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


Chapter 15. Operation Linda Nchi: The end for al-Shabaab?

Besançon to Nairobi, March–June 2012

The civil war had scattered Somalis to some unlikely places around the world, although few were stranger than where Mohamed Mohamed Abdi had ended up. For almost thirty years this former Minister of Defence, who at sixty-three was still a senior MP in the Mogadishu parliament, had lived in the suburbs of Besançon, the capital of Franche-Compté, a sub-Alpine region of eastern France world-renowned for its cheese.

It was early March 2012, and snow was piled high on either side of the road from Geneva airport. The two-hour drive to Besançon was skiddy and mountainous, and I wondered briefly if the effort was worth it. Mohamed Abdi was interesting, though, for he was no ordinary Somali politician in exile. A holder of PhDs in geology and anthropology, and the author of eight books that dealt with such subjects as the importance of phallic symbolism in the Horn of Africa’s prehistoric stelae, he was universally known as Gandhi because, as he liked to explain, he was ‘against violence’.

A year previously, Professor Gandhi had announced the establishment of a large new semi-autonomous region in Somalia, with himself as its president. This federal statelet, he said, would comprise the three southern provinces abutting Kenya: Gedo and Lower and Middle Juba, an area inhabited by 1.3 million people. His project did not look likely to succeed at first, for these areas were still firmly under the control of al-Shabaab in 2011. Many Somalis rolled their eyes at what they perceived as Gandhi’s overweening ambition. This was the tenth region to declare semi-autonomy in the last seven years. But Gandhi was supported from the outset by Kenya, who liked the idea of a stable buffer state along their lawless and porous eastern border; and in October 2011, when Kenyan troops suddenly invaded Somalia in an operation codenamed Linda Nchi (‘Protect the Country’ in Swahili), everything changed for Gandhi.

I was greeted at the door of his house by his wife Christine, who turned out to be a former industrial chemist from northern France. The couple had met at Besançon University, where she was studying and he had been sent on a scholarship by the Somali Ministry of Education. They eventually married and settled where their relationship started, and now had three student-age children of their own. With his round, bald head and eyes that twinkled behind glasses, Gandhi did faintly resemble his Indian namesake, although tonight he was not wearing the homespun cloth favoured by Mahatma but a comfy-looking black and white jumper. He led me through to the dining area while Christine prepared supper in the kitchen – spaghetti Bolognese, still the de facto national dish of Somalia – and, in a mixture of French and English, began to explain his semi-autonomizing plans.

His new polity, fantastically, was to be called Azania. The name turned out to have nothing to do with the fictional nation in Evelyn Waugh’s 1930s comic novel, Black Mischief, of which Gandhi had never heard. Azania, he explained with the enthusiasm of a true anthropologist, was what the Romans had called this part of the East African coast, a place mentioned by both Pliny and Ptolemy in the first century. The boundaries of ancient Azania were unclear – some scholars thought it extended as far south as Tanzania – although what mattered to Gandhi was his belief that the word derived from ajam, the Arabic word for a non-Arab, a foreigner.

‘I wanted something that would reflect the Somali identity,’ he explained. ‘We are not Arabs, as some people say. Azania means “the country of non-Arabs”. This is very important to us in the south.’

Gandhi explained how, at a conference at Limuru near Nairobi in March 2010, over four hundred regional delegates had agreed on a draft constitution for Azania, drawn up with reference to all three of Somalia’s legal traditions: the secular law once applied by the Italians, Sharia law, and xeer. The delegates had agreed on a bi-cameral parliament in which all thirty-seven sub-clans living in the region would be represented. The 4.5 clan formula adhered to elsewhere was specifically rejected. Azania’s clan-inclusiveness, Gandhi insisted, would make his statelet quite unlike the other autonomous or semi-autonomous regions, all of which were fundamentally mono-clan entities.

‘The south of Somalia has a greater mix of clans than anywhere else,’ he said. ‘Azania has Bantu people, Sheekhaal people, Marehan, Hawiye, Biamal . . . All these groups are fighting against al-Shabaab côte à côte, with the Kenyans behind. If we can get peace here, Azania could be a model for the whole country to follow.’

