October 2017: That Was The Month That Was

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l-r: the aftermath of the October 14th bombing; the demonstration of anti-aS feeling; and the Mayor of Mogadishu with BBC journalists

OCTOBER began with a continuation of the divisive alignment of a block of Federal Member States (FMSs) – Puntland, Galmudug & Southwest State – with Saudi Arabia, the UAE & others versus Qatar (and Turkey): this went against the Federal Government of Somali’s (FGS’s) neutral posture in the Gulf Crisis (which was read by many as being pro-Qatari, pro-Turkish). Unaligned but nonetheless opportunistic Puntland intervened and offered to convene an FMS conference, but without the FGS: the result was the formation of a council of FMSs to no obvious purpose.

 

Turkey opened its military academy in Mogadishu and made a number of commitments to support Somalia bilaterally, including direct delivery of security in the capital. The President travelled to Sudan: amongst other things, Sudan offered to print the new Somali banknote. Discussion of the constitution continued to ‘circle the airport’, partly due to the now obligatory objections by the FMSs to anything that came out of the FGS. The civil service and the security forces revealed that they had not been paid since the new administration had taken power in FEB17 and the Chief of Police in Puntland tried to shoot a political rival but ended up hitting his own deputy. The Minister of Defence and the head of the Somali National Army resigned for reasons that were unclear.

 

Then, on the afternoon of Saturday October 14th, the largest terrorist bomb ever detonated on the continent, causing the greatest slaughter of civilians in a terrorist incident in Africa went off.

 

In the blurry aftermath of the incident, the international response was slow: but the usual capping of casualty figures was subverted by accurate reporting from a civil society ambulance agency, Aamin Ambulance, and it quickly became clear that the usual, magical figure of 20 dead had been surpassed (and, in fact, multiplied by a factor of at least 15 and possibly 20).  The local media (news and social) made it clear this was not another ‘bomb goes off in Mogadishu’. The story grabbed headlines around the world, although the sanctimonious chose to ignore this and bemoaned the differentiation between first and third worlds in terms of the value of human life.

 

Aamin Ambulance, Turkey, The Guardian newspaper & BBC News, the British-Somali novelist, Nadifa Mohamed, and the Mayor of Mogadishu were overt in their support and received plaudits. Others were more demure but the effort was nonetheless significant. Robowe, the controversial founder member of aS turned not-aS-member-but-not-FGS-supporter-either, condemned the attack with vigour.

 

The story began to twist and turn. aS declined to claim responsibility for the attack and the gullible speculated about who had planned the attack (ISIS/Da’esh faction or maybe Qatar – whose embassy was damaged in the attack- or perhaps AMISOM and so on), despite the device coming from an aS-controlled area and another element of the attack team being captured and confessing all. But massive anti-aS fervour gripped Mogadishu and the rest of the country, the red head band becoming a symbol of the rejection of aS and its un-Somali values.

 

The President declared war on aS (again) and then left for a tour of East African capitals (minus election-plagued Kenya), with the aim of engendering fighting spirit amongst the AMISOM contributing countries: the Prime Minister left for Turkey and visited the injured who were being treated in Turkish hospitals. But at the same time, former PM Sharmarke and a former President conducted a spoiler visit to UAE, a hint of a return to ‘business as usual’.

 

As the month ended, the Director General of the National Intelligence & Security Agency (DG NISA) blasted the international community for their lack of tangible support to the Somali security forces in an Op-Ed on the front page of the New York Times, keeping Somali at the top of the news agenda. aS attacked the Nas Hablood 2 Hotel in a text-book complex attack that shifted the conversation once again. This time the government and the security forces were the subject of popular ire and DG NISA and the Commissioner of the Somali Police Force joined the former Minister of Defence and the head of the SNA down at the Job Centre.

 

For a moment in mid-October it seemed like Somalia had reached a semi-mythical ‘turning point’, much like the attack on a group of graduating medical students in the Shamo Hotel in DEC09 (which was instrumental in Robowe’s split with aS). Depressingly, by the end of October, it seemed like Somalia was already back to ‘business as usual’.


 

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.


 

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.

 

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. 

Death by Hashtag

Journalists now risk crucifixion on social media if they offend the sensibilities of Africans – maybe that’s a good thing.

DeathbyHashtag

As famous as the oral tradition of the Somalis is, that doesn’t mean that they don’t occasionally commit things to paper. As it transpires, and in spite of high (although mainly rural) levels of illiteracy, there is actually a voracious appetite for seeing the Somali language in print.

