The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia - James Fergusson (2013)
Part III. THE DIASPORA
Chapter 14. ‘Clanism is a disease like AIDS’
London, February 2012
The FBI’s remit to protect America from terrorism is mainly a domestic one, but that does not stop the Bureau from keeping a close eye on London, a city with a Somali community that is bigger, more diffuse, more complex, and therefore much more difficult to engage with than any of the communities living in the US. One of the most obvious differences from the Somali viewpoint is that in the UK it is still legal to chew qat. Around the world, the leaves are consumed by an estimated 10 million people every day.1 Qat is illegal in the US, however; and in January 2012, when even the Dutch voted to ban it, Britain became the last country in the Western world where it was still permitted.
This anomaly troubles the FBI, which sees a link between qat, organized crime and terrorism. In April 2012, seven people in London, Coventry and Cardiff were arrested following a tip-off from the Americans, who suspected they were involved in smuggling qat to the US and Canada in order to raise money for al-Shabaab. The news followed a startling claim by CNN that Britain’s qat-chewing dens had become an al-Shabaab recruiting ground.
‘Young [qat users] become vulnerable, not clearly thinking, and the paranoia kicks in and that’s when they start to hate the British public – especially the police,’ said Abubakr Awale, a British-Somali anti-qat campaigner. ‘They are thinking everybody is out to get them, and that’s exactly the kind of individual that the likes of al-Shabaab are targeting.’2
I needed to know more about qat, a drug that I had never got around to trying despite its centrality to Somali culture. To plug this shameful gap in my knowledge, I went back to Southall. The location of my chosen chewing den, or marfish, was hard to beat for atmosphere: a grubby room overlooking the station, above an industrial unit that housed a freight-forwarding business specializing in imports from East Africa. The adventure began the moment I stepped off my train, when a cry of ‘Stop, thief!’ went up and a hooded figure was seen to jump down from the platform and run doggedly away across the railway lines, stumbling in the track ballast. The victim, a Japanese student whose iPhone had been pickpocketed, tried to give chase, but gave up as an Intercity train came blasting through with its two-tone horn blaring, only narrowly missing the pickpocket, who quickly vanished through a hole in a fence. Southall was fifteen minutes but a world away from central London. Even the welcome sign above the ticket office was written in the Punjabi Gurmukhi script.
The marfish was in the middle of a row of brick buildings to the end of which was affixed a giant Conservative Party billboard, a leftover from the 2010 election campaign, displaying a bearded and blue-turbaned Sikh, Gurcharan Singh, with David Cameron’s face floating ethereally over his right shoulder. The accompanying slogan, VOTE FOR CHANGE, sounded a hollow note now. When polling day came, the constituents of Ealing, Southall had voted exactly as they had done at every election since World War Two, for Labour. It was doubtful, however, whether a change of party here would have made any difference so far as qat was concerned. Parliament first debated whether or not to ban the drug in 1996, but had always decided against. The argument for inaction seldom varied. Evidence of harm resulting from qat use was judged ‘insufficient to merit its control’; its use in any case was confined to a minority community from East Africa; the issue was therefore ‘culturally sensitive’, and best left alone.3
It is true that the habit is ingrained in the culture of East Africa, where qat has been consumed in one form or another for hundreds if not thousands of years. Richard Burton reported that it produced in the locals ‘a manner of dreamy enjoyment, which, exaggerated by time and distance, may have given rise to that splendid myth the Lotos, and the Lotophagi’. These lotus-eaters, he went on, were ‘like opium-eaters, they cannot live without the excitement . . . It is held by the ulema here as in Arabia, “Akl el Salikin”, or the Food of the Pious, and literati remark that it has the singular properties of enlivening the imagination, clearing the ideas, cheering the heart, diminishing sleep, and taking the place of food.’4
In 2012, qat was more popular than ever among Somalis, between 60 and 75 per cent of whom are thought to be users or sellers of the drug. Because qat cultivation requires more water than is available in most of Somalia, the majority of it is imported from Kenya, with smaller amounts arriving from Ethiopia and Yemen. The Kenyan qat trade alone is said to be worth $250 million a year.5 Somalia is hooked – although not yet as badly as Yemen, where an estimated 90 per cent of men are regular chewers. The habit certainly isn’t doing them any good. Some 40 per cent of Yemen’s scant water resources are used in the irrigation of up to half a billion qat plants, prompting experts to warn that Sana’a, Yemen’s ancient capital, could literally run out of water by 2017, the first major city to suffer such a fate in modern times.6 Yemen offers a terrible illustration of what can happen if the chewing habit is left unchecked, and yet the government in London has so far shown little appetite for controlling it in Britain. In 2011, an astonishing ten tonnes of qat was permitted to pass through Heathrow from Nairobi every week.7
There was no sign showing the way to the marfish above the Southall industrial unit: you had to know it was there. On the other hand, there was nothing to prevent anyone from walking in off the street and up the dark staircase to the entrance, a blue swing door with a smudged glass panel covered with peeling stickers, one of which read DON’T DO DRUGS: Curiosity Will Kill U. I pushed on inside. The room resembled a working man’s social club, with utilitarian strip-lighting and plastic chairs and round Formica tables scattered about on a cheap wood laminate floor. It was none too clean and smelled faintly of wet football socks. A small bar area with a fridge stood in one corner. A television opposite relayed the latest BBC news from the Middle East, although no one seemed to be watching. At the far end was a fire escape that doubled as the smoking area, which overlooked the train tracks along which the pickpocket had run away.
There were a dozen or so Somalis present, all men, all middle-aged, some sitting alone in silence, others locked in noisy conversation, and one man laughing like a hyena. None of them seemed to object to the presence among them of a gaalo. The man behind the counter merely giggled when I explained what I was there for.
‘It’s three pounds with a Coke,’ he said, nodding for me to help myself from a small, damp crate on the counter next to him. ‘You want a bag?’
The crate contained perhaps twenty-five tightly bound bunches of qat, twenty stems to a bunch. Their bushy fronds were wilting slightly, and their reddish-green stalks resembled loops of electrical flex. I made a selection and watched as the qat-seller searched on the shelf behind him with slow and fumbling hands. It was obvious from his glassy eyes and his rictus grin that he was very stoned indeed.