His new government, he added, was ready to start administrating right away. They had divided Azania up into fifteen districts, and even agreed where the capital should be, at Bu’ale on the river in Middle Juba. There was only one obstacle – a considerable one, I thought – which was that Bu’ale was still occupied by al-Shabaab. I wondered why he had picked such an obscure town as his future capital. Did he perhaps have in mind a particular building his government could occupy?

‘No,’ he grinned, ‘there is nothing at Bu’ale. We will use someone’s ordinary house. Or we could meet like the elders, under a tree.’

There were, it seemed to me, many worse models for Somalia to follow. I found Gandhi inspiring: a rare example of an older generation Somali whose rejection of clanism was both sincere and closely reasoned. He insisted, for instance, that the Western stereotype of violent Somalia was unfair. Inter-clan aggression, he thought, was a kind of default position for people with ‘empty’ heads, who were in no way representative of his countrymen.

‘The West interprets clanism as un fléau – a scourge, a national curse. But it is not the Somali norm. Clanism is new. It is just the legacy of a terrible civil war.’

His worldview was close to that I had heard from many young diaspora Somalis, and the precise opposite of the likes of Dahir Kadiye in Leyton. Like Ayaan in Ealing, he stoutly refused to reveal his clan lineage when I asked (although it was actually no secret that he was one of the Ogadeni Darod, and therefore among the majority in the Azania region).

He seemed, in fact, to have consciously embraced the West’s liberal values when he settled in France all those years ago. This was a man, after all, who had married an infidel, a Frenchwoman who had not converted to Islam. After the spaghetti, the First Lady of Azania stayed listening to her husband talk, occasionally interjecting that Somalis were all foux, or else commenting on the antics of the family cat, Schubert. She translated the odd difficult French word for her husband, and plied me with the alcoholic speciality of the region, a sherry-like vin jaune. Gandhi, teetotal, looked on benignly.

‘I am not a very good Muslim,’ he shrugged, ‘but I am a Muslim nevertheless.’

Their two sons who were present had evidently been raised in the Western tradition, and were still busy forging their own complicated, transnational identities. Rageh, the older boy, came in just before suppertime. He was ostentatiously draped around his defiantly Asian girlfriend, with whom he was about to go out on the town, this being a Saturday evening. The younger son Sami, who was staying in, had long hair tied back in a trendy bun, and wore a T-shirt that read Citoyen du Monde.

Gandhi’s stout defence of the Somali national character reminded me strongly of Nuruddin Farah, the novelist, who had taken the same line with me over dinner in Minneapolis. Farah’s friend Shuke, the revered head of the Puntland Development and Research Center in Garowe, and even Mohamed Omaar, the Foreign Minister in Mogadishu, had been equally impatient with my suggestion that the Somalis’ capacity for violence was innate. I was not particularly surprised to discover that Gandhi knew all these men well. They belonged to the same class and generation, and were all prominent in public life. At the same time, the faith they shared in the underlying goodness of their countrymen was striking, for it was not a view commonly held in Somalia.

The explanation, I assumed, lay in their upbringing. As children born in the 1950s, they were fortunate to have benefitted from Siad Barre’s state-sponsored educational revolution in the 1960s and ’70s. It meant that they were members of the last Somali generation to have received, collectively, any peacetime, university-level training. Gandhi and his peers were thus ageing but unique showcases for their country’s immense potential: impressive and eloquent flag-bearers for the Somalia that might once have been, and perhaps could be again one day.

For now, though, Azania remained a pipedream. Its success was entirely dependent on the continuing support of Kenya, and it was by no means certain that Gandhi could rely on that, for he was not the only regional player with plans for southern Somalia. The KDF, the Kenyan Defence Force, had other local allies, notably the Raskamboni Movement, a militia led by the former governor of Kismayo (and former ally of al-Shabaab), Sheikh Ahmed Madobe; and Nairobi was bound to back whoever looked likeliest to succeed militarily against their enemies.

