The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia - James Fergusson (2013)


After sixteen years, off and on, of writing about Afghanistan and the Taliban, the Horn of Africa felt a natural destination to me. In 2008 when a populist, al-Qaida-linked Islamist movement called al-Shabaab took over the southern half of Somalia, including the country’s capital, Mogadishu, the parallels with the Taliban were immediately obvious. It wasn’t just that Mullah Omar’s militants had also emerged from the poor, neglected south of their country to take over Kabul in 1996. Al-Shabaab explicitly modelled themselves on the Taliban. Indeed, many of the new movement’s leaders had fought alongside them against US-led forces in the early 2000s; and just as the Taliban had once sheltered Osama bin Laden, so al-Shabaab welcomed senior members of al-Qaida into their fold.

In early 2010, as America’s drone war in the mountainous borderlands of north-west Pakistan began to heat up, al-Qaida fighters were reported to be ‘streaming’ out of that region towards Yemen and Somalia, which were said to offer the terrorists many more hiding places than ‘Af-Pak’ was now able to. It was these reports that finally prompted me to come to Somalia. The Horn of Africa was the battlefield in the War on Terror that mattered now – the next chapter in a story I have been following for a third of my life.

My interest in Somalia was not new. The first TV images of that country’s terrible civil war in the early 1990s were not easily forgettable. The feral violence, and the astoundingly destroyed urban landscape against which it was set, were unlike anything that has occurred in my lifetime, with the possible exception of Grozny. That may be why Somalia, so often labelled ‘the world’s most failed state’, still occupies a special, dark place in the imaginations of so many of my generation of Westerners. When I explained my new project to a journalist friend in London, who had spent many years covering the danger zones of South America, she replied: ‘Mogadishu? That’s one of those places that gives me nightmares, even though I’ve never been there.’

What has happened to Somalia since the civil war stands as a kind of cautionary tale for grown-ups, a vision of the anarchy that we too can expect should our own systems of governance ever be allowed to collapse. There has, famously, been no properly functioning central government in Mogadishu for over two decades. For the last several years, Afghanistan has come 179th in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index, an international league table that measures the level of graft in the public life of each of the world’s 180 nations; only one country has consistently ranked lower. An African Taliban, at war in a country more corrupt than Afghanistan! That was a place I was very curious to see.

Mogadishu lived up to expectations when I got there. It truly was the stuff of nightmares, particularly on my second visit in July 2011, when the southern half of the country was in the grip of a famine said to be the worst for sixty years. Refugees were pouring into the capital from the drought zones looking for help, even as trench warfare between al-Shabaab and the government’s forces backed by AMISOM, the Ugandan-led African Union Mission in Somalia, was raging across the city’s centre. A British photographer I met, an experienced Africa hand based in Kampala, observed that however often the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rode out into the world, Somalia was where they always came back to, because this was where they were stabled; this was their home. War, famine, pestilence and death were indeed constants that summer, and Somalia really did seem to be the world’s most dangerous place.

By the time this book went to press in late 2012, however, things looked a little different. So much had changed since I began my dizzying journey through the Somali nation, a research project that took me to nine different countries across four continents, and still only scratched the surface. In August 2011 al-Shabaab, to the amazement of most in the international community, suddenly withdrew from Mogadishu, and have been in retreat ever since. At the end of 2011, the armies of Somalia’s southern and western neighbours, Kenya and Ethiopia, joined forces with AMISOM, forming an alliance that by September 2012 was poised to capture the economically vital port of Kismayo, al-Shabaab’s most important stronghold.

A handful of hardliners were expected to mount a heroic last stand against the infidel invaders, as remnants of al-Qaida and the Taliban had done in Kandahar against US-led forces in 2001. But few Somalia-watchers thought Kismayo would hold out for long. In Mogadishu, crucially, the military endgame in the south coincided with the winding up of the Transitional Federal Government, the TFG, whose UN-backed mandate had expired after eight years in office. In September, a newly selected parliament voted to replace President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed with Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a little known university professor who used to work as a consultant for the UN. The newcomer, a moderate Islamist with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, is admired for his perceived lack of corruption as well as for the fact that, unlike most educated Somalis, he did not flee Mogadishu during the civil war. His election was against all expectations. The incumbent, President Sheikh Sharif, was rumoured to have many supporters in the Gulf who had reportedly spent $7m in bribes in a bid to secure his re-election.1 It was the first genuine presidential poll in a generation, representing what the UN Special Envoy Augustine Mahiga called ‘an unprecedented opportunity for peace’.