‘Sorry,’ he said, as he at last produced one of the thin blue bags that I had seen snagged everywhere on the desert thorns of Somalia, and put my purchase into it. ‘I really need to go home and sleep. It’s been a long night.’
It was eleven o’clock in the morning, although it seemed best to let that pass. The bar, I now saw, doubled as the main switchboard for a minicab service of, I suspected, questionable reliability. The qat-seller had been chewing to keep himself awake through the nightshift. He explained that he had been about to go home some time ago, when a new consignment of qat arrived – fresh in from Nairobi, he said – and he had stayed behind to test the wares, and that one thing had led to another. But the main thing was that he could vouch for the consignments freshness. He said a full crate contained about a hundred pounds’ worth of leaves, and that this marfish got through four to five such crates every day.
I copied the others and settled down to chew. There seemed little technique to it. I picked off the tenderest leaves one by one in the manner of a snacking gorilla, and mulched them into a ball in one cheek until the juices trickled down my throat. I soon discovered what the Coke was for because the taste was appalling: sharp and astringent. Some of the customers had drilled a small hole through the plastic cap of the Coke bottle to regulate their sips and to keep in the fizz, a modern take on the traditional cold water sipped from a smoked gourd.
When a stalk was stripped of leaves I did as the others did and tossed it on the floor, which was already strewn with discarded foliage, for there was no bin in the room. And then I selected another stalk and began the gorilla thing again, wondering if I should spit or swallow the slimy green bolus in my cheek.
‘Your first time chewing, huh?’ said a kindly customer at the counter who had seen my dilemma. ‘Mm. The first time can be . . . difficult. But it’s OK to swallow.’
He turned out to be a bus driver on the suburban 105 route, Greenford down to Heathrow. He said he was an ex-driver, but that he ‘could work again whenever he wanted to’, a remark that caused the smiley-stupid barman, who showed no sign of going home yet, to laugh out loud. I deduced that the driver was really just skiving off work. He said he was from Hargeisa originally, like most of the other customers present. That, he explained, was the way it worked in the London marfishes: their clienteles tended to break down along clan lines.
‘And why do you chew qat?’ I asked.
‘It passes the time,’ he replied.
That attribute explained why a good supply of qat was considered an essential rather than a luxury by the pirate kidnappers along the Indian Ocean coast, whose tedious job it was to guard docile foreigners for months or years while their ransoms were being negotiated. The author Jay Bahadur described how pirate qat-chewing sessions often lasted for 24 hours or more, because the drug took away any need to break off to eat or to sleep. Time lost meaning for the dedicated qat-chewer in the same way that it did for the addicted gambler. The Southall marfish reminded me of Las Vegas’s casinos where there were never any clocks on the walls or even windows to remind their patrons that it was high time they stopped.
I had no wish to fall into such a temporal black hole; and after about half an hour, by when I had consumed most of my bag without any noticeable effect, I made my excuses and headed back out to the sunlight. Burton wrote that Europeans ‘perceived but little effect’ from qat, an observation that I took for an example of the lazy genetic racism of his imperial times when I read it. Now I began to wonder if he had been right. My disappointment was brief, however, because back at the station while waiting for the return train to London, my teeth started to grind, one leg began to jiggle, and I felt an unmistakable euphoric glow. I suddenly had so much energy that it seemed a shame, a crime even, to remain sitting down. I did not doubt that I could easily have walked the eight miles back to Paddington; possibly on my hands. It was an unlikely place for a Damascene conversion, but Platform 4 at Southall station was where I finally got the point of qat.
I could also see why many Somali community leaders wanted it banned. Qat’s defenders tended to argue that it was a harmless social activity on a par with drinking a pot of strong coffee, an argument that I now understood could only work with those who had never tried it themselves.
‘Those people in the marfish? Most of them haven’t got a life,’ said Sharmarke Yusuf, the chairman of the Association of Mosques and Islamic Centres.
Because chewing was traditionally a man’s habit, many of qat’s most vociferous critics were women, who complained that it made their husbands spend time and money in the marfish rather than at home with their families, and that it also killed their will to work. After what I had just observed, I was sure they had a point. Furthermore, everyone from Jane, the state-school teacher in south-east London, to Hanif Qadir in Waltham Forest, asserted that qat was a major contributor to the specific Somali problem of paternal absenteeism. How many of the customers in the marfish I visited were the fathers of wayward teenage sons?
The damage qat caused to family life was difficult to prove, and naturally hotly disputed by many Somali men. Yet the serious medical harm that overconsumption could cause was not in doubt. In Hargeisa I had been accosted in the street by a ranting, shoeless madman with cud like puréed spinach dribbling from one corner of his mouth, his breath reeking of silage, his pupils as big as chocolate buttons. Mania and psychosis were classic signs of qat abuse, while even moderate long-term use was associated with depression, aggression, irritability, paranoia, insomnia, lethargy, heart problems, tremors, impotence and mouth cancer, not to mention the risk of teeth being stained permanently green.
Cathinone, qat’s active ingredient, was a naturally occurring substance that was nevertheless classified as a ‘Schedule 1’ drug under the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances, the same classification as LSD and Ecstasy. In its chemical structure it was closely related to the once-fashionable Western designer drug mephedrone, also known as miaow-miaow, which was linked to so many deaths in the UK in 2010 that the government introduced emergency legislation outlawing it. My Ealing friend Ayaan – who thought qat-chewing ‘absolutely revolting’, and the government’s failure to ban it a disgrace – said the miaow-miaow ban proved that parliament could move quickly against drugs when it wanted to. For all the soothing talk that qat was a benign socializing drug, I very much doubted it would be so popular if it didn’t have cathinone in it. The chemical was highly unstable, with a tendency to break down and lose potency as the leaves dried out. This was why qat was flown into London from Nairobi four times every week. If you wanted to get high, the leaves had to be fresh.
Ayaan was convinced that the government would regret it if they did not ban qat soon, because the argument that the habit was confined to middle-aged Somali men, and therefore not worth legislating over, was no longer true.
‘I’ve seen school kids in uniform aged fourteen, fifteen, white ones, black ones, Indian ones, chewing qat on the way to school,’ she said. ‘An English guy asked me just the other day where he could buy qat. I misunderstood him. I thought he wanted to buy a cat.’