This was because the implications of Operation Linda Nchi were existential for Kenya, and not just because it was that country’s first ever foreign military venture. The brainchild of the Internal Security Minister, George Saitoti, the invasion followed a spate of al-Shabaab-linked kidnaps and murders of Western aid workers and tourists on Kenyan territory, which Saitoti quickly announced ‘would not be tolerated’. It was certainly true that tourism was, and remains, vital to the Kenyan economy. But it was also true that the murder of tourists provided a welcome justificatory figleaf for an otherwise unprovoked invasion of someone else’s country. The abduction in September 2011 of David and Judith Tebbutt, a British couple who had been staying at the Kiwayu Safari Village beach resort close to the Somali border, had generated some particularly lurid, and useful, international headlines.*

As Gandhi now confirmed, Operation Linda Nchi was not spontaneous but had been in preparation for years. Somalia’s unrest had threatened Kenyan security for half a century. Mohamed Omaar, the former Somali Foreign Minister, was not the only one who worried that Kenya’s Muslim Swahili coast was the ‘soft underbelly’ of East Africa, ripe for exploitation by Islamic extremists. But it was not until 2011 that the political establishment in Nairobi felt confident enough to try to deal once and for all with the country’s most troublesome neighbour.

Kenya’s Somali population was estimated in 2009 at 2.3 million, about 6 per cent of the national total. The country’s North Eastern Province, an area the size of England, had long been dominated by ethnic Somalis. Somali nationalists, indeed, historically regarded it as a part of Greater Somalia. In 1963, the year Kenya gained independence from Britain, Somalia fought an unsuccessful campaign to annex the province, the so-called Shifta War, which did not end until 1967. The nationalists may have lost, yet this swathe of sovereign Kenya is still represented on the Somali national flag as one of the five points of the white ‘Star of Unity’.

The North Eastern Province is also home to the world’s largest refugee camp, at Dadaab, which in August 2012 contained more than 450,000 Somali refugees,1 making it by some margin the third largest population centre in Kenya after Nairobi and Mombasa. Dadaab was a permanent source of insecurity for the Kenyan state, an easy place for al-Shabaab both to hide in and to recruit new fighters. No wonder the Kenyans were so keen on a Somali buffer zone, which could only improve security in the border areas, and might even one day encourage Dadaab’s refugees to start returning home. Gandhi said that Nairobi had been conniving at the creation of Azania since 2008 when, at his instigation, the Kenyan government began to arm and train 2,000 Azanian troops.

The strategy carried obvious risks for Kenya, the greatest of which was that the presence of their soldiers in Somalia proper was bound to inflame a section of Somali opinion locally, especially if the KDF lingered for any length of time, and began to resemble an occupying force rather than an expeditionary one. It was also risky for Gandhi, who could easily end up looking like an opportunist puppet of Nairobi rather than the nationalist visionary he claimed to be. This, however, was not the greatest threat to Gandhi’s well-being, for it was common knowledge – and Christine whispered confirmation of the fact when Gandhi went out of the room for something – that the would-be president of Azania had a serious heart condition, and was often extremely unwell. The reason he spent as much time in France as he did – and he had inevitably been criticized for this – was his need to stay close to his cardiologists. The stakes in southern Somalia were as high as they could be, and the rules of the game were rough. Was Gandhi physically up to the challenge of playing it?

‘I worry about him all the time,’ Christine muttered. ‘He’s not a young man any more.’

Like so many Somali politicians, her husband had survived more than one assassination attempt in recent years. He was obliged to travel about with an imposing security detail in Somalia, and to vary his routine constantly. Even in Nairobi, a radical imam had placed him under a fatwa. He had been forced to change his accommodation there many times as a result, and never took the same route to work if he could help it. Survival required constant vigilance. Although Christine followed Somali politics closely, and understood and supported what her husband was trying to do, it emerged that in all the years she had been with him she had never once been to Somalia, or even to Kenya.

