground and make display of splaying out my hand. The watercolour brush (Windsor & Newton No 10 Flat Sable) falls onto the rocks. I lean towards the other side and place the watercolour sketchbook carefully down (I don’t want the soluble graphite tonal wash for the sea to pool or smudge). I stand up straight again, with a slight tinge of pain in my foot – gout attack imminent, thanks to the diet of red meat and beer that the South Africans I lodge with are feeding me.

Lastly I flick out my earphones but I can still hear the music, now tinny and distant. All this seems to have calmed the Ugandan and he shouts slightly more slowly.

‘Al-Qa’ida! (A short burst of tribal language.) Okay? (More tribal language.)’ I look over my shoulder in the direction he is pointing – out to sea. Al-Qa’ida commandoes raiding ashore? All I can see are two Signals guys fishing on the next outcrop along and a rainfront beyond heading towards us.

I look back towards him and he seems happier now that he has shouted at me for a while. It’s my turn to point – to the compound on the other side of the runway. ‘I am from there,’ I say, ssslllooowwwlllyyy. He adopts a facial expression that shows that he understands. I reckon I have half an hour to forty five minutes before the rain reaches me, so I sit down again and try to regain my focus on the watercolour sketch. He stands and watches over my shoulder as I mix paint.

I blank out his presence in the same way I blank out elements of the landscape that spoil the composition of the sketch.

Every now and then I feel the need to turn my back on Mog and face the other way. This has been one of those days, where I feel the need to look out to sea.

A sea of troubles…


A low tent sits at the back of the Ugandan Field Hospital, hidden in a small clearing hacked out of the thorn zariba that covers most of the area to the west of the Mogadishu Airport, scattered in clumps along the coastline There’s a smell of rot not unlike like cheese as we dip down to enter the tent. It sounds like there is an alarm going off but it’s the cicadas, Hassan tells me.

And here he is. Tall and thin with dark skin, looking more black African than Somali, a light bulb-shaped head with short hair, a small goatee, oddly fashioned side-burns that are like mutton chops fashioned into spikes, a green vest and a pair of red basketball shorts. A long thin leg ends in a massive flat foot in a sandal that looks like a cartoon version of a real leg (it’s reminiscent of the style of the Asterix comic strips). You could almost miss it if you weren’t aware already – he only has one leg. The shorts are deliberately long to conceal the amputation of the left leg mid thigh and it’s only when we enter the tent that I see properly the patches of dried blood on the bandages at the end of the stump. And then it’s hard to take your eyes away from it.

He is turning his head to the side, probably embarrassed at the attention he (or is it the stump?) is getting and it’s hard to get a proper look at his face. His hand curves back at an odd angle and he rests his chin on it, but then tucks both into his shoulder. If it was a girl it would be coy.

There’s a bit of f*cking around with the Ugandans (a Colonel doctor, a Corporal medic) who has been wasting our time since we met him – taking us to see the women’s fistula clinic, a new hospital block that has just been built, a containerised operating theatre… when he knows all we want to see is Jake the Jihadi Peg. The medic arses around by making the detainee walk with crutches when his leg and arms have obviously atrophied in the gap between being captured and now. He is freshly post-op (although he does not smell fresh). The Colonel adjusts the crutches again and again and every time puts the detainee through obvious agony. Eventually Hassan intervenes and sits down on the camp bed beside him and chats to him amiably in Somali for a while before nodding to me. Guled simultaneously translates into my ear as Hassan talks. I tap the Ugandan photographer and point to Hopalong, just in case he decides to film a joint in the tent frame or my shoes instead of a prized captured al-Shabaab footsoldier (previously a feetsoldier). He flips out the screen of the digital video camera and turns it on, then twists the screen in such a way as to make filming as awkward as possible.

‘To start with what’s your name?’ says Hassan via Guled.

‘I am Ismail Mohamud Issak.’

The scribbling in the squared hard back A5 Moleskine begins. ‘Issak,’ circled. ‘Out of normal tribal homeland?’ The Issak heartland is up north Somaliland but there are patches of Issak down here around Mogadishu – being the capital, it is a bit of a melting pot. But a melting pot owned by the Hawiya, nonetheless.

‘How old are you?’

‘I am 21 years old.’

‘When did you come to this hospital and why?’