Riding on the back of the success of the long-running and internationally recognised Hargeisa International Book Festival, a local activist, Diini, decided Mogadishu needed its own book festival. So, on a rainy morning in late August (it rains in Mogadishu – not a lot of people know that) at the City Palace Hotel, books perched like birds on the hand and the poets and authors of the city strutted their stuff in front of an audience of hundreds. (On the two subsequent days of the festival, that became thousands: people waiting for the weekend, people waiting to see if it’s worth the risk.)

The President attends: as an academic, he is obviously a book lover. Ugaaso Abukar Boocow, made internationally famous by her jocular Instagram miniatures of life for a Diaspora returner (@ugaasada), is also there. (Another surprise: she’s quite small. And bossy. And very good looking.) The wifi, generously provided by the telecoms company, Hormuud, buckles under the weight of postings.

And then, amidst all exuberance and the superlatives, the #mogadishurising and #theafricathemedianevershowsyou: a bomb blast.

Not an actual bomb blast. The City Palace Hotel is right beside the headquarters of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), and couldn’t be safer. The BBC provide the bomb blast. Mary Harper, a known Somaliphile and author of ‘Getting Somalia Wrong’, publishes a positive piece about the festival. So far so good. But the image attached to the article is the stereotype of Mogadishu: a street desolated by an explosion.

A new hashtag appears, started by Mohamed Ahmed Cantoobo (@cantoobo), another activist, who runs Act for Somalia: #someonetellmaryharper.

#someonetellmaryharper #Somalia is moving forward regardless of how @mary_harper and BBC chooses to portray

Others agree:

#someonetellmaryharper enough is enough, Somalis are defining their own narrative, and stereotypes won’t define us

@MogadishuNews

And, after the successful conclusion of the Book Fair without incident, still further:

In Mogadishu, ricocheting bullets and bouncing bazookas is replaced by retractable and quill pens #someonetellmaryharper

@Mazario2012

Abdihakim Ainte spreads the word:

Hello Kenyans: this hashtag #someonetellmaryharper is equivalent to #someonetellcnn. Speaks of Somali narrative. Please use and promote.

@AbdihakimAinte

#someonetellmaryharper is a development of another hashtag, developed during another case of western-media-offends-African-sensibilities-and-gets-hashtagged-to-death, #someonetellcnn. In the run up to the Obama visit to Kenya. CNN ran a feature (from the US, not from its Nairobi bureau), noting that POTUS was headed to ‘a region that’s a hotbed of terror’ – provoking a ferocious response from Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) using the hashtag #someonetellcnn and eventually forcing an apology from CNN in the face of cancelled advertising contracts.

The BBC response was diversionary, muted. ‘An editor chose the photo,’ claims Mary Harper, ‘not me.’ That’s quite possible: the BBC has resisted pestering (mainly from this callsign, but also from BBC Africa staff) to update the map of the country it uses online, a map shows al-Shabaab controlling most of southern and central Somalia. It did: until 2012. Even last month the BBC used the out of date map for stories detailing the fall of towns like Baardheere and Dinsoor, deep in the heart of what used to be al-Shabaab territory. But the BBC doesn’t need to worry about big advertising contracts in the way CNN does. So the out-of-date map continues to appear. They are the BBC, after all.

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The BBC map of Somalia – al-Shabaab controlled territory in green

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What al-Shabaab actually controls (in red)

After six days, use of the #someonetellmaryharper dwindles. (That’s double the normal duration for a ‘Trending’ hashtag. Somalis are persistent.)

But BBC or not, western journalists beware: young, articulate, connected Africans, brought up on Binyavanga Wainaina’s ‘How to Write About Africa’, are watching out for the next stereotype, the next attempt to use Africa to prove your adventure-journalist creds. And they have a hashtag with your name on it.

Eating & Tweeting

If Facebook offered passports, most Somalis would now be living in Facebook


UK ambassador to Somalia, Harriet Mathews, during the Eat &Tweet event

 ‘If Facebook offered passports, most Somalis would now be living in Facebook,’ says Fatuma Abdulahi, the editor of the popular Somalia-focussed website, Wariye Post.

She is right: Somalis have taken to social media with even more enthusiasm than the rest of the (connected) planet, and not just to share selfies or pictures of cats.