She reckoned the habit was increasingly popular with Somali women, too, although they didn’t frequent the marfishes but tended to chew at home, in secret. Ayaan knew of an Ealing woman who chewed when she was pregnant, and gave birth to an underweight baby as a result. She knew of another, a childhood friend, who had progressed from qat to crack cocaine, an almost unprecedented development among Somali women.
‘The long-term use of qat leads to mental illness, no question,’ she said. ‘It’s just as bad as cocaine for that.’
She wasn’t alone in worrying about its effect on the young. Paul Birch, the SO15 officer, recalled how as a policeman on the street in Wood Green in north London, he would occasionally come across a car-load of young Somali men ‘looking hard and nasty with these blazing red eyes from the qat – and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it’.
In January 2012 the Conservative MP Mark Lancaster, the sponsor of the latest parliamentary debate on qat, pointed out that no fewer than three Conservative shadow cabinet ministers had pledged to ban the drug while in opposition, and expressed his frustration that, a year and a half after election victory, no government action had been taken beyond the commissioning of a fresh review by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
‘Kicking this issue into the long grass with further “monitoring” is simply unacceptable,’ said Lancaster. ‘After years of talk on qat, if my Government wish to retain the trust of the East African community, the time has come to follow the rest of the Western world and act.’8
His opinion was echoed by the UK ambassador in Nairobi, Matt Baugh, who described qat as a ‘festering’ social issue in Britain. Officialdom’s inertia, Baugh thought, was ‘symptomatic that we’ve kind of forgotten’ about Somalia and its problems: an example of the old policy of containment rather than the new one of engagement that the government was supposed to be pursuing.
Ayaan put it more forthrightly. ‘Of course it should be illegal,’ she said, ‘but why would the government give a toss?’
It was perhaps fortunate that, despite the experimentation of a minority, the great majority of young diaspora Somalis felt as Ayaan did, and had rejected qat without the encouragement of officialdom. Chewing was a pastime associated with their parents’ generation, not theirs, most of whom had grown up in the West, and thus had little or no nostalgia for the old café culture of Somalia. I thought it significant that none of the customers in the marfish in Southall was under thirty. But there was another and more important reason why many young London Somalis considered marfishes uncool. As the route 105 bus driver had explained, the chewing dens were patronized according to clan affiliation. They thus perpetuated in exile the political system that had pushed Somalia into civil war. I later heard of a stretch of road in Kentish Town in north London where there were five marfishes in a row, one for each of Somalia’s main ethnic groups. It was a street version of the 4.5 clan power-sharing formula espoused by the TFG in Mogadishu – and as I was still discovering, there were a great many young diaspora Somalis who had nothing but scorn for that.
‘I think clanism is a disease, like AIDS,’ said Ayaan. ‘I hate it. When people ask me what clan I’m from I never tell them, ever. It makes some of the older Somalis really mad, but I just laugh at them.’
Her attitude was not unusual among London Somalis. She was in fact one of a new breed that was determined to challenge tradition and break with the disastrous prejudices of the past, the first and worst of which, she believed, was clanism. I had a lot of sympathy for this view. Not long previously I had received another heart-breaking email from Aden Ibrahim in Mogadishu, who against the odds had found a job at last, but was now about to lose it again in the cruellest way.
I think our contact became a low on these months, because I am busy in a job working in 9 hours in a day and an internet café is not near to my residence in the night going a far away from the village is danger.
I was really happy having this job but now things are changing, I have to train a person who will take my job in 30 days time and that will left me a jobless!!!!
The one that I am teaching a job his uncle belongs to the company which I work for, Tribalism is common problem across the country!
Perhaps the purest expression of Ayaan’s impatience with clanism – or tribalism – was an organization of which she wholeheartedly approved called the Anti-Tribalism Movement. From its base in Acton, west London, the ATM had accrued more than 67,000 online members since its launch in 2010, the great majority of them between the ages of sixteen and thirty. I went to meet the ATM’s director, Adam Matan, in a hotel café near Paddington station.
He was a 25-year-old business management graduate from Roehampton University who had gone on to work as a ‘community engagement officer’ for Hounslow Council.
‘We are not against the tribes, which are an important part of who and what we are,’ he said, ‘but we are against tribalism, a system that fragments and diminishes us.’
The ATM’s supporters were by no means all from the diaspora. Some 27,000 people had signed up from within Somalia itself, including nearly 4,000 in Galkacyo.
‘Why?’ said Matan. ‘Because Galkacyo is the home of tribalism . . . The Darod and the Hawiye who live there think of each other as animals.’
The movement’s ‘three visions’, according to Matan, were the eradication of tribalism, the unification of Somali hearts and minds, and the promotion and preparation of the future leaders of the country. Some supporters of the ATM, which described itself as a ‘revolutionary youth-led non-profit social reform movement’, hoped it might even herald an Arab Spring for Somalia.
As Matan well knew, he was not the first Somali to attempt to abolish the clan mindset. Others had tried and failed in the past. The country’s first political party, the Somali Youth Club, was founded in 1943 by thirteen activists who refused on principle to reveal their clan lineage. Siad Barre also identified tribalism as the greatest obstacle to scientific socialist progress. In 1970 he held a huge public rally at which a Guy Fawkes-style effigy of qabyalad, tribalism, was symbolically burned and buried. The regime’s official maxim became maxaa taqaan rather than ayaa taqaan – it was not ‘who you knew’ but ‘what you knew’ that mattered.9 Siad Barre’s prescription for Somalia failed, but that did not mean it was wrong. The problem was that he refused to swallow his own medicine. Even in his first cabinet, appointed in 1969, half of the fourteen ministers were from the dictator’s own Darod Marehan clan, a bias that only grew more pronounced as his rule progressed.
Tribalism and the violence it engendered, Matan argued, were not natural to Somalia but were a foreign construct of the nineteenth century, ‘an aid to colonial control’. He explained that at the Berlin Conference of 1884 the imperial powers, having carved up Somalia between them on a map, agreed to keep order in their respective dominions by creating enmities between clans that had previously co-existed in peace.
‘Somalis are the classic victims of divide and rule,’ he said.
The Green Line in Galkacyo was the direct legacy of this manipulation. So was the ongoing border dispute between Puntland and Somaliland. Matan explained that he himself came from an aristocratic Darod Dolbahante family who had once followed the Mad Mullah, and that every one of his great-grandparents had been killed at Taleh in 1920.