‘I don’t remember when I was brought here, but all I know is that I was brought here wounded.’ (‘Unconscious on arrival’ – he is telling the truth, he was unconscious. Most people would faint if their leg was taking off mid shin by a Dushka 12.7mm machine gun round, powerful enough to penetrate armour.)

‘Where were you wounded?

‘I was wounded in the leg.’

Oh, so you’re a smart c*nt are you? I wouldn’t be acting the smart c*nt right now if I were you. ‘0:28 Attempts to conceal location of capture with smart answer’.

Hassan isn’t going to let this go, though. ‘I can see that as your leg has been amputated, but what brought about the situation where you came to be wounded?’

‘I was in fighting.’ He shifts around, ostensibly to make himself a bit more comfortable but more likely because he is being forced to give us information he doesn’t want to reveal.

‘Who were you fighting against, these Ugandan AMISOM forces?’ Hassan points at Major Tee Hee, the Colonel and the medic, all loitering in the corner of the tent and restless at the loss of control of ‘their’ prize.

‘No, I was fighting against the government.’

‘So, you were fighting against the government forces and these AMISOM forces came to help them?’

‘At that particular moment, I didn’t know where these forces (he signals dismissively towards Tee Hee and the medic) were, but at that time I was only fighting the government forces.’ This isn’t going the way we expected – there are already signs of defiance and no a hint of the co-operation Major Tee Hee promised us.

‘That fighting, where it take place?’ I can’t help myself, ‘where DID it take place,’ to Guled. Might as well give him an English lesson while we’re here.

‘At the Dabka Junction.’ I check the aerial photograph later – it’s on the border of the areas held by al-Shabaab and the government forces.

‘Where did you come from to start the fighting at Dabka? Or were you based in Dabka itself?’

Again the detainee raises himself slightly, again as if to make himself more comfortable. ‘I belong to al-Shabaab and we are based in the area around Bakara Market.’ For the first time I catch his eye and catch a flash of resilience mixed with contempt, a little glint of red that I can’t pin down to either a reflection or a deeper flash of mad fury from far behind the sockets of his eyes. It’s time for me to shift on the camp bed opposite. This isn’t what we expected at all.

‘On that day, what were your orders?’

‘On that day we had no particular orders – we just came out to fight. As a result of that fighting I was wounded in the leg and was brought here.’ Hassan has managed to catch him in the afterglow of his eyeballing me and off-footed him (although he only has one foot to off and he is sitting down anyway). Is he deliberately protecting his superiors but inadvertently portraying them as not being in control? Or is al-Shabaab using the ultimate in Aufragstaktik, where the direction is simple but at the same time so widely disseminated that every member can independently operate knowing that they are still ‘on plan’?

At the same time both the detainee and Hassan realise the significance of the slip. Before he can add anything, Hassan interjects, ‘You did not ask your superiors why you were fighting the government? You just went out fighting without asking?’

‘It is not something that we are told to do, it is something that is in our hearts and something that we wanted to do.’

‘So what were you fighting for?’

‘I believe in the Holy Jihad.’

‘So when did you join al-Shabaab?’

‘Four or five months ago. I am a new recruit.’

‘And before that, what did you do?’

‘I was a teacher, in Barava District (a town in Lower Shebelle).’

‘Were you teaching in an ordinary school or in a Q’ranic school?’

‘I was teaching in an ordinary school, I was teaching Science and English. The semester finished and I came back to Mogadishu. And when I went back for the next semester I had a quarrel with the administration. What happened was, you know, nepotism, my place was filled by another person so I became jobless.’ He clenches his fist as he speaks and it stays clenched as he speaks, gently but steadily thumping the mattress. ‘So I left the Barava District and I went to Bulo Marer village. In Bulo Marer I did not have a family house, my father and mother, they were not there, so I had to stay with some friends. I tried to find some kind of job while staying with my friends but every place I went, there were all the privileges and the nepotism so I could not find any work. And while I was there I contemplated the whole situation, the situation in Somalias, and so I made up my mind, my decision, to join the mujahideen, al-Shabaab.’

Here we go. I star this section in my notes. The first protracted answer begins to give us what we want. It’s all standard jihadi background – a scientific leaning (the only reason he has such good English is that sciences tended to be taught in English here, hence the odd combination of teaching subjects), a clash with both the existing, a seemingly immutable system (he comes from a major clan but is in the heartland of another, bigger one) and a run in with a fickle, unfair authority figure are pretty standard proto-jihadi experiences. And the constant repetition that the decision was HIS… almost as if he is expecting the accusation that he was forced/duped into joining. Or perhaps he is trying to convince himself. I can’t tell if he is clever or stupid.