There are other reasons for cautious optimism. So many of Mogadishu’s long-abandoned seafront villas are being rebuilt, in many cases by owners returning from twenty years of refugee exile, that the city is experiencing a minor property boom. Piracy in the Indian Ocean, although far from eradicated, appears to have peaked thanks to land-based efforts by the regional Puntland government and cleverer counter-piracy measures at sea. Even the threat of further famine has receded thanks to unusually kind winter rains. By the end of 2012, in short, Somalia no longer looked quite as dangerous as it had done just a year previously – and I still worry that the title of my book will be seen by some (such as the taxi driver who took me to task over it in Minneapolis, home to America’s largest Somali community) as unfairly negative.

I decided to let the title stand, however, for two reasons. First, the gains of 2011–12 are all perilously fragile, and could easily be reversed. The process of political reform was flawed from the start, with even the UN admitting that the clan elders had rigged the selection of the new parliament through bribery, intimidation and violence: a dispiriting case of plus ça change, in other words. Some two-thirds of MPs in the new parliament served in the previous one. Rivalry between the clans may be in abeyance but is hardly eliminated. The challenges facing the untried new president are huge, and the possibility of another cycle of communal bloodletting remains. Will Somalia’s new dawn turn out to be yet another false one?

After all, al-Shabaab are far from defeated, despite their recent territorial losses, and seem unlikely to disappear as an insurgency. Indeed, they had already begun the tactical switch from conventional war-fighting towards a deadly, Taliban-style guerrilla campaign in the summer of 2011. In September 2012, a spokesman for al-Shabaab immediately dubbed the newly elected president a ‘traitor’. Their determination to carry on their jihad was made abundantly clear less than thirty-six hours after Professor Mohamud had taken office, when two suicide bombers attacked the Mogadishu hotel where he was giving a press conference. The president survived, but at least five people, including an AMISOM soldier, died.

The second reason is that Somalia’s underlying problems have still not been dealt with, and chief among these, I would argue, is the question of what to do with the country’s millions of young men.

‘The US does not have a robust and comprehensive strategy for targeting the connection between youth and conflict,’ Professor Jennifer Sciubba, a demographer and adviser to the US Department of Defence, said recently. ‘Victory, in whatever form, will remain elusive as long as this segment of the population is marginalized.’2

She was speaking about Afghanistan, but her observation was just as applicable to Somalia, a country with almost the same low median age of eighteen, well under half the median in America or Europe.

The challenge posed by exploding populations in the Muslim world is a global one, as the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 perhaps proved. But the problem is particularly acute in the case of Somalia, where the state has conspicuously failed to provide any of the essentials for a decent life for over twenty years. For all the fanfare surrounding the election of the new president, it was far from clear what concrete steps he proposed to improve the lot of the young. While recognizing the challenge, the new speaker of parliament, Mohamed Osman Jawari, could do no more than put his faith in the divine.

‘May God help us to elect a good leader in an atmosphere of tranquillity,’ he told the new parliament. ‘We must give the youth of Somalia a bright future.’

The children of the civil war want what everyone wants: education, jobs, security, a home. Without these things, young people anywhere, and particularly young men, may turn in desperation to violent rebellion; young Muslim men may also turn to extreme forms of Islam. In the course of my research I was constantly struck by the similarity of al-Shabaab foot soldiers, pirates and the members of Somali street gangs I interviewed in Britain and the US. They were all young men, and in some cases – such as Abdi-Osman, a 23-year-old ex-pirate, ex-al-Shabaab fighter whom I met in Mogadishu – literally interchangeable.

‘Every man who has nothing will try something to get money,’ Abdi-Osman explained.

The clue, perhaps, was in what the insurgents first called themselves: al-Shabaab in Arabic means ‘the Youth’.

The regional dangers are obvious enough. Somalia’s location, barely 150 miles from the Arabian Peninsula, has long made it Africa’s natural gateway for Wahhabist ideas. With the recent rise of Boko Haram and other extremist Islamic groups in West Africa, it is no longer fanciful to worry that such groups could link up with al-Shabaab, spreading their violent brand of Islam across the entire continent. The threat posed by al-Shabaab, however, already extends far beyond Africa, for one, very twenty-first-century reason: the immense size and distribution of the Somali diaspora. In the view of the British ambassador Matt Baugh, the ease with which people can travel in our globalized era has introduced ‘a kind of threat we haven’t seen before . . . [Somalia] is no longer a traditional, geographical country, but a diffuse, global entity – and that is not physically containable.’