‘I used to believe that it was the British with their aircraft who had killed them, but no: it was Isaaq tribesmen, armed by the British, who followed on. They were responsible for the massacre.’
On a recent visit to Mogadishu – his first time back in Somalia since he had left as a child – Matan was briefly detained and questioned for taking photographs at the airport by jittery South African SKE security men, an experience that explicitly reminded him of the famous foundation myth of the Dervishes, the arrest of the Sayyid in Berbera in 1895.
‘I thought to myself: “I’m Somali: how dare you stop me at my own airport?”’
He had gone to Mogadishu to deliver a consignment of food aid raised through the ATM for famine victims in the city, enough to feed 220 families for three months. At one distribution point, however, his team was surrounded by forty gunmen who demanded dollars and a substantial chunk of the aid consignment, and who underlined their claim by firing their weapons into the air. Matan had not previously appreciated that the graft in Mogadishu could be so crude.
‘It was horrible, shocking, what I witnessed,’ he said.
The gunmen answered to Yusuf Mohamed Siad, a notorious former Islamist warlord known as Inda-Ade (‘White Eyes’), who had briefly served as Minister of Defence in the TFG, although he had resigned over a year previously to start up his own faction. What Matan found most amazing was that Inda-Ade’s men, who were really no more than onshore pirates, were nevertheless still dressed in government army uniforms.
Matan, unsurprisingly, had no more time for the 4.5 clan formula than Ayaan did – ‘I can’t understand it. How can anyone be half a person?’ he joked – while noting, with sudden earnestness, that the TFG’s rules were at present scandalously unfair towards the young.
‘There is a rule at the moment that an MP must be married, must be well known in their constituency, and that they must be over thirty-five. That rule must not remain in the constitution.’
He had written to the TFG urging this and several other constitutional changes, notably for a solid commitment to the principle of One Man, One Vote, although lobbying in this way was only a small part of the ATM’s programme.
Matan was planning to send over 150 diaspora Somalis, all Western-trained, local authority officials like him, to work as unpaid interns in the home country’s various administrations, in order to ‘teach them how to operate, and to show them how corruption is killing Somalia’.
The ATM wanted to send doctors to Mogadishu, and was organizing further famine relief. They had already begun work on a ‘Building of Hope’ on the Green Line in Galkacyo, and were seeking funds from DfID, UNDP, Somali business leaders, local London councils, and the National Lottery to establish a national ‘Peace Day’ across Somalia, an event that would be organized by a ‘liberty leader’ appointed in each of the country’s eighteen regions, and which would coincide with a series of ‘reconciliation sessions’ around the diaspora.
‘When that day comes, we will show the older generation that it is our time now,’ he said.
Some of Matan’s ideas, such as a plan to set up an ‘alternative youth parliament’ in Mogadishu, sounded impossibly ambitious, particularly to older Somalis who remembered the failure of past attempts to eradicate tribalism. But the ATM could not easily be dismissed as naive, because both the American and the British governments took such diaspora youth organizations seriously. There was a belated but growing realization among politicians as well as Western counter-terrorism officials that it was essential to engage with the younger generation, because it was from them that the threat to Western security principally emanated. This was why, in the run-up to the London Conference on Somalia in February 2012, a major international event attended by senior representatives of forty governments and organizations, Matan was included in a group of diaspora representatives invited to Downing Street for a consultation with the prime minister.
The ATM was not the only pioneering, cross-clan Somali-British youth organization. Andy Pring, a coordinator on the government’s Prevent counter-radicalization programme, knew of at least seven comparable groups in London alone, including the one that he was most closely involved with, the south-London-based Elays Network (slogan: ‘Youth empowering their peers for a safer today and a better tomorrow’). I went to meet Pring and a dozen or so young Somalis at the Network’s Battersea Park Road headquarters, a long, thin room on the ground floor of a high-rise block on the enormous Doddington housing estate, in an area of London infamous for muggings and drug-related crime. A Somali, 20-year-old Mahad Mohammed, had been knifed to death on the nearby Winstanley Estate in July 2010.
Pring, who had spent time in Quetta and the West Bank, spoke ‘rusty’ Arabic, and had once briefly considered converting to Islam, explained that Elays did not tackle radicalism directly. It was more about building the self-esteem of young Somalis through sport and other activities, particularly film-making, that took them off the streets and away from crime; although, as the Pakistani London MP Sadiq Khan had remarked to him recently, the progression from there to radicalism was ‘the path well trodden’. Elays meant ‘light’ in the sense of a lighthouse, a beacon to guide travellers on the right path.
The organization was unusual in that it was almost entirely youth-led: another good example of young diaspora Somalis who were willing and had learned to help themselves. There was only one Somali adult involved, a quietly spoken volunteer ‘project manager’ called Mohamed Ali, who thought the risk of radicalization had been badly hyped by the media.
‘I promise you, the last thing on any of these kids’ minds when they come in here is religion,’ he said.
Nevertheless, he ran an evening Koran class that had proved popular with the Network members.
‘Somali Londoners are trying to mix cultures, and there are a lot of crazies out there. We do need to teach kids the real meaning of the Koran, and to correct any wrong impressions they may have about, for instance, the concept of jihad. And I do teach them that Islam doesn’t endorse suicide bombing. But most of all, the Koran is a life guide . . . if you get to the student young enough, it prevents social problems later.’
In the manner of Ayaan or Adam Matan or the Somali Youth Club of the 1940s, he never allowed any discussion of the clans in his classes.
For a small local youth organization, Elays had support in some surprisingly high places. The Battersea Somalis were the darlings of the US embassy, which had encouraged them to set up a public relations campaign under the banner ‘That’s not our Jihad’. Two of their number had travelled to Washington recently to help set up a State Department-funded counter-radicalism website. A larger group, including Andy Pring, had just been asked to the US ambassador’s annual Eid celebration garden party at Winfield House, his official residence in Regent’s Park. And in 2011 when Elays launched a film – a drama called Pentagon, about the racial stereotypes faced by five London Somali brothers – an embassy press attaché was sent down to Battersea to teach them how to write a press release. The Americans’ overt engagement with London Somali youth was the polar opposite of the softly-softly approach through local partnerships advocated by SO15. Elays, however, didn’t seem to mind being associated with the US embassy one bit.