‘So who did you meet to put you into al-Shabaab?’ (‘Get.’)

‘I went to no-one but some of my friends with whom I was living at that moment were themselves al-Shabaab. I was recruited there and worked as a soldier in al-Shabaab.’

‘Who brought you to Mogadishu?’

‘I was for several months in Bulo Merer and Merka town. Then I just thought that I would come to Mogadishu for a change, a personal decision, because those places were somewhat rural, I wanted to come to the big city. So I came to Mogadishu.’

Hassan decides to rattle the bars of his cage. ‘So in al-Shabaab,,do you have the freedom to go from one place to another? Without permission?’

The detainee glares at Hassan at the suggestion that he was ordered to do something. ‘It’s not a secular system, it’s a religious system. The religion gives you freedom that a person can go from one place to another. We have our own system. But at that point I took a small holiday. That is how I came to Mogadishu, when I took that holiday with permission.’

‘Then why did you go fighting when you were on holiday?’ 

‘I met my friends who were, at that time, going for fighting, so I just went with them.’ A fighting holiday by the seaside. Pity he went down this line, he would have enjoyed Britland.

‘So you unintentionally just went with some people who were going fighting?’

‘No, I did not just join them from the street. I went with them intentionally.’

There’s a danger we’re going to get tied up in this so Hassan decides a slightly different approach. ‘How many of your fighters died in the fighting?’

‘They did not die. They went to heaven and will live forever. There were two of them.’

Hassan looks at me but there’s no need. I didn’t even need the translation from Gouled. The detainee rose visibly on the bed and turned to me, square on.

We’ve got a proper hard core one on our hands.

‘And how many of you got wounded?’

‘Only me.’ He is still reared up on the bed and stays like this for a while, then turns slowly to Hassan. ‘What are you, an ordinary citizen, a reporter… Or something else?’ Hassan ignores the question and the detainee ignores Hassan ignoring him. He turns to face me again but slowly slumps as the questions continue, tiring with the effort of maintaining his posture of resistance.

‘Where are your father and your mother?’ asks Hassan.

‘My father died but my mother is still alive.’

‘When did your father die?’

‘A year ago.’

‘How did he die? Killed or a natural death?’

‘Natural causes.’

‘What did your father do for a living?’

‘He was a businessman, buying and selling livestock. In Wanleyeyn District in Mogadishu.’

‘Do you what disease he died of?’

‘I don’t know, it was a sickness that came from God, maybe it was his heart, maybe he died of diahorrea, I don’t know. I was not with him at the time.’

‘Where is your mother?’

‘She is here in Mogadishu.’

‘But you are not from Mogadishu, you are from Barava.’

‘I was born in Mogadishu. I went to Barava all by myself. My family was still in Mogadishu. I went to Barava jobseeking. My mother is in Medina Distict (in Mogadishu), where I was born.’

‘What does your mother do?’

‘She is a housewife.’

‘So who maintains the family?’

‘I have brothers who work. I have four brothers. Two are here in Mogadishu, the other two are in Puntland. All are older than me; I am the youngest so they are the ones who maintain the family. I also have two sisters. The oldest is married; the youngest of the family is still too young to be married.’

‘And your wife?’

‘I have no wife.’

‘Now what is your feeling, as a young man of twenty years old, towards this fighting where you lost your leg?’

‘My leg was amputated on the will of God. Everything that will happen to you has already been put in the book by Allah so you cannot avoid it. That is what I believe.’ He tries to rear up again but slumps back. ‘Everything that is going to happen to you is going to happen to you. And in the future what is going to happen to me? I don’t know, but it is not something I can stop so I am not worried about what is going to happen to me in the future.’

(Predestination, I write in my notebook. Hmmm… You probably should be worried, my one-legged friend.)

‘Okay, now: if you were cleared of sickness and allowed to leave this hospital, would you go back and join al-Shabaab?’

‘That question is too difficult for me to answer. I cannot make any decision, I am a patient in a hospital, so it is not something I can talk about.’

‘Are there al-Shabaab members who tried to visit you or reach you?’

‘There is no way they can pay me a visit!’ He laughs genuinely for a second at the absurdity of the suggestion then realises that it is not so absurd. The AMISOM base is porous and there’s no real way the Ugandans could tell an al-Shabaab member from a normal Somali. And then he realises where Hassan is going with this line and, for the first time, his eyes flicker in the beginnings of panic from Hassan to me to Major Tee Hee to Guled to Hassan to the medic to me to the Colonel to Hassan.