‘It is too dangerous,’ she said. ‘I live a completely separate life here.’

It was another three months before I made it back to Nairobi, where I hoped to meet up with Gandhi and travel up to southern Somalia with him on an inspection tour of the war. By June 2012, al-Shabaab had their backs to the sea. The Kenyans were no longer alone in their incursion: at the beginning of 2012, and for the second time since 2006, Ethiopian troops had also crossed into Somalia. By February they had ousted al-Shabaab from the symbolically crucial town of Baidoa, and now they, the Kenyans, AMISOM and the TFG, were all closing in for the kill. When another key al-Shabaab town, Afmadow, fell to the Kenyans in late May, the head of the KDF, General Julius Karangi, was prompted to announce that the insurgency’s last stronghold, the port of Kismayo, would be in Kenyan hands by August.

‘It will not be difficult to capture Kismayo,’ boasted Sheikh Madobe, leader of the Raskamboni Movement. ‘Al-Shabaab’s fighters are on the run, morale is low and it is only a matter of time before they are completely expelled from southern Somalia.’2

There was no doubt that Kismayo was a game-changer. The port lay close to the mouth of the river Juba, the only permanent river in Somalia. As the commercial centre of the nation’s breadbasket, Kismayo had been the key to control of the south since medieval times. These days there were also thought to be large reserves of oil just offshore, which only added to the port’s allure and legendary richesse. Al-Shabaab’s dependence on it as a source of revenue was almost total. Without it, the alternative administration they claimed to provide was doomed.

Yet for all the triumphalist talk, and despite the Kenyans’ lengthy period of preparation, there were concerns in some foreign quarters that the KDF lacked the experience to handle such a complex campaign. Their advance in 2012 was snail-like, and their efforts to consolidate captured ground less than convincing. Eight months into Operation Linda Nchi, the KDF’s eastbound supply convoys were still being ambushed on an almost daily basis, even on the Kenyan side of the border. The generals chose to launch their invasion in October, in the middle of the lush Juba valley’s main rainy season when many roads become impassable. Foreign military advisors had warned them to delay the start of the campaign, but the advice was ignored and, as predicted, the KDF’s heavy vehicles almost immediately became bogged down. Kenya’s generals might profitably have paid more attention to the name of the Somali border town, Dhobley, that they had earmarked as their forward base of operations. Dhobley derived from the Somali word for mud.

The KDF’s amateurism was soon exposed again by the clumsiness of their propaganda operation. An army spokesman, Major Emmanuel Chirchir, made an international fool of himself when he posted on Twitter a photograph of a man being stoned to death, claiming that the victim was from Nairobi and that the picture had been taken the previous day in Kismayo. (See page three, picture section two.) A war of words then erupted which the major decisively lost. A disturbingly Anglophone spokesman for al-Shabaab pointed out that the stoning had taken place in 2009, that the victim wasn’t Kenyan, that it hadn’t taken place in Kismayo, and that it wasn’t al-Shabaab who perpetrated it. The photograph had in fact been doing the rounds on the internet for so long – ever since the set of pictures it was taken from was sold to the news agency Associated Press – that even I had seen it before.

‘KDF must employ a new PR strategy to save face,’ tweeted @HSMPress, al-Shabaab’s impressively tech-savvy press office. ‘@MajorEChirchir’s half-witted Twitter Psyops have made him a laughing stock.’

‘I strongly disagree!’ responded a tweeter in America. ‘He’s looking for a new job: official KDF comedian. He aims to make all and sundry laugh.’

The KDF ran regular supply flights up to Dhobley, but securing a place on one of them proved much harder than I expected. My plan to exploit Gandhi’s influence with the Kenyans was thwarted by the discovery that he was unwell again, and had gone back to Besançon almost as I arrived in Nairobi. Left to approach the KDF alone, however, I was quickly stymied by officialdom. I spent an entire fortnight lobbying three colonels, each of whom insisted that it was not they but only one of their colleagues who could authorize my visit, without ever revealing which. It obviously did not help that the Internal Security Minister George Saitoti, the ‘architect’ of Operation Linda Nchi, had just been killed in a mysterious helicopter crash, an event that al-Shabaab called ‘a droplet of justice’, and which led to the temporary grounding of all official aircraft. Yet even this did not quite explain the colonels’ strange inertia.