Their unlikely relationship dated from 2008 when Quintan Wiktorowicz, a former professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, spent several months attached to the London embassy, studying British Islamism and its link to terrorism. He went on to join the White House National Security Council where he was put in charge of the US version of Prevent. Wiktorowicz, who interviewed hundreds of young London Muslims (and who concluded, not uncontroversially, that it was the most religious among them who were the least likely to end up being radicalized), had apparently singled out the Elays Network as one of the best counter-radicalization youth projects in London. To the US, it seemed, the doctrine of ‘early intervention’ meant countering radicalism by whatever means and wherever possible, including abroad if that lessened the chance of terrorism reaching America’s shores. It was hard to imagine the British embassy in Washington taking this level of interest in a Somali youth organization in Ohio or Minnesota.
The diaspora experience was a double-edged sword. It could lead Somali youth into a crisis of isolation and despair, and from there towards drugs, criminal gangs, extremism and terrorism. But other young Somalis had understood and exploited what the West had to offer, and emerged from their often difficult childhoods as rounded, educated, employable citizens who had forged a new kind of identity for themselves. The money they earned and remitted back home dwarfed the sums that the international community was able to muster, and was responsible for small miracles of post-war reconstruction and famine relief. They had learned the technical expertise and taken on board the liberal Western values that their broken country needed if it was ever to be fixed – and a great many of them were impressively, movingly, prepared to go back and apply the lessons they had learned. In fact, the further into the Somali diaspora I travelled, the more certain I became that the salvation of their homeland rested in the hands of the young.
Mohamed ‘Tarzan’ Nur, the Mayor of Mogadishu and a one-time Labour candidate for Camden Council, whom I had met under fire at the Villa Somalia in Mogadishu, was regularly portrayed in the British press as a model returnee: brave, selfless, determined to use his skills to help rebuild his country. Early one summer evening I went to meet Shamis, Tarzan’s wife, and three of their six, twenty-something children, at the family’s council flat on an estate near Queen’s Crescent in Kentish Town, and found them to be no less convincing examples of the new diaspora breed. Shamis was a kindly, effusive woman who fed me hot samosas, cheesecake and raspberry juice, and whose mothering instinct was so strong that before the evening was out she had declared that I was like another son to her.
‘I hate the tribes,’ she said. ‘I never taught my kids their lineage. Somalis are just Somalis.’
‘The 4.5 formula is just a child’s mentality,’ added her 25-year-old daughter, another Ayaan, squashed up on the sofa next to her. ‘Of course ministers should be appointed on merit, not according to clan.’
The flat was small but tidy, with plush leather furniture, gold tassels on the curtains and an Islamic homily in Arabic hanging on one wall, although what the visitor was supposed to notice were the framed photographs of the Nur children, each of them wearing a gown and mortarboard on the day that they graduated. In Mogadishu I had spotted a public information poster with the caption ‘Our best chance for happiness is education’, a slogan that might have been coined in the Siad Barre era. It was a principle that the Nur family had evidently taken to heart. Shamis had worked as a teacher in London for fourteen years. She was also a former community link worker for Sure Start, the government programme dedicated to improving children’s early education.
Her faith in the power of schooling was, perhaps, characteristic of the Somalis. When Gerald Hanley visited Mogadishu in 1962, he found the newly independent populace gripped by a ‘madness about education’, a passion for learning so strong that the captain of the barge that took him ashore complained that ‘they would eat a book if you gave it to them, some of the young men nowadays’. Hanley observed: ‘There cannot be anywhere in Africa with such ready and hungry people, with such swift minds, waiting to read their way out of a thousand years of dependence on the camel, and the spears that had ensured its possession . . . When the education factories start work among them they should surprise Africa, and themselves.’10
The education factories, however, were destroyed by the civil war; it was partly in order to find new ones for their children that the Nurs had moved to Britain in the early 1990s. And now Ayaan had a degree in criminology from Middlesex University and was hoping for a job with the police. Abdullah, 21, the youngest, was studying digital media studies at London Metropolitan. His older sister Mona had a post-graduate qualification in sexual health and was working at the Whittington Hospital in Islington. A third sister, Maryan, was hoping for a university internship in New York.
The family had moved to London so long ago that the younger children had little or no memory of their native country, and considered themselves almost more British than Somali. Both Ayaan and Abdullah spoke fluent estuarine English, their accents coarse and glottal.
‘My Somali is terrible,’ Ayaan confessed. ‘Some of the newer arrivals can’t believe it when they hear me.’
At the same time, the children were close followers of what was happening back in Mogadishu and intensely proud of what their father was doing there, although concerned for his safety.
‘Dheere is out of prison now,’ said Ayaan. ‘We’re worried what he might do to Dad in revenge.’*
Shamis, although not her children, had been back to Mogadishu briefly in 2010 to visit her husband, and found it deeply dispiriting.
‘Everything is so ugly there now, and nothing works. We were once the cleanest country in Africa, but now even the shower water is salty.’
She made an interesting, if sweeping, observation about the difference between her ‘old’ generation and the younger one.
‘The old Somalis are mostly good people, but you can’t trust the new ones. They are too traumatized. They have seen so much killing and blood . . . I couldn’t sleep when I went back to Mogadishu, but those people don’t notice the gunfire any more.’
It was clear that she was not the only one who thought the Somalis left behind had been almost literally dehumanized by exposure to so much violence.
‘When Mohamed became mayor, my Somali neighbours here said, “Ask him to come back! Those people will hunt him like an animal!”’
Later in the evening she began to describe how Mogadishu had been when she was young. She remembered listening to James Brown records, watching the latest Fellini films at the cinema, and reading magazines with names like Photo-Romanca.
‘We were a developing country then. We could have been like South Africa. But everything went backwards because of the war.’
Shamis produced a photograph of her and Tarzan taken in 1980 which made her children hoot with laughter. They both wore the platform shoes and flares of the high disco period. Shamis was wearing a miniskirt and long, pretty earrings beneath an immense Afro hairdo, in striking contrast to the abaya and scarf that now enveloped her.
‘I never wore a scarf before 1989,’ she said. ‘Hardly anyone in Mogadishu did.’
I asked what she thought had prompted that sartorial revolution and she shrugged, as though she had never given it much thought.