‘Do they go and visit your mother or enquire after you through her?’

‘They don’t know my mother. My mother does not know I’m here.’

A pause.

‘But, at least, do they know that you are a patient undertaking treatment in the AMISOM hospital?’

‘No, I don’t think they know.’

A pause.

‘So, will you go back to them when you get out of the hospital?’

‘I told you, I cannot make a decision now.’

‘At least, what is your idea? Have your ideas changed ideologically? Do you still believe in them? The ideology, which was taking part in the Holy Jihad, has anything changed in your mind?’

‘This is not an ideology. These are words from God’s book. Those words are from the Holy Book of the Q’ran and Allah’s words never change, they will always remain the same and I must follow them.’

‘So does that mean you are going back to the jihad?’

‘I am telling you, the Holy Book remains the same. The book remains the same. And I am telling you that the jihad will never change and that is what I trust, I trust in the Holy Q’ran.’

‘Is it possible that you might change your mind and not go fighting the government when you get out?’

‘I cannot make decisions now, I am in hospital.’

We’re starting to go around in circles so we pause and I tap the Ugandan to turn off the video camera (which, it transpires, he did after the first few minutes because he was bored… But we only find that out later). Hassan turns off the digital audio recorder. We’re finished, though, we’ve got what we want.

But Major Tee Hee isn’t finished.

‘This…’ He swipes at the campbed with a thin branch he has picked up along the way and has been chewing throughout ‘the interview’. ‘This is no use to me, this… CHATTER. What use is this to me?’ He is performing for the Colonel who, although he is a doctor and out of his particular chain of command, is from the same tribe as the Force Commander and will therefore be reporting back on Major Tee Hee‘s performance over red wine later this evening. My jet lighter, which I thought was still in my daysack, appears in Major Tee Hee’s hand. (It’s the same ease with which my silver-framed Rayban Aviators appeared on the bridge of Major Tee Hee’s nose earlier in the day.) ‘You have found out whatever it is you need to know,’ he says contemptuously, ‘but there are things that we need to know.’

The scene descends into a colour mix – the aubergine black-purple of the skin, the beige of the bandages, the blue-white of the jet lighter flame that changes to a yellow-orange flame. But then only one colour, red. Again in the eye – but no longer defiant red from deep inside but instead a reflection in a wide, petrified-with-fear then contorted-in-agony eye.


Later, listening to Cicada’s cover of Roxy Music’s ‘Same Old Scene’ again and again on the iPod because it seems like the right soundtrack for this episode in my Personal War on Terror. Will this line of thwarted, awkward, bullied young men ever end? It ends for them in a self-destructive, sexual flash of red (unfortunately it’s usually a group experience although only one participant is consenting). Then another appears from somewhere else, different but the same.

He’s just like the sad little electrician from Casablanca whose suicide vest failed to go off in the marketplace in the predominantly Shi’a area of Kadimiyah in Baghdad, landing him in a US detention facility and eventually earning him the pleasure of my company for an hour or two. I had imagined him back in Casablanca, sitting alienated at the end of the dinner table as his four older, graduate sisters and his Moroccan Navy officer father chatted around, over and through him. No wonder he was easy prey for the recruiter in the local mosque, cunningly making him think he had decided to join the Holy jihad under his own steam, saving up the money to travel circuitously to Iraq to join the fight against the infidels – and to be handed not a rifle but a suicide vest.

And now this one with all the same experiences that produce the vulnerabilities, the same flaws. It’s a pity, at the level of the individual there were points where he could have been steered in another direction, DEFUSED. But this one has passed that point, just as the effeminate Moroccan sparky had.

In different circumstances, a lifetime of obscurity in a jail cell would be a most suitable conclusion (a fate that genuinely chills the suicide bomber).

But this is Somalia. Used up, we handed him over to the forces of the Transitional Federal Government this morning in the knowledge that the sentence was death – but not on his terms.

As I go over the scene, again and again with the music blaring and the brush hovering over the watercolour palette but never making a mark, I catch a dark shape at the periphery of my vision, just over my left shoulder. Someone is striding up the slope towards where I’m sitting.


