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


Chapter 2. At the Bancroft Hotel: America’s proxy war

By Aden Adde International Airport, March 2011

Until a few years ago, journalists visiting Mogadishu tended to stay at the Hotel Sahafi, a pensione near a major street junction prosaically known as Kilometre 4, or K4 for short. In February 2005, however, the BBC producer Kate Peyton, 39, was shot dead outside the Sahafi by gunmen loyal to Aden Hashi ‘Eyrow’, an al-Shabaab hardliner linked to al-Qaida. The Sahafi, and indeed every other city-centre hotel, has been shunned by sensible foreign visitors ever since.

During 2011, my home in Mogadishu was an air-conditioned Portakabin on the military base by the airport, which was protected by sandbags, barbed wire and several battalions of combat-ready African Union troops. Security had been tightened greatly since a spate of devastatingly successful suicide bomb attacks. In September 2008, the militants tricked their way past the checkpoints in a stolen UN truck which blew up at the convoy point, a large open square where AMISOM’s armoured vehicles and their crews formed up before going out on patrol in the city. Around fifty Ugandan soldiers were killed. I passed through K4 many times in the spring and summer of 2011, but only because it lies on the road to the airport; and I only ever did so in the back of a Casspir, an 11-ton, South African-built armoured vehicle with a V-shaped hull designed to deflect mine blast. As a guest of AMISOM, there was no other means of reaching town.

The narrow rectangular windows in the sides of the Casspirs were cracked and dirty and didn’t afford much of a view of Mogadishu’s street life. My first and many subsequent impressions of the city were gained in jolting cinemascope, as the vehicles lurched and bumped along the disastrously pot-holed roads. What I did see, however, was that something approaching normal civilian life had returned to the TFG-controlled areas. Spectacular ruination was everywhere, but shops had reopened between the ruins, and hawkers sold fruit, sweets or plastic kitchenware from rickety barrows. K4 had turned into a bustling street market, a sure sign of security and progress, as the AMISOM press officers were quick to point out. In places there were quite surprising numbers of private vans and cars moving about – enough, even, to form the occasional traffic jam, which had the security-conscious drivers revving their engines with nervous impatience.

Here and there one spotted an ancient Vespa, with spinning flywheels where the engine casing should have been, still splendidly serviceable after half a century of independence from the Italians. These rickety machines are not the only legacy of Somalia’s colonial past. Older Mogadishans still routinely greet foreigners with a cheery Buongiorno. The taps in the city’s bathrooms, where they have not been ripped out and looted, are still marked C and F for Caldo and Freddo. A strong flavour of Italy also remains in the city’s white-painted buildings, even in their super-dilapidated state. The public buildings and shops along the city’s main artery, the Makka al-Mukkarama, are still organized into shady colonnades, with balconies and decorative crenellations along their tops. The café culture thriving along the shattered pavements also retains a distinctly Italian feel, even if habits have evolved somewhat since colonial times. For instance, it was evident even from the back of a bouncing Casspir that many of the customers were animated by the chewing of qat* rather than the drinking of espresso; while the shirts and suits that Somalis working in the colonial administration had once been obliged to wear had been replaced for the most part by the macawiis, a colourful, sarong-like wrap much better suited to Mogadishu’s equatorial heat. The cafés looked especially inviting from the back of a sweltering Casspir, and I longed to jump out and go into one. To report properly on the war against al-Shabaab required an understanding of the society and culture from which the insurgents sprang – and that meant talking to ordinary Somalis. I, however, was surrounded almost exclusively by Ugandans and Burundians, and it wasn’t immediately apparent to me how I was going to change that.

On the other hand, my arrangement with AMISOM had its compensations. The base was set among sand dunes and scrub-filled ravines along the western edge of the runway, with the Indian Ocean crashing up the beach to the east. It made a natural headquarters for AMISOM, and not only because it was relatively easy to defend. As they realized when their peace-keeping troops first deployed in March 2007, control of the airport was the key to political power in Mogadishu. It was a vital source of tax revenue without which the TFG could not even pretend to govern, as well as the principal gateway to the outside world through which flowed the arms, aid and personnel that kept the administration alive.

Its strategic importance was not lost on al-Shabaab, whose suicide bombers had tried six months previously to force the heavily fortified gates leading to the terminal, killing several soldiers and civilian bystanders in the process.1 In those days they were still able to infiltrate the buildings visible beyond the airport perimeter, and occasionally stationed a sniper there, but they couldn’t do that now thanks to AMISOM’s advances in the city, and the airport was the safest it had been in years. There was no doubting we were still in a warzone, though. While waiting for my lift when I first arrived, I turned to watch a Katyusha rocket battery in action, just past the end of the runway. There was a jet of flame and a belch of white smoke as each missile whooshed from its tube towards the enemy’s territory beyond the city, making a distinctive moaning sound that gave the Katyusha its other nickname, ‘Stalin’s organ’.

AMISOM-accredited journalists had to stay in a compound set aside for foreign contractors. Guarded by Ugandan sentries, and surrounded by rubble-filled Hesco barriers, it was a spartan but not unpleasant place to stay. Rows of Portakabins, only some of which were sandbagged against the possibility of mortar attack, were arranged along neat sandy paths that led to an open-air recreation area equipped with an erratically stocked bar, a barbecue, a dartboard, two widescreen televisions, and wi-fi. Skeins of sacred ibis passed overhead each evening, rushing to their roosts before the plunge of the tropical sun. The tails of manoeuvring aircraft could often be seen above the tree-line to the east, gliding back and forth like the dorsal fins of patrolling sharks. At quiet times it was easy to stroll across the unfenced runway to the beach beyond, where shore-crabs danced on the surf-swamped rocks, waving their claws in the air like castanets. The air was permanently sticky with salt, the temperature a steady 32 degrees. The camp felt so much like a cheap holiday resort that it was easy to see why its longer-term residents nicknamed it the ‘Bancroft Hotel’, after the American security firm that built and ran it, Bancroft Global Development.