‘We were still Muslims inside when we wore miniskirts, but it wasn’t a big thing,’ she said. ‘It was the war that turned us religious. Maybe the war was our punishment for being bad Muslims.’
The family all hated qat. Nur senior, indeed, had organized a local campaign against it, following a savage murder in a Kentish Town marfish one Saturday night in 2003. A 33-year-old supermarket shelf stacker, Hassan Abdullahi, had been watching Match of the Day with some friends when another Somali, Abdi Aziz Warsame, thirty-one, attacked and killed him with an eight-inch kitchen knife.
‘There were a dozen other people in the marfish,’ Abdullah added, ‘but they were all too stoned to do anything.’
Warsame claimed, bizarrely, that he had killed Abdullahi in self-defence. At his trial, though, he also admitted to feelings of paranoia, which no Somali doubted had been caused by anything other than too much qat.11
The Nur children had grown up in a rough neighbourhood. The nearby Queen’s Crescent was once so notorious for gang violence that it was nicknamed ‘the Murder Mile’. The district’s drug dealers delineated their territories by tying a pair of sneakers together and slinging them over one of the telegraph wires that crisscrossed the streets. There were several local Somali gangs with names like the Money Squad, the African Nation Crew and the Centrics. They fought the black and Asian gangs for supremacy, and also rival Somali gangs from Tottenham, sometimes with fatal results.
‘The Somalis got the upper hand in Queen’s Crescent cos they’re more men’al,’ said Abdullah. ‘They don’t give me any trouble. I knew a lot of them at school. They were the ones who were always smoking weed, skipping classes.’
‘You would be under more pressure if you mixed with Somalis more,’ said his mother.
‘It’s worse in Toron’o,’ Abdullah shrugged. ‘There are some guns here but not like over there. A friend of mine got shot there.’
It was simply good parenting, and the ethos of achievement and self-improvement that the grown-ups had instilled in the family, that had kept Abdullah on the right path and away from the gangs. Islam played a role, although not an overbearing one. When I asked Abdullah when he’d last been to mosque he said on Friday – which drew a sarcastic ‘Yeah, right’ from Ayaan, followed by a disapproving cluck from their mother, and then an angry look from Abdullah at his sister for betraying him. It was clear enough that he was more interested in nightclubbing than attending Friday prayers. He said that he had attended a traditional Sufi mosque in Tottenham, once, but he found their mysticism too much to take and he hadn’t been back.
‘It was all music and drums and stuff,’ he said. ‘I got quite scared.’
By strange coincidence, the teenaged Abdullah had been passing through King’s Cross tube station on 7 July 2005 when Germaine Lindsay detonated his bomb that killed twenty-six people.
‘I had my iPod plugs in but I still heard the bang. Then I saw smoke and I started running.’
There seemed little danger of him being radicalized.
His sister Ayaan’s religious stance was more enigmatic. On the one hand she had no time for extremism, either in Britain or in Somalia.
‘Some Somalis do go back to fight for al-Shabaab, but their star is waning. People talk about them all the time on Universal TV. It’s madness what they are doing. Proper explicit!’
On the other hand, it emerged that she had only recently begun to wear an abaya like her mother. She also kept her head tightly covered throughout our interview. Her conservatism was not quite as it appeared, however.
‘I put an abaya on during Ramadan last year and I’ve been wearing one ever since,’ she said. ‘I like wearing it. It’s comfortable and easy to wear.’
One of the advantages of a scarf, she admitted, was that it allowed her to go out when her hair was in a mess. The nose-stud she wore also suggested that her abaya was at least partly to do with fashion. She said she would never wear a full veil, as did her genuinely conservative sister-in-law, whom she disparaged as ‘a ninja’. And yet she understood that the headscarf was a ‘badge of Islam’, and had thought through the implications of wearing one of those. In this she was very like Nimco Ahmed in Minneapolis, who at some quite deep level also wanted people to know she was a Muslim. Both women understood that the traditional outward appearance of their religion had been stolen by the extremists, and were quietly intent on reclaiming it for themselves. Shamis, backtracking on what she had said earlier about the headscarf, recalled how some young Somali women in Mogadishu in the 1980s had covered their heads as an act of rebellion against Siad Barre and his aggressively secular scientific socialism.
‘Wearing a scarf is like being an ambassador for Islam,’ Ayaan added. ‘You can’t choose your destiny, but maybe you can choose your identity.’
Taken together, the Nur family presented an impressive riposte to those who claimed that multiculturalism in Britain wasn’t working. They were not the Islamist ghetto-dwellers of popular imagination but almost model citizens of the world: ambitious, forward- and outward-looking young people who would undoubtedly end up as net contributors to the society that had taken them in as refugees.
‘I don’t even have any Somali friends,’ said Abdullah. ‘My mates are Bosnian, Bengali, Turkish, English.’
If multiculturalism meant knowing how to adapt to a new host environment – an essential part of nomadism, after all – then these Somalis were naturals.
Even so, it was no easy task, working out how to be a good Muslim in the suspicious West. The children had been brought up to feel gratitude towards a state that had given them housing and benefit and education, but now, according to Abdullah, the London Somali community was ‘confused . . . people are very grateful, but they are feeling a bit persecuted these days. They can’t understand why the system is starting to turn against them.’
This was not paranoia. Shamis explained how in 2008, her eldest son, Mohamed, a youth worker for the Kentish Town Somali Welfare Association – a body that his father had in fact set up through the local community organization – had been so badly harassed by MI5 that he complained to his MP about it, and eventually went to the newspapers with his story. Shamis was able to produce the relevant cutting from the Independent. ‘Exclusive,’ I read. ‘How MI5 blackmails British Muslims.’12
Mohamed, now twenty-nine, had been eight years old when he came to Britain, and had always been more religiously inclined than his siblings. In 2003, aged twenty, he went to Egypt for a while to study Islam and Arabic.
‘He never smoked or did anything wrong when he was young,’ Shamis said. ‘He wore a beard and he always went to mosque.’
One morning at 6 a.m. in August 2008, Mohamed opened the door of his Camden flat to a postman carrying a red Royal Mail bag. He turned out to be an MI5 agent in disguise, who accused him, first, of being an Islamic extremist. When Mohamed denied this, the agent revealed the true purpose of his approach, which was to coerce him into working for British intelligence.