The Ugandan eventually gets bored – he turns and wanders back up to the headland to one of the two gun positions that face out to sea to deter any attempts at an assault on the camp from that angle. Stupid muzungoo, painting here in Mog, he’ll tell his two comrades when he clambers in under the plastic sheet that provides them with alternate protection from the sun and the spray from the sea (and now, in Mog’s rainy season, the brief but thunderous showers).

But there was imagined alternative resolution – the speed draw of the SIG P226 9 millimetre pistol from the back of my shorts, the pad of the first joint of my thumb activating the laser designator on the pistol as the barrel comes up on line with his head and torso and the flash of red on first his chest (crack-crack, knocking him off his feet as the full force of the first two rounds impacts him in the main plate of his body armour, the shock forcing him to drop the AK at the same time) and then, standing over him as the red dot that shows me where the rounds will land moves up his body and I see, for the second time, the red flash in another man’s pupils.

But the Ugandan survived. Not everyone does.


[1] Ugandan People’s Defence Force, the main contributors to AMISOM until the Kenyan intervention in 2011

Off the Road and Into the Bush

The Campaign Against Al-Shabaab Moves Into Its Next Phase Prayer During Fighting

An al-Shabaab fighter bows and gives thanks while his colleagues rain down fire on paralysed AMISOM troops

With the fall in rapid succession last week of the towns of Baardheere and Dinsoor to the Somali National Army (SNA), supported by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), it would appear that al-Shabaab is going through one of its periods of tactical withdrawal or, to be more accurate, re-posturing in the face of overwhelming military force. But nothing is ever quite as it seems in Somalia, particularly once you move out of the major cities, once you get off the road and into the bush (a metaphor that will recur in this piece). The SNA and AMISOM have claimed the seizure of Baardheere and Dinsoor – but what do the terms SNA and AMISOM mean in real terms in the hinterland of Bay and Gedo and Jubba? In the case of Baardheere it seems to have meant Interim Jubba Authority forces (formerly the Ras Kamboni militia, now fighting under the flag of the regional administration) supported by Kenyan Defence Forces airstrikes: in the case of Dinsoor it seems to have meant the Suffist militia, Ahla Sunna wa-Jama, supported by the Ethiopians. Across both operations, the US struck at targets with drones. The extent to which this was a coordinated operation between the SNA and AMISOM is debatable: it seems suspiciously like militias and the neighboring countries who capriciously support them, with the occasional Hellfire thrown in for good measure, latterly retrofitted with an operational name (‘Operation Jubba Corridor’) and a sense of an operational plan unfolding. The fact that both Ethiopia and Kenya have felt the sting of al-Shabaab in the past few months and feel obliged to retaliate adds credence to this reading of events. Or maybe it was planned back in Mogadishu. It just doesn’t feel like it. IMG_1240

SNA/AMISOM recently seized Baardheere & Dinsoor – or did they?


Al-Shabaab’s response was familiar. Its attempt to force a bloody urban denouement upon AMISOM during Ramadan 2011 badly backfired (although it was, nonetheless, bloody) and al-Shabaab’s response to its catastrophic losses was to simply melt away, mostly into the hinterland, some into plain clothes and anonymity of the urban environment. The successive AMISOM operations in 2014 to secure swathes of the countryside, first ‘Eagle’ and then ‘Indian Ocean’, were met with similar ‘tactical withdrawals’ and major objectives like the coastal town of Barawe were taken with little resistance. So too in Baardhere and Dinsoor, an orderly retreat. Radio Andalus, one of al-Shabaab’s propaganda nodes, was quietly shifted out of Baardhere and relocated, allegedly to Saaco, further down the Jubba River valley and towards the coast. But al-Shabaab is running out of places to withdraw to: Saaco, Bu’aale and Jilib along with a few villages along the way are all that remain in terms of conurbations. After Jilib there is only the sea. Admittedly, Jilib will be the proverbial ‘hard nut to crack’ – in the delta of the Jubba and Shabelle Rivers with the key crossing point being a bridge in the town of Kamsuuma, Jilib would be easy to defend. But it seems unlikely that al-Shabaab will choose to defend.