‘Everyone has heard about the oral culture of the Somalis, that we didn’t have an agreed written form of the language until the 70s,’ she continues, ‘but what isn’t mentioned is that the oral culture left out women, young people and minority groups: social media now offers those groups a voice.’

 
And there are plenty of those voices around the table at the British Embassy in Mogadishu for an ‘Eat & Tweet’ hosted by the new ambassador, Harriet Mathews. ‘Only one ‘t’ in Mathews, otherwise you won’t find me on Twitter and someone else will be getting bombarded with hashtags,’ she notes.

 
There are journalists (Radio Goobjoog, Mogadishu News, Radio Dalsan, CCTV Africa), a rep from the National Union of Somali Journalists and media activists like Idilay Bilan. All are young: this seems to be a young man’s – and woman’s – game. Others couldn’t make it today but will hopefully be included in future Eat & Tweets: the phenomenally popular Canadian-Somali Instagramer, Ugaaso Abukar Boocow; the photographer behind ‘@MogadishuImages’ who is sharing the raw beauty of Mogadishu every day; and many, many more. The event even has its own hashtag: #Media4Somalia and the participants are encouraged to Tweet as they eat, like the name says.

 
It’s not long before comments are coming in: ‘what’s on the menu? Hilib geel [camel meat] or curry?’ asks Dahir Kulane, a popular Twitterer who could not make the event. (It’s chicken curry. It is the British Embassy, after all.)

 
But Somalis don’t generally spend their time on social media sharing photos of their lunch: they have more important issues to discuss. So the camera does NOT, on this occasion, eat first.

 
‘The incident in Marka, that’s the biggest story right now,’ notes the Radio Goobjoog correspondent, referring to the killing of members of a wedding party by African Union soldiers, apparently in reprisal for a roadside bomb attack on their convoy. ‘The people took to social media to vent their anger. There isn’t anywhere else for them to go with their anger.’

 
‘Except al-Shabaab,’ says another participant.

 
‘But al-Shabaab banned 3G. We know what al-Shabaab is all about these days. They’re good at social media in that they’re fast, and much better than the government, but everyone knows what their agenda is these days.’

 
‘The government is getting better, though.’ There is some agreement. ‘The Ministry of Security, NISA [the National Intelligence & Security Agency], they are getting much faster in telling the people what is happening during attacks.’ (Although they get hell from some quarters for their trouble, and compared to the scandal-seeking local channel, Shabelle.)

  

The discussion widens onto the challenges facing governments in the information age: the need to tell the truth (if there is such a thing anymore), keeping up with the pace of digital media, the need to be interactive and the sheer risk that is implicit in every Tweet, every photo posted, every blog.

 
‘We’re in a period of time where fear dominates all our editorial judgements,’ notes the ambassador. She recounts the challenges the UK experiences: despite being the third largest donor in Somalia after the US and the EU, the natural British reserve and humility (and, of course, concerns about security) has led the UK to be cautious in publicising its direct support to the Federal Government and across Somalia as a whole. The obvious comparison with the more overt self-publicity of Turkey in Somalia prompts more discussion.

 
But the consensus is that governments and institutions can do it, it will just take time to change institutionalised mindsets. (At this point, Faduma and Idilay recount their experiences training government personnel in social media, with the caveat, ‘don’t Tweet this!’ – it’s the only one of the day. There is still some way to go, apparently, but they are making progress.)

 
Flipping the discussion, the ambassador asks (on Twitter first, then to the group), what can governments and institutions do to help the Fourth and Fifth Estates? Resist the temptation to try to bring them into the institutional fold is a view that comes across strongly. Leave independent voices just as they are: independent.

Create more space seems to be another strong message. What does that mean, saturate the city with free wifi, give out cheap Smart phones? No, apparently. It means creating real, physical spaces for expression, like sports grounds, arts venues.

 
But, yes, free wifi would be nice as well. (Although even this brings with it an implicit risk: the participants account for the significant numbers of Somali and others trying to migrate elsewhere as being linked to the world they have been introduced to through social media.)

 
The other constraint that faces governments and institutions intervenes: time. But Eat & Tweet becomes Walk & Talk and the subject of access comes up: the Eat & Tweet started late because the airport complex, where the British Embassy is located, ‘might as well be in another country’ (because of the security restrictions – particularly for Somalis).