Eventually I realized that they were deliberately stonewalling, and that I was the victim of a classic East African feud. Kenya had just formally joined AMISOM. But the KDF were reluctant to cooperate with that organization’s press office – through which I was obliged to communicate – because AMISOM was dominated by Uganda, whose President Museveni had recently insulted the KDF by referring to it publicly as a ‘barracks army’. This spat did not augur well for the newly expanded AMISOM, at a moment when close cooperation between the allies was likely to be essential. There was no escape from the colonels’ Mobius loop of red tape, however, and with Gandhi still incommunicado, I eventually gave up and decided to appeal instead to Sheikh Madobe’s Raskamboni Movement, Gandhi’s main rival for control of southern Somalia.

Named after Ras Kamboni, the southernmost Somali border town where it originated, Sheikh Madobe’s militia was said to have replaced Gandhi’s Azanians as the KDF’s favourite local partners. His fighters ran regular convoys from the eastern Kenyan city of Garissa, 90 miles over the border, to Dhobley, bumping along the dusty roads in 4×4s with technicals front and back for protection; perhaps I would be able to hitch a ride with them.

I went to meet Sheikh Moalim Mohamed, Sheikh Madobe’s number two, at an address I had been given in Eastleigh, the main Somali suburb in Nairobi. Eastleigh was a place that I had heard much about but never visited before. As the diaspora’s principal international gateway to the homeland, it shone very brightly in the constellation of communities abroad. It was much more than a mere travellers’ staging post. Eastleigh was where the weightiest decisions about the future of Somalia tended to be taken. All the country’s political, religious and financial elites had offices in Eastleigh, which since the 1990s had also evolved into a major commercial centre in its own right. It was often described as Mogadishu’s Bakara Market in exile, an immense entrepôt where reputedly anything and everything could be bought or sold, including, it was often said, guns.

After a taxi ride that took almost two hours, thanks to Nairobi’s legendarily awful traffic, I found Eastleigh’s main roads to be even more flooded and potholed than was normal in the rest of the city. Jostling herds of matatuminibuses filled the air with their aggressive tootling. The rough and dirty pavements seethed with shoppers threading their way between stalls, hawking everything from shoes and shaving foam to qat and jerry cans of camel milk. This much I expected. But I was taken aback by the size and number of tall new buildings housing luxury hotels, all-night shopping malls, even a Barclays Bank, whose hoardings offered Sharia-compliant, la riba interest-free loans. Eastleigh was known, predictably, as Little Mogadishu, but for once the nickname was not an exaggeration, because it really did feel like a city within a city, with an economy and atmosphere entirely distinct from the rest of Nairobi. I later read that Somali businessmen had invested some $1.5bn in the suburb in recent years,3 and it showed, because business was evidently booming here.

Native Kenyans viewed this enclave with a mixture of suspicion and affection. It was accused of many things: it was a hotbed of extremism, a centre for the laundering of the profits of piracy. Yet to my eye, Eastleigh’s spirit seemed neither criminal nor ideological, but hard-working and entrepreneurial. Above all, it was avowedly commercial. In 2011, high-end property prices in Nairobi rose by 25 per cent, the fastest growth rate in any city in the world, a boom largely attributable to the phenomenon of Somalis in exile.4

Sheikh Moalim and his entourage were staying at one of the enclave’s brash new glass and marble hotels called the Nomad Palace. Security was remarkably light – just one armed policeman on the front door, and none of the usual sinister men with tell-tale bulges beneath their jackets hanging about the busy lobby – which seemed a good indication of how little feared the insurgents were here.