Advancing Thru Thicket

Al-Shabaab fighters move through the concealing scrub that covers much of the south of the country

Looking at the map and going on the images we have built up from the mass media, Somalia probably seems flat, featureless, a wasteland. But maps can be as deceptive as media reporting occasionally is, and the presence of the Jubba River challenges those preconceptions of Somalia being an arid expanse. Some parts of Somalia are indeed arid expanses. But major rivers, notably the Jubba and the Shabelle, crisscross southern Somalia and not so long ago the country was a bread-basket for the region. (Somalia, in fact, was once the world’s largest producer of bananas. You don’t achieve that status by being a wasteland.) But 25 years of chaos left the country disorganized and vulnerable to natural disaster. Just for good measure, al-Shabaab targeted the minority clans who specialized in farming. Agriculture collapsed. But much of southern Somalia, outside of the conurbations and roads, is scrub, highlighting the adage about the difference between the map and the territory.


If you have had the displeasure of viewing any of al-Shabaab’s most recent videos, which focus on ambushes of AMISOM convoys in a rural environment, you will be familiar with this scrub. Patchy, but generally above head height. Through this maze-like terrain the al-Shabaab fighters plan, scout, ambush. AMISOM Monging

AMISOM forces ‘monging’ while under fire

And it is from this angle, through the bushes, that we see the AMISOM troops through an al-Shabaab viewfinder: their armoured vehicles immobilized, they flounder, wander without aim as they are simultaneously filmed and fired at by al-Shabaab. At not point in either video do AMISOM troops appear to return fire, but that might be clever editing. The al-Shabaab fighters, on the other hand, seem confident and capable in this environment: orders are given around a model that would score highly at Brecon; every RPG round that is fired is celebrated with a fist-bump to camera; one fighter even pauses to bow down and offer a prayer in the midst of firing at the paralysed AMISOM troops. This terrain is definitely home to al-Shabaab, like the mountains are to a jaeger. It is into this terrain that al-Shabaab will most likely dissolve for the next phase of the campaign. Most likely they will shift southwest, towards the Boni Forest, a huge tract of land that was formerly a national park, an area that straddles the border with Kenya. At the same time others will dissolve into the cities. (The urban campaign is a different matter, requiring a different approach – and a different blog post.) IMG_1241

The most likely course of action for al-Shabaab: withdrawal into the bush


As al-Shabaab shifts away from the pretense of controlling territory, the SNA and AMISOM will be required to adopt different tactics, ones learnt and unlearnt in cycles by western forces, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the SNA, only now forming its first full integrated, multi-clan units and still woefully under-manned, under-equipped and under-trained, the shift to counter insurgency is probably still beyond their capabilities: conventional war still escapes them. But they do have the advantage of being part of the communities they will operate amongst, and that could be critical. AMISOM, on the other hand, stands a better chance of adapting to the nature of counter insurgency since many of its contributing nations have experience of bush wars (notably the Ugandans): but there is still an element of chance. AMISOM is lacking in critical equipment, particularly air power but also in communications, command and control and other key areas. But they do have the will to fight, as they have proven on countless occasions. If they can adapt to the changing nature of the fight they, along with the SNA, have a chance of placing a limit on the influence al-Shabaab can wield from the bush. A starting point would be permanently securing the areas they have recovered, not just during daylight hours (one of those cyclical lessons western forces re-learnt too late in Afghanistan).

‘BREAKING: Tonight #AlShabaab are back in at least 11 villages/towns in Bay & Gedo regions captured by #AMISOM troops this week,’

Reported Hamza Mohammed of al-Jazeera on July 23rd, just after the fall of Baardhere and Dinsoor. This fleeting experience of government influence is something that Afghans would recognise and it is makes a mockery of claims of a dividend in recovered areas. Along with security, the umbrella under which all other facets of governance can shelter, providing something tangibly different to what went before under al-Shabaab is desperately important but has, up to now, failed to materialise. But it is not too late: plans for ‘governance in a box’ exist, shipping containers ready to open up and reveal a clinic, a court, a school. They just need to be implemented , or ‘government’ will come to mean something that only exists in the daytime, surrounded by soldiers and not worth the risk of nocturnal retribution for ‘collaboration’. But it is not just the recovered towns, it is the arteries that run between those towns that will be critical to consolidating the recovered areas. The symbolism of securing those routes in the consciousness of the population in the hinterland cannot be understated. Many of the previously recovered towns exist under a state of siege. To achieve this, the SNA and AMISOM will have to adapt and the will also have to take the battle to al-Shabaab: they will have to get out of their vehicles, get off the road and head into the bush: literally and metaphorically. RPG Fist Bump

An al-Shabaab fighter gives a fist-bump in celebration after firing an RPG at an AMISOM vehicle