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

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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.


 

Gallery: Our Man on the Horn

All images are available as framed prints or on canvas and can be delivered in Mogadishu, Nairobi or anywhere by post the UK. Contact ourmanonthehorn@gmail.com for details.

Bajaja – Green
Bajaja – Blue

Bajaja – Red


Bajaja – Yellow

Bajaja – White

The BTR’s Graveyard

Junction, Hamarweyne, Mogadishu

The Old Lighthouse, VIlla Somalia, Mogadishu

Elder, Mogadishu

al-Shabaab fighter lies dead on a slip-road, Villa Somalia, Mogadishu

The Gates of Villa Somalia, Mogadishu

Caaqil Shop, near Police Academy, Mogadishu

Haji Hassan’s Bakery, Via Roma, Mogadishu

Bar Kamal Diin, Via Moscow, Mogadishu

Aweys: Super Tailer, Via Roma, Mogadishu

Mosque, Via Roma, Mogadishu

Doorway, Via Roma, Mogadishu


Doorway, Via Moscow, Mogadishu

Dead Man Hopping: Injured al-Shabaab Fighter in the AMISOM Hospital, Mogadishu 2009


Also available as t-shirts (on white cloth or monochrome on yellow, red, blue or green):

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.

 

Seeds of Doubt: The El Adde Edit

 

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It’s all about the video… An al-Shabaab cameraman films during the El Adde Attack

As al-Shabaab video products go, it’s not one of the better ones. While not as sprawling as the one-and-a-half hour Mpeketoni product, it is still a ponderous 48 minutes long (try blue-toothing that to your pal). Like the Mpeketoni video, a great deal of the build-up focuses on imagery of Muslims being abused by Kenyan security forces, followed by a reminder of the ‘body count’ of al-Shabaab’s various forays into Kenya (Westgate, Lamu County, Garissa, Mandera) carried out in apparent direct reprisal for and in defence of the oppressed Muslims of East Africa. (The logic of reminding the audience of atrocities, each almost exclusively against civilians, is questionable.)

 

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Monoped Farhan: not much use for anything else except suicide bombing

After the obligatory, lengthy suicide bomber ‘leaving speech’ (monoped Farhan of the Habargidir – not much use for anything else after he lost his leg, we must assume), the attack begins in the same old way, with a flash against the dawn skyline.

 

The attack, too, is very much akin to the previous video products produced on al-Shabaab’s behalf by al-Kutaib, al-Qa’ida’s media house. Technicals mounting Dushka heavy machine guns, twin 23mm anti-aircraft cannon go back and forwards. Plenty of ammunition is expended (sometimes aimed, mostly not), PK machine guns are fired from the hip and above the head, RPGs and heavy recoilless rifles engage targets (although two unfortunates standing behind one of the recoilless rifles appear to take the backblast in the face). Loose lines of troops advance at a gentle pace and begin to overrun the hotch-potch AMISOM position. Apparent leaders, rifles slung over their shoulders, kneel, speak into Tetra-style radios, give some direction. Most of the troops wear the proud badge of the Abu Zubayr Brigade, a bright orange flash, either as a head or arm-band.

 

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A profusion of orange head- and arm-bands: not so much bravado as a simple control measure for troops unused to fighting as a unit

But there are jarring notes throughout, not just for the two clowns who forgot that some of the fiery fury that comes out the front of the recoilless rifle also comes out the back as well. Those bright orange bands must make nice aiming marks and, as much as they might be a piece of bravado, they might also be a unit marker, needed to a coordinate a loose rag-tag that has come together for the operation, probably never having worked as a formed unit before. (There are also some blue bands to be seen later in the video.)

 

More questioning of what we seem to be seeing. A colleague comments, ‘it’s some men firing at some bushes’: and she is right. For most of the video, we willingly suspend our disbelief and go along with al-Shabaab’s version of events. But most of the video is just that, men firing at some bushes, or a tarpaulin, or something, maybe a running man, in the distance.

 

Occasionally the fighters do shoot at a target – it takes a section strength group a few minutes, a few hundred rounds to hit a prone, probably already dead AMISOM soldier at a distance of about 30 metres. Despite the apparent profusion of anti-armour weapons (according to the editing at least), an AMISOM-tagged armoured car meanders through melee, does some ‘turning in the road using forward and reverse gears’ and goes away again.