 
‘Next time we should meet in the city,’ suggests one participant, causing the security officer to blanch. But the ambassador doesn’t seem disinclined to the idea.

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?

2A67D6F400000578-3156072-White_Widow_British_born_Samantha_Lewthwaite_pictured_the_widow_-a-40_1436533468082

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.


‘Are you Filming?’ ‘We’re Always Filming’

Vice Ring

A DAY OUT WITH VICE NEWS

‘These men are pornographers?’ says Abdi, one of the President’s comms team.

‘No, it’s just an attention grabbing name. It’s like Virgin. People used to think that was risqué.’

‘I don’t know… In fact, no, the President won’t see these people. As you say, it is risky.’ I know better than to try to clarify the homophone.

Moving down the feudal pyramid from the President in search of someone who is willing to speak to the Vice News crew, it gets no easier.

‘Vice did those great videos on the Islamic State.’

‘They make the videos of the beheadings, the burning of that pilot alive?’

‘No, I mean –‘ More rejection.


But we get there in the end – after completely re-organising the programme. The Minister for Planning, Abdi Aynte, is a former Jazeera journalist and also happens to have written his Masters thesis on the origins of al-Shabaab, so the pornographers/IS horror video producers get a decent insight into where the organisation came from, where it is now and where it might be going. And the government gets an input. Which is important.

Because Vice News, to those who are familiar with them, are neither pornographers or the PR team for Da’esh but are instead the spearhead of a kind of digital gonzo movement that is making news interesting again. (That’s ‘gonzo’ as in Hunter S Thompson, not as in porn.) Their material on the fighting in Ukraine was outstanding: their inside account of life under IS as alarming as it was riveting (their journalist had to take a break after filming, having got ‘a bit too close’.) And they will make this documentary whether the government cooperates or not.

A UN chum improvises a trip to a Defector Rehabilitation Camp in Baidoa, out in the hinterland of Somalia towards the Ethiopian border, and the trip coalesces into something. Vice News are happy.

It’s important that they are happy because the devil will find work for idle meeja to do if their ‘handlers’ don’t keep them occupied. They might end up filing a different story entirely. Like a story about all the boozing and shagging that goes on in the Mogadishu airport compound, where the UN and various embassies are hubbed, a story that came about because a journalist wasn’t kept occupied.

Or it might be a revenge story, as happened to an erstwhile colleague of mine back in Iraq in 2005 in the aftermath of two British SF soldiers being lifted by the shady Iraqi cops they were meant to be spying on, plunging the city into days of rioting. His opening gambit to the assembled ladies and gentlemen of Her Majesty’s Press: ‘You’ve been foisted upon us so don’t expect us to happy that you’re here.’ His reward: a feature on him and how shit he was.

*      *      *

In the back of the armour we chat about the interview with Aynte.

‘Some of his comments were obviously party line,’ says Suroosh Alvi, the host of the programme that is being filmed (‘TERROR’: a major documentary series on TERROR), who also happens to be one of the founders of Vice. ‘But very good, you can tell he was a journalist.’

Which is interesting, as the Vice crew (or should it be ‘VICE’, because that’s the way it’s cast on Suroosh’s trademark signet ring) pride themselves on not being trained journalists.

And that makes for a very different media visit from what I am used to (it’s been a while since I did any media handling) and also from what the private security company that is driving us around is used to as well. The mainstream media have become so bureaucratised, with all their disclaimers and risk assessments and their entourage of security advisors that their trips have become a breeze, since their masters are so risk averse and they have been brought up with the pernicious ‘embed’ as the norm.

But Vice are different. They have to be restrained from dashing to the Jazeera Palace Hotel when an al-Shabaab truck bomb peels the frontage off, killing 15. (But they get there later.) They are nearly in tears when we have to board the plane back to Mogadishu, a plane we cannot miss (unless we fancy a 5 day layover in Baidoa): the commander of the Ethiopian garrison offers to let them go up in an attack helicopter to see some action. But they got to meet some real, live al-Shabaab defectors, so the disappointment quickly passes.


The conversation in the armour drifts to the realities of the campaign against al-Shabaab. I nearly have an unguarded moment, but something from years ago, maybe the Defence Media Operations course, kicks in.

‘Are you filming?’ I ask the cameraman, Chris, who is squashed into the boot of the armour so Suroosh and I can sprawl on the back seat (and so Suroosh can do a piece to camera if need be).

‘We’re always filming,’ they reply, in unison.