The Somali flair for trade and commerce, it occurred to me with sudden clarity, was the most powerful antidote imaginable to the reductive and impoverishing ideology of al-Shabaab. Their Islamist project could not succeed without both the moral and financial support of Eastleigh’s big business interests. And yet, looking at this place, it was inconceivable that those interests would ever allow al-Shabaab to continue their tenure of a port as profitable as Kismayo. The Sheikh, by contrast, was unquestionably Eastleigh’s man. I very much doubted that he paid his own bills in this hotel. He ushered me towards a group of purple, cuboid armchairs in the middle of the lobby as though we were in the living room of his home.

He was a big, broad-chested man, a former judge in the Islamic Courts Union who still exuded the confidence and authority of a respected religious scholar. He wore tinted rectangular glasses and a large, fuzzy beard, as well as loafers and Argyle socks and a grey-green cotton suit. Although the buttons of his jacket carried the words MEN’S FASHION, its breast pocket was done up with a zip, which lent him a faint but distinct paramilitary air. He later joked that he had spent so long fighting and sleeping in the bush that whenever he saw a tree in Eastleigh, he felt an impulse to lie down in its shade.

He told me almost immediately that I was welcome to come and inspect his war. He even thanked me for taking an interest, and said that I could join one of Raskamboni’s eastbound convoys whenever I liked.

‘To us, Sharia has never been about slaughtering people, as it seems to be for al-Shabaab,’ he said when I asked him what he was fighting for. ‘We want to replace them with a system that is fair to everybody. War has caused enough suffering already.’

His movement was militarily effective, he explained, because its members knew their enemy so well.

‘I know many al-Shabaab fighters personally,’ he continued, with an eloquent twist of his hand. ‘I even taught some of them when they were young. And now they say I am an infidel! They are crazy. We were Muslims for a thousand years before they came along . . . Their ideology is imposed from outside. It is not Wahhabism – it goes far beyond that. Everyone is upset with them, and so now they must be . . . disciplined.’

This last remark was accompanied by a barely concealed smirk. It was as though he regarded al-Shabaab almost as naughty children rather than al-Qaida-linked terrorists, and that all that was needed to bring them back into line was the smack of schoolmasterly authority.

It was, I supposed, hardly surprising that the difference between him and the extremists was so blurred. In 2010, after all, a Raskamboni splinter group had merged with al-Shabaab. The CIA, furthermore, had long ago identified Ras Kamboni town as an al-Qaida training base. The attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, and the bombing of the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa in 2002, were all thought to have been organized from Ras Kamboni.

As late as 2007, an American AC-130 gunship launched an attack near Ras Kamboni against ‘al-Qaida suspects’ thought to include the Mombasa-born Saleh Ali Nabhan, one of the alleged masterminds of the embassy bombings.*

For all the Sheikh’s outward scorn for al-Shabaab’s ideology, therefore, I suspected that he was not necessarily as resistant to foreign influence as he said he was. In answer to another question about how he thought southern Somalia should be governed in future, he replied, sensibly enough, that there would have to be a grand conference of all the relevant regional stakeholders, who could thrash out a mutually satisfactory political settlement. What struck me most about his answer was the phrase he used to describe this grand conference of the future: he called it a loya jirga, the Afghan Pashtun for a ‘grand council’. The last loya jirga, at which the possibility of peace talks with the Taliban was discussed, was held in Kabul in 2010.

Sheikh Moalim and his fighters were likely to be the first Somali militia into Kismayo, and would therefore have a decisive say in how the port was administered in the future. Although they were allies of the KDF for now, I couldn’t help wondering what would happen once Kismayo fell and the Kenyans were of less use. Would Nairobi really be able to maintain influence over these most mercurial of local partners? More to the point, what would al-Shabaab do once they were ousted from their stronghold – and how would Kenya deal with the response?

There were already many signs that an al-Shabaab terror campaign was spreading southwards – and signs, too, of how ill-prepared the Kenyans were to cope. The home front’s counter-terrorism strategy, in so far as it existed at all, was criticized by the Kenyan Daily Nation as ‘reactive, sluggish and uninspiring’.5 Compared to American or British government efforts to mobilize community leaders to persuade young Muslims to shun extremism, Kenya was years behind.