An estimated two million Somalis have fled abroad during and since the civil war of the 1990s, putting down roots in almost every country in the world. But many young Somalis, most of whom left when they were small children and are now typically in their early twenties, have failed to adapt as they should to life in the West, leading to all kinds of troubling social problems. Young Somalis everywhere, in Canada, America, Europe and Australia, are noted for their atrocious performance at school and high levels of unemployment. Somali street gangs have also become a by-word for lawlessness and violence. One London community leader spoke to me of a Somali crime ‘time-bomb’ in Britain. On a visit to the Youth Offenders’ Institution at Feltham in west London, he was shocked to find it contained more inmates from Somalia than from any other foreign country – ‘more, even, than the Jamaicans’, as he put it. It seems that the cycle of social deprivation and alienation that so often leads to frustration and hostility is spinning almost as fast for the diaspora as it is in Somalia itself.

As I found in both London and Minneapolis, the West has proved fruitful territory for the radical recruiting sergeants of al-Shabaab. Dozens of young Somalis have abandoned their lives in the West in recent years in order to go and fight for the Islamists in the homeland, with direct consequences for the security of us all. Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, warned in a speech in 2010 that it was ‘only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab’. The threat of Somali-linked, home-grown terrorism is in any case not new, as Ramzi Mohamed and Yassin Omar – both born in Somalia – amply demonstrated when their suicide bombs failed to detonate on the London Underground on 21 July 2005. In 2011, when Prime Minister David Cameron described Somalia as ‘a failed state that directly threatens British interests’, the first threat he cited was that posed by the radicalization of young Somali Britons.

There is, happily, another side to the diaspora. The vast majority of young Somalis are of course not disgruntled future terrorists. In fact, the more I saw of them, the more convinced I became that it is the diaspora young, more than any other group, who have the power to steer Somalia and Somalis towards a better future. Not only do Somalis abroad bankroll the home country with millions of dollars of remittances to friends and family each year. The best of the young exile generation has also taken full advantage of the opportunity to better themselves through hard work and education, absorbing Western values and ideas along the way. This class of young Somali is out of patience with the traditions of their elders, most of all the old system of qabyalad, tribalism, which played such a central role in the destruction of their country. Some of them, such as Adam Matan, 25, and his impressive London-based organization, the Anti-Tribalism Movement, are actively campaigning for a real break with the past. And his kind are, very encouragingly, determined to export their ideas back to their troubled homeland.

Will they succeed? If so, they will need all the support they can get from the West, for the obstacles are certainly immense. There are some signs that Western leaders have understood the importance of engaging with Somalia’s youth. For instance, the London conference on Somalia in early 2012, a major international event attended by senior representatives of forty governments and organizations, was notable for the inclusion of the young. International conferences come and go, however – Somalia has been the subject of twenty-one of them since 1991 – and the new spirit of engagement must be sustained if Somalia is ever to be turned around. This applies to the war against al-Shabaab, too. The time may fast be approaching when it will make more sense to talk to the movement’s moderate elements rather than to go on trying to destroy or contain them militarily. Or as the Somali imam Sheikh Hassan Jaamici put it to me in Minnesota – on the day he learned of the death by missile of the celebrated American al-Qaida ideologue, Anwar Al-Awlaki – ‘What is needed is fewer drones, more debate.’

In the summer of 2012 there was no better or more obvious illustration of the benefits of properly engaging with Somali youth than the inspiring story of Mo Farah, the British-Somali long-distance runner from Hounslow in west London who won two Olympic gold medals. When he first arrived in London in 1991, he was just another troublesome, traumatized refugee. He spoke poor English and struggled academically at his school, Feltham Community College, where he was constantly in trouble with the authorities.

Farah could easily have ‘gone off the rails’, as his agent Ricky Simms later said, and ended up like so many other displaced Somali boys in the Young Offenders’ Institution down the road. Instead, his athletic talent was spotted by a PE teacher, Alan Watkinson, who took him under his wing and forced him to train and focus. The ‘FlyMo’ is now a Union Jack-draped national hero. He did a favour to immigrants in general with his achievement: in a poll following the Games, 32 per cent said they felt more positive – or less worried – about immigration.3

‘Everyone is happy,’ said Mahmoud Adan, a Somali shopkeeper in Whitechapel. ‘It’s something that makes us very proud. The stories you hear about Somalia are always bad.’4

In Western cities, as in the Horn of Africa, sustained engagement with Somalia’s young men is the key to a better future for us all. Without it, as one London exile said to me in a slightly different context, Somalis will become ‘the worst people in the world’; and Somalia itself could again unequivocally become The World’s Most Dangerous Place.

For Fergus