 

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Al-Shabaab uses the Kenyan government’s ill-judged messaging against it – again

The fighting putters out and, again, to a format, we view some burning vehicles, the shooting of some soldiers who are already dead, boxes and boxes of ammunition being carried away, imagery of al-Shabaab fighters wandering around a deserted town, a slideshow of dead bodies. The video product ends with the standard judo flipping of ill-judged Kenyan government and military messages set against apparently contradictory video evidence (the Kenyans really must ditch the ‘aspirational messaging’– al-Shabaab throws this back at them every time).

 

But numerous seeds of doubt are planted by this product. Yes, the Kenyans obviously lost a lot of troops: it was pointless and it continues to be pointless to claim otherwise. But virtually every one of the corpses is in helmet and body armour, holding a rifle. These men died fighting, and, small compensation to their families as that is, it is how soldiers are meant to die in battle. That deserves recognition.

 

Which leads to another point: where are the al-Shabaab casualties? Recently defected former fighters claim that al-Shabaab suffered something like 50% dead and wounded in the El Adde attack. Judging by their still-much-too-close spacing, their gentle, strolling pace as they advance and the atrocious marksmanship, that is feasible, especially when the Kenyan light armour started engaging. It is easy to forget that this is an edit, a propaganda product with a deliberate effect in mind, something to be taken with a very large pinch of salt and set against a backdrop of a disastrous, illogical amphibious assault in Puntland (probably 200+ killed out of 400) and a series of drone strikes (Raso Camp: nearly 200 killed) and special forces raids (various senior leaders killed). But, and in spite of over $20 million worth of communications projects focussed on Somalia, a plethora of radio stations, TV channels, websites and a purported ‘getting’ of Strategic Communications (after ten years of trying to ‘get’ Strat Comms in two other long CT/COIN campaigns), there is still no real challenge to al-Shabaab’s inconsistency-ridden messaging. No-one is answering the questions these video products pose.

 

Hardest to forget, though, is the chilling sequence where a dazed Kenyan crewman appears out of the hatch of a stalled armoured vehicle. After a long section that captures his bewilderment all too well he is fired at, finally some of the rounds hit, he slumps, dies. That, along with an ominous message that many of the captured-and-paraded Kenyan troops subsequently ‘succumbed to their injuries while others still remain in captivity and their fate hangs by a thread’, has ramifications that we should not forget whilst caught up in an exciting video re-enactment of a battle. These are war crimes, outrages against humanity, and, one day, some of these murdering bastards should be held to account for that.

 

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War crimes: a captured AMISOM soldier whose life, ominously, ‘hangs by a thread’


NOTE: as a matter of policy and out of respect to the dead we do not publish imagery of  the dead: we counter propaganda, not amplify it

 

The Shop-fronts of Mogadishu – 6

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Bar Kamal Diin

Via Moscow, Hamarweyne district, Mogadishu

Back in the day when literacy levels were low, Mogadishu shopkeepers would engage a local artist to depict their offerings on the exterior wall. Sadly these are disappearing and being replaced by blast walls and HESCO bastions or, worse still, the tatty plastic faux-glitz signs you see in every African and Middle Eastern city.

 

The Shop-fronts of Mogadishu – 5

  


Caaqil Shop

Police Academy, Mogadishu

Back in the day when literacy levels were low, Mogadishu shopkeepers would engage a local artist to depict their offerings on the exterior wall. Sadly these are disappearing and being replaced by blast walls and HESCO bastions or, worse still, the tatty plastic faux-glitz signs you see in every African and Middle Eastern city.

The Shop-fronts of Mogadishu – 4

  

Allaa Waldilee Bar Restaurant

Via Roma, Hamarweyne district, Mogadishu

Back in the day when literacy levels were low, Mogadishu shopkeepers would engage a local artist to depict their offerings on the exterior wall. Sadly these are disappearing and being replaced by blast walls and HESCO bastions or, worse still, the tatty plastic faux-glitz signs you see in every African and Middle Eastern city.

 

The Shop-fronts of Mogadishu – 3

  

 Ala Aamin’s Barber Shop

Via Roma, Hamarweyne district, Mogadishu

Back in the day when literacy levels were low, Mogadishu shopkeepers would engage a local artist to depict their offerings on the exterior wall. Sadly these are disappearing and being replaced by blast walls and HESCO bastions or, worse still, the tatty plastic faux-glitz signs you see in every African and Middle Eastern city.