Low-level shootings and grenade attacks at nightclubs and bus stops, all of them linked to al-Shabaab, became ever more frequent as 2012 wore on. No city was safe, but as predicted it was Mombasa, the capital of the Swahili coast, that soon emerged as the focal point of the attacks. Many Kenyans feared that the city was filled with al-Shabaab sympathizers and sleeper cells; it had already proved a rich source of recruits for the insurgency over the border.

‘We’ve lost many young men who have been recruited [into al-Shabaab] and taken to Somalia,’ said Sheikh Athman Mponda, chairman of the Association of Muslim Organizations in Kenya, perhaps appropriately known as AMOK. ‘I know of nine young men who have been killed in Somalia.’6

On 24 June 2012, the US embassy issued a warning that another terrorist attack in Mombasa was imminent. The warning was immediately denounced by the chairman of the National Security Advisory Council, Francis Kimemia, as an act of ‘economic sabotage’ and a ‘betrayal of trust’. The Tourism Minister, Dan Mwazo, similarly described it as ‘in bad taste and malicious’. Like Larry Vaughan, the mayor of the Amity Island beach resort in the movie Jaws, they were worried that the warning would scare off the tourists. Hours later, however, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired into Mombasa’s Jericho Beer Garden where customers had gathered to watch England play Italy in the European Football Championship. Three people were killed and scores injured in the attack, which was uncomfortably reminiscent of the al-Shabaab strike on football fans in Kampala during the 2010 World Cup.

‘You are fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia where the head is, but the tail is here,’ a Mombasa local identified as Yusuf told a reporter from the Kenyan Standard. ‘These people live among us. You will regret.’7

Earlier in the week, Kenyan police had already arrested two Iranians suspected of planning bombings in Mombasa and Nairobi. Kimemia and Mwazo fell silent as the American travel warning was repeated by the embassies of several other nations, and the British Foreign Office formally advised its citizens not to travel even to Nairobi. The economic implications were serious, for Kenya could not afford to lose its tourists, particularly its British ones. In 2011, there were more British holiday-makers than from any other country in the world: 200,000 of them, comfortably more even than from America.*

Britain, thanks to a relationship rooted in the days of Empire, was also Kenya’s biggest foreign investor, and its second biggest trading partner after Uganda. British imports of Kenyan tea, coffee, vegetables and flowers rose 9 per cent in 2011, and Anglo-Kenyan trade was worth over £1bn a year.8 All of this was now under threat. As the British High Commission was at pains to point out, Operation Linda Nchi wasn’t just about combating terrorism: its success or failure would have a considerable impact on important British business interests too.

The bad news did not let up for the Kenyan government. The Jericho Beer Garden attack in Mombasa was followed a week later by another atrocity, this time in Garissa, where the congregations of two churches were attacked during their Sunday sermon by what local police called ‘balaclava-clad goons’ armed with grenades and automatics.9 Fifteen worshippers were killed, and forty wounded. For old soldiers, it must have felt like the Shifta War all over again, while for the younger generation, the fragility of the stasis between the country’s Muslims and Christians was for the first time laid frighteningly bare.

Kenya was already well acquainted with extreme inter-tribal violence, particularly between the largest tribe, the Kikuyu, and their chief rivals for political power, the minority Luo. The presidential election of 2007 left 1,300 dead and half a million people displaced. The next election was scheduled for March 2013, and was expected by many to spark just as much trouble as the last one. Kenya’s tribal rivalries were dangerous enough on their own. The addition to the mix of newly stoked ethno-religious strife could be socially disastrous.

At the end of August in Mombasa, Aboud ‘Rogo’ Mohammed, a radical cleric and an al-Shabaab supporter so well known that his name featured on both US and UN sanctions lists, was assassinated by unknown gunmen as he drove through the city with his wife and children. The ensuing riots lasted for two days. Tyre-burning mobs closed the road to the tourist town of Malindi, 70 miles to the north. Shops were burned, churches were looted, and five people, including three policemen, were killed. Muslim opinion in Mombasa was that the Kenyan government was behind Rogo’s death, a view that was only strengthened a week later when a second al-Shabaab-supporting imam, Abubakr Ahmed, was charged with inciting the Rogo riots.