‘The agent said, “Mohamed, if you do not work for us we will tell any foreign country you try to travel to that you are a suspected terrorist.”’
MI5 were obviously desperate to infiltrate the Kentish Town community organization, for they approached five other Somali workers there in much the same heavy-breathing way. None of the six complied.
Shamis still felt genuinely hurt by what had happened to Mohamed, as well as baffled that anyone could think that any of her children could become a terrorist.
‘This country has been like a mother to us,’ she said. ‘I love this country, I don’t have another. And my kids don’t know any other home. Why would they burn their own house?’
It was a fair question. According to Shamis, MI5 had even briefly taken away Mohamed Jnr’s mobile phone and iPod. It was a stupid as well as a shabby way to treat an immigrant Muslim family as blameless as the Nurs, and if it was as typical as Abdullah claimed, it was no wonder if London’s Somalis felt ‘a bit confused’.
The previous November, David Cameron had described Somalia as ‘a failed state that directly threatens British interests’, citing the radicalization of young Somali Britons, attacks on British tourists, and the impunity with which the pirates apparently continued to operate.13 Among the victims he had in mind were the retired yachting couple from Tunbridge Wells, Paul and Rachel Chandler, who were released alive in November 2010 after hundreds of thousands of pounds of ransom money had been paid, 388 days after their yacht, the Lynn Rival, was boarded off the Seychelles.
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the Chandlers’ long ordeal was that the public campaign to rescue them was led not by the British government, or even by the British, but principally by London Somalis appalled at the way the couple had been treated by their countrymen. According to the SO15 officer Paul Birch, mainstream Britain tended to look on Somalis as part of the ‘feral underclass’ that the justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, identified as being responsible for the 2011 summer riots, a characterization that Birch thought profoundly unfair. He had recently attended a Somali famine relief rally in Regent’s Park, where he had seen for himself how astonishingly public-spirited the Somali community could be: ‘Not feral at all,’ as he put it.
The Chandler campaign’s rallying point was an earnest music video called Sii Daaya Lamaanaha – ‘Release the Couple’ – a performance of which was recorded by Universal TV and became a modest hit on YouTube.14 With exquisite irony, the performance and its recording were organized by Tarzan Nur’s Kentish Town Somali Welfare Association, a part of the very body that MI5 once considered such a threat to British security that they had tried to infiltrate it.
‘We started that campaign!’ said Ayaan Nur. ‘The video galvanized Somali public opinion. There was a lot of shame here about the way that old couple were treated. They weren’t rich, and they hadn’t done anyone any harm.’
Somali donations to the Save the Chandlers fighting fund reportedly reached £150,000, some of which may have been used to pay the pirates’ ransom. This was in marked contrast to the British government which, in line with long-established ransom policy, contributed nothing.
The Chandlers’ release was negotiated on the ground by Dahir Kadiye, 56, a former minicab driver from Leyton in east London, who was born in the noted pirate town of Adado and belonged to the same Hawiye Saleban sub-clan as the pirates. His involvement was said to have begun when his 17-year-old son, Yussuf, saw television footage of the Chandlers in captivity and urged his father to do something about it. Kadiye then spent nine months shuttling back and forth to Adado urging the Saleban elders to pressurize the pirates to negotiate a deal.
The whole story seemed an example of the diaspora operating at its very best, and turned the usual media narrative about Muslim immigrants dramatically on its head. When the Chandlers were released, even the Sun – a newspaper that had long positioned itself as a bulwark against what it called Britain’s immigrant ‘tidal wave’ – took Kadiye to its heart, describing him as ‘a brave ex-London cabbie’ who had heroically saved the Chandlers from the ‘bloodthirsty pirates’.15 Britain’s collective imagination was so gripped by this stirring triumph of good over evil that Kadiye was taken on to the books of Max Clifford, the famous celebrity publicist. Hollywood was also rumoured to be interested.
And yet Kadiye seemed unlikely filmstar material, as I found out when I went to meet him in his Leyton council flat. He was, in the first place, not nearly as anglicized as the ‘London cabbie’ description suggested, but a Somali of the old school, who spoke English poorly for someone who had lived here for twenty years. He entertained me with tea and cakes in the formal style of his homeland while his wife, unequivocally veiled, hovered dutifully in the background. At one point he broke off our conversation to scold her for not serving me properly. He reminded me of an old Somali saying I had read of: Caado la gooyaa car alle ayey leedahay (‘the abandonment of tradition calls forth the wrath of Allah’).16 I was unsurprised to discover that he had never heard of Adam Matan’s Anti-Tribalism Movement.
Neither Kadiye nor his role in the release of the Chandlers was quite as reported. The morality of his tale was not black and white as Hollywood and the tabloids liked it, but an ambivalent shade of grey. Although it was true that he had driven a minicab when he first arrived in London in 1991, and indeed had risen to become a director of a company called Delta Chauffeurs in the Euston Road, Kadiye was more of a wheeler-dealing entrepreneur than a cabbie. He had small-time, family business connections all over Somalia, with interests in the import and export of everything from construction materials to bananas, fish and livestock. He had in any case cashed in his shares in Delta Chauffeurs by 2009, and used the money to set up the Somali branch of Tacforce International, a Dubai-based private security firm that specialized in hostage crisis management. In early 2009, well before the Chandlers’ kidnap, Kadiye had visited Adado, Harardheere and Hobyo to carry out what he called a ‘field assessment’ of the piracy problem. Whatever else it might have been, therefore, helping the Chandlers was also a savvy business move, an opportunity cannily grasped to advertise Tacforce’s services while gaining a foothold in a lucrative but notoriously crowded market sector.
‘In my heart I am a businessman,’ he told me. ‘My dream for the future is for TIS [Tacforce International Somalia] to launch and to operate and to make a profit.’
It was never entirely clear how much ransom money was eventually paid out (although Kadiye said that it totalled $400,000), or, precisely, to whom. Nor was it certain where all the money came from. According to one report – hotly denied by Kadiye – ‘a rich Somali woman living in the Persian Gulf’ had contributed $100,000 to the final ransom pot to ensure that the deal went through.17
I asked the Chandlers by telephone in early 2012 – by when they had published a book about their experience and were back in Southampton, preparing for another world cruise on the Lynn Rival – but not even they were sure.
