Killing People is Wrong

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

Execution is justice in a place where law is for sale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off to Somalia? Here’s Some More Preparatory Reading

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

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

Other suggestions most welcome.

Off to Somalia?: Here’s Some Preparatory Reading (and Listening)

CoversSO you’re off to Somalia? But beyond ‘Black Hawk Down’ and ‘Eye in the Sky’ you’re feeling a bit thin in the prep department… No probs, here’s a suggested selection of fiction and non-fiction to make sure you know your Darood from your Digil-Mirifle. Wherever possible there is a link to the Amazon Kindle edition or a PDF if it’s an article.



Ferguson, James: ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia’ (Despite a gash, Clarkson-esque title, this is a very good overview of south-central. And I get a mention too.)

Hanley, Gerald: ‘Warriors: Life and Death Among the Somalis’ (Although published nearly 50 years ago about events that took place 25 years before that, Hanley’s insight into the Somalis are still relevant.)

Hansen, Stigg Jarle:  ‘Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group’ (The best and, in fact, only, study of al-Shabaab.)

Harper, Mary: ‘Getting Somalia Wrong?: Faith and War in a Shattered State’  (A recent study of Somalia by the BBC’s correspondent on the Horn.)

Lewis, I. M.: ‘Understanding Somalia and Somaliland: Culture, History, Society’ (The seminal, part-anthropological, part-historical study of Somalia.)


Farah, Nuruddin: ‘From a Crooked Rib’ & ‘Crossbones’ (Two of the finest works of Somalia’s greatest living novelist, now domiciled in South Africa.)

Mohamed, Nadifa: ‘Black Mamba Boy’ & ‘The Orchard of Lost Souls’ (Terrific novels from Somali-Brit, Nadifa Mohamed: the first is based on her father’s early life around the time of the Second World War while the second follows three women during the 1970s and 80s as the country descends into chaos)

Shire, Warsan: ‘The Seven Stages of Being Lonely’ (Another Somali-Brit whose poetry is much admired by the likes of Beyonce, Warsan Shire’s first collection isn’t available as an e-book but can be ordered here and is well worth the wait for the postman. In the meantime, a sample of Warsan Shire’s work can be found here)


Anzalone, Chris: ‘Continuity and Change: The Evolution and Resilience of Al-Shabab’s Media Insurgency, 2006-2016’  (US academic Chris Anzalone’s study of how al-Shabaab communicates its word picture)

Bryden, Matt: ‘The Decline and Fall of Al-Shabaab? Think Again’  (A convincing case is made that reports of al-Shabaab’s demise were grossly over-exaggerated by the former head of the UN Somalia & Eritrea Monitoring Group and founder of the think-tank, Sahan)

Jones et al, ‘Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency in Somalia’ (A good study by US ‘think-tank for hire’, RAND, although who funded the paper is very clear from the conclusions it presents)

Our Man on the Horn blog: (yes, a plug for my own blog)


Finally, some tunes to get you in the mood from the heyday of Somali disco, the 70s and 80s:

Or you could just watch ‘Black Hawk Down’ and ‘Eye in the Sky’…

Our Changing Understanding of Terrorism

As a sage of my acquaintance (who has been in the game a lot longer than I have) noted at a recent conference on counter terrorism (I paraphrase):

“We used to think terrorism was about numbers: numbers killed, numbers injured, even numbers just inconvenienced in their daily lives. 9/11 put paid to that: there won’t be another terrorist attack that kills over 3000 people, not until a terror group gets its hands on a weapon of mass destruction or gets hideously lucky.

“We began to think that acts of terror were about exploiting the symbiotic relationship between terrorist groups and the news media in an increasingly interconnected and instantaneous information landscape as a force multiplier to offset the overwhelming advantages that governments, militaries and other big institutions have in a conventional confrontation. The line between terrorists and the media was often blurry in our eyes.

“But we are beginning to view acts of terror differently again. Terrorism should perhaps be seen as not being not about numbers or about headlines. Terrorism is about the response it draws out from institutions and from the individually terrorised members of the population. The symbiotic relationship to terrorists with which we used to tar the news media now exists equally between terrorist groups, institutions and populations as well.”

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

If you’re about to comment on the Westminster Attack…

The symbolic image of the Westminster Attack: the attacker is given medical treatment by the emergency services

If you’re about to comment on Westminster attack, pause: imagine what the terrorists behind the attack would like you to post.
Anti-immigrant? Tick.

Anti-refugee? Tick.

Anti-Islamic? Tick.

This is a war? Tick.

Anniversary of Bruxelles attack? Tick.

Our tragedy is greater than your tragedy? Tick.

This is the UK’s/the US’s/Europe’s/the Arab governments’ fault? Tick.
Don’t let the terrorists work you like a ventriloquist’s doll. Unless, of course, you enjoy having someone’s hand up your arse.

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