‘We are certain that there is a hit squad targeting Muslim clerics and other Muslims perceived to be extremists,’ Ahmed told reporters.10

I never did get to witness the liberation of Kismayo. Sheikh Moalim’s offer of a lift to Dhobley suddenly seemed much less attractive when, two days after my meeting with him, a combined KDF/Raskamboni convoy struck an IED on the road east of Garissa, killing three. Flying was the only sensible way of reaching the war from Nairobi. But the Kenyan colonels remained uncooperative to the last on this score, and in the end I reluctantly abandoned my attempt to persuade them.

In terms of the wider story, it probably didn’t much matter. The fall of Kismayo was really a foregone conclusion; and al-Shabaab was surely finished in any case as an occupying military force, let alone as a viable alternative system of government for Somalia. The more important question was what would happen next, to which the unrest in Kenya in the summer of 2012 provided one chilling answer. As a rallying point for disaffected young Muslims, al-Shabaab was evidently as potent in Mombasa as it once was in Mogadishu. ‘Their intention,’ said the prime minister, Raila Odinga, ‘is to divide the people of Mombasa into Christians and Muslims with the sole aim of creating an inter-religious conflict.’11 The use of grenades, he added, proved that the riots had been planned, the work of a sinister (but unidentified) ‘hidden hand’.

Was Odinga right? Whether or not the unrest was orchestrated, in 2012 the Swahili coast looked more and more like another new battleground in the long war between Islamists and infidels – the beginning by other means, perhaps, of al-Shabaab’s breakout from the Horn of Africa. Just as US forces failed to close the net on the Taliban and al-Qaida in Kandahar in 2001, allowing them to escape over the border to Pakistan to fight another day, so it was feared that the cream of al-Shabaab’s foreign fighters had already abandoned Kismayo. News reports suggested that many had fled north across the Gulf of Aden, at night and by speedboat, to join the al-Qaida-linked separatists in south Yemen. Gandhi’s sources had told him that al-Shabaab were in fact dispersing to all points of the compass. Some were said to have gone north, to Puntland’s inaccessible Galgala Mountains, in order to join forces with Sheikh Atom, a pro-al-Shabaab separatist who had been harrying the Garowe government for years. Others had sought sanctuary in the Somali tribal areas of Ethiopia, or were hiding even further west in the impenetrable jungles of ‘Zaire’, the old Portuguese name for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But most of all, according to Gandhi, they had come south to Kenya, filtering down the Swahili coast via Lamu, or along any of the inland routes across the long and porous border.

‘There are many, many Kenyans fighting for al-Shabaab,’ he said.

Local Somali fighters, meanwhile, naturally had an easier alternative than flight, which was to hide their guns, shed whatever scraps of uniform they possessed, and melt back into the population from which they came.

Kismayo’s fall signalled the end of the conventional military campaign, but Mogadishu has barely begun the task of filling the enormous vacuum of governance the Islamists have left behind. The implications for the security of the East Africa region, and the world, are huge; and Somalia, the wellspring of so much human misery and political instability, looks to be a contender once again for that unenviable title, The World’s Most Dangerous Place.

* David Tebbutt, a 58-year-old publishing director from Bishop’s Stortford in Hertfordshire, was shot dead as he tried to resist his assailants. His wife Judith was released six months later following payment of a reported $1m ransom.

* Nabhan survived until 2009, when he was finally tracked down and killed in the al-Shabaab-controlled port of Baraawe by a helicopter-borne squad of US Navy SEALs.

* Some 1.25 million foreigners visited Kenya in 2011, bringing in a record $1.16bn in an industry that accounted for 11 per cent of the country’s GDP – the second biggest source of foreign revenue after the export of tea, according to