None of this meant that Kadiye was insincere about helping the Chandlers. On the contrary, he explained with convincing passion how the couple’s kidnap was ‘to the shame of all Somalis; it was maybe the only thing we have all agreed on since 1991’. The British Somali role in the Chandlers’ release had put his community in the best possible light, and he was proud of that, as well as pleased that it had given others something to be proud about.
‘My goal is to help people, and to create a bridge between my two communities,’ he said.
He had approached Waltham Forest Council to help him to go on a lecture tour, although the council, to his disappointment, had declined.
‘The lack of communication: that is our greatest problem,’ he said. ‘My right hand is Somali but my left hand is British. I have to find a bridge . . . There are so many in the Somali community who want to do good, but they don’t have the access.’
His campaign against the pirates was certainly well pitched. Armed with Universal TV footage of demonstrations and the music video from north London, Kadiye spent much of 2010 crisscrossing central Somalia where he met with ‘maybe 80 per cent’ of the Saleban’s clan elders, to whom he argued that releasing the Chandlers was more than just a moral duty – it was also an obligation according to magan,* a pillar of the traditional, pre-Islamic nomadic honour code.
‘If you walk from Galkacyo to Mogadishu, nomads will feed and shelter you. But the tradition is that you must return the favour whenever you can . . . I explained to the elders that 300,000 Somalis had been given food and shelter in Britain, and that this was paid for by British taxpayers like the Chandlers. I made them see that we owed them.’
The same point had been made in the lyrics of the music video from Camden:
Our people fled their homes
The host countries did not look at the colour of our skins
We need to show our debt to them,
For it is the donkey who does not acknowledge the debt
Appealing to the Saleban elders’ sense of clan honour was not the only line of Kadiye’s attack.
‘I tried every argument in the book,’ he said. ‘I told them that if they pressurized the pirates, they would benefit directly through an increase in foreign aid – although they have not seen any benefit yet.’
There was one argument that he did not try, however, and that was old-fashioned moral censure. He was, in truth, in no position to condemn the kidnappers on those grounds, because as the Saleban clan elders well knew, some of Kadiye’s own extended family were in the piracy business too – a detail that might have caused the Sun to report his story rather differently had they known of it. And yet Kadiye himself was disconcertingly open about it. He explained how a cousin, a respected elder who lived in Hobyo, had six sons. This family, he said, were relatively well-to-do, with a flock of a hundred sheep and goats, although none of the sons had ever worked as a herdsman. The two eldest sons were in fact dead: killed in clan fighting after joining the local militia. Of the remaining four, two had gone to sea to try their luck as pirates, where the youngest two would soon be joining them.
The family had been forced into piracy, Kadiye explained, by simple economics.
‘A five-year-old sheep is worth $48: enough money to feed the family for three weeks. But there is no market for the sheep, because the nearest port is 600 kilometres away at Bossasso – and there is no possibility of reaching Bossasso because of clan problems. The family could kill and eat the sheep, which would feed them for 24 hours, but if they did that the herd would be gone in three months, and the family would be destitute. Now, my cousin says to me: “If one of my sons goes to sea, and survives, we get a million dollars, and no one ever has to be a pirate again” . . . Tell me, what else can they do?’
‘Have they tried fishing?’ I suggested. But Kadiye, increasingly agitated, shook his head.
‘If a boy does that he ends up being stopped by your navy and put in jail. And they have no boats, no freezers, no training, no healthcare. Meanwhile the West spends $2 billion a year on anti-piracy patrols . . . It’s crazy! We haveto make a better life for these people. Sometimes it makes me cry.’
I looked up to find that Kadiye’s face had crumpled and that he was, indeed, sniffing back tears.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said when he had regained his composure, ‘but my people are dying very easily.’
Dahir Kadiye’s story in some ways epitomized Somalia’s tragedy. I thought he was essentially a good man, not a bad or callous one, who knew that piracy was cruel and wrong. And yet he refused entirely to condemn it, because in his eyes the crime could be justified by the imperative of survival. The complexity of this moral conundrum was enough to make anyone cry.
The paradox was that he understood very well what lay at the root of Somalia’s troubles: the unending clan violence that had killed his cousin’s two eldest sons and prevented the rest from trading or travelling, thus forcing the family into piracy and robbing them all of the chance of a decent life. Clanism had almost destroyed Somalia and was ultimately responsible for the death and displacement of millions of his countrymen, including Kadiye himself. And yet, even after twenty years in Britain, he was unable – or stubbornly unwilling – to consider any alternative.
In Kadiye’s view, it was not clanism that was to blame for Somalia’s troubles but that amorphous entity ‘the West’ for failing to intervene as they should have done. The West was also culpable for the misbehaviour of the diaspora young, because they had failed to understand the importance of the parental discipline inherent to a traditional Somali upbringing. He typified an older, conservative kind of Somali whose faith in the old ways of doing things was unshakeable.
‘We Somalis had our own culture when we arrived here in London in 1991,’ he said, ‘but the West forced us to follow their culture, and it was too strong for us. Fathers have lost control of their sons because they are not allowed to beat or shout at them. The government has to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the parents, otherwise the Somalis will become the worst people in the world!’
In the spring of 2012 I had begun to prepare for another trip to East Africa, where the battle for the soul of Somali youth had entered a dangerous new phase. Although the war appeared to be over in Mogadishu, al-Shabaab’s campaign of terror there decidedly was not. The conventional fighting, meanwhile, had shifted away as the insurgents retreated on their stronghold, the far southern port of Kismayo. And it was to the troubled south that I was hoping to go, for it was here that the future of Islamism in East Africa would surely be decided.
‘Al-Shabaab?’ said Kadiye when I mentioned this. ‘They are not proper Muslims. I think some of them are Christians, even . . . It’s just business for the leadership. I know some of them. My wife is Marehan, the same as al-Shabaab’s Commanding Officer in Kismayo. In fact, I called Kismayo last night.’
For some Somalis, it seemed, the bonds of clan would never truly be broken, even by an ideology as dangerous as al-Shabaab’s.
* For an explanation, see Chapter 5, page 94–5.
* Magan is similar to the Afghan Pashtun custom of nanawatai, the obligation to grant sanctuary to anyone who asks for it, even an enemy; and is closely related to the Bedouin tradition of offering hospitality to travellers known as diyafa.