There were few better places from which to contemplate the successes and failures of twenty years of international intervention in Somalia. On 3 October 1993, this patch of sky was filled not with sacred ibis but formations of American attack helicopters, as the 160 soldiers of Task Force Ranger rode into the city to capture the militia commanders of the Habr Gidr warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid. The task force was spectacularly ambushed. Two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, and during the 24-hour effort to rescue the marooned crews, a battle ensued in which as many as seven hundred Somalis were killed, including a great many civilians. So too were eighteen US servicemen, some of whose bodies were dragged by enraged mobs through Mogadishu’s streets, a spectacle that was also televised. A horrified President Clinton ordered a withdrawal from Somalia soon afterwards.

Although it happened almost twenty years ago, the ‘Day of the Rangers’, as Mogadishans still call the incident, goes on colouring Western perceptions of Somalia to an extraordinary degree. Made famous by Mark Bowden’s bestselling book of 1999, Black Hawk Down, and then a blockbuster film of the same name by Ridley Scott in 2001, it remains a classic tale of American military hubris. Osama bin Laden also held it up as proof that the mighty US war machine could be defeated by lightly armed Muslims, even though the Habr Gidr’s resistance had nothing to do with Islam. Indeed, few Somalis had even heard of al-Qaida in 1993. But it was too useful a narrative for the world’s future arch-terrorist to ignore – and it undoubtedly inspired the next generation of jihadis in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Richard, the ex-British Army officer, grew exasperated when journalists asked him about Black Hawk Down, which of course they always did. It was his belief that Ridley Scott had more or less single-handedly set back Somalia’s prospects for peace for an entire generation.

‘The film gave the audience no context whatsoever to the events, and stereotyped Somalis as a bunch of bloodthirsty savages,’ he said.

As a spokesman for AMISOM, he was professionally obliged to defend the doctrine of military intervention, and, as an ex-soldier, perhaps inclined to do so anyway. He was not alone in thinking that in Somalia’s case, the doctrine had been given an unnecessarily bad name. Black Hawk Down, he argued, was just one, short, not particularly relevant episode in a wider UN mission in Somalia which ran between 1992 and 1995, and which included some quite notable military successes. For instance, by wresting control of the docks from the warlords in early 1993, the American military’s Operation Restore Hope allowed food aid to get out from the city to the rural areas, thereby succeeding in its primary aim of alleviating Somalia’s worst famine for twenty years. Some analysts estimate that as many as a quarter of a million lives were saved.2

Despite this, America remains almost pathologically afraid of ‘another Black Hawk Down’, a fear that has governed its thinking on the Horn of Africa ever since.

‘The United States does not plan, does not direct, and does not coordinate the military operations of the TFG, and we have not and will not be providing direct support for any potential military offensives,’ insisted Johnnie Carson, the State Department’s secretary for African affairs, in a speech in March 2010. ‘Further, we are not providing nor paying for military advisors for the TFG. There is no desire to Americanize the conflict in Somalia.’3 Paying for military advisors to AMISOM, however, was apparently a different matter. Black Hawk Down was the reason the Bancroft Hotel existed in the semi-clandestine form that it did.

In its early days, Bancroft Global Development had specialized in land-mine clearance, although it quickly mutated into something much bigger. Somalis commonly suspected it of being a front for the CIA. This was an exaggeration, although I could see how they might have jumped to that conclusion, because the company, headquartered in the heart of Washington DC’s embassy district, undoubtedly was an instrument of US foreign policy. It employed about forty former soldiers from around the world, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as many smaller wars in Africa, whose job was to advise and train AMISOM in the art of urban warfare. The governments of Uganda and Burundi had reportedly paid them over $12m for this service since they began operations in 2008. It was the American taxpayer who picked up the final bill, however, because Bancroft’s fee was reimbursed by the US State Department. This opaque arrangement allowed the US to publicly distance itself from the conflict while keeping a hand in the game.4

The camp had expanded greatly since it was set up in 2008, and was now a base for all sorts of itinerant foreign consultants and contractors, most of whom had nothing to do with Bancroft. But the original tenants still formed the nucleus of the community: a tough, close-knit group with brusque manners and sun-tans developed over years in desert battle zones. Scandinavians were dominant among the Europeans, and Afrikaaners among the Africans. Wherever they came from, they all thrived on the adrenalin of war. They were wary of newcomers and – of course – highly suspicious of visiting journalists. Conversations would often stop abruptly as I moved about the canteen or recreation area. It wasn’t hard to imagine that I was interrupting discussions about the teaching of darker military skills that Bancroft was sometimes accused of by suspicious Somalis or the left-wing press in the US.

Many of the Bancrofters were combat engineers who called themselves ‘mentors’ and were often to be found on the front line alongside their AMISOM protégés, working unarmed even during offensives. Some of the South Africans were involved in a curious subplot of the war involving armoured bulldozers. These vehicles weighed over 17 tons, and had emerged as a key piece of kit in the close urban warfare that AMISOM was engaged in. They were essential for clearing roadways of debris and ordnance, the only way of consolidating newly won territory. They were so feared by the enemy’s field commanders that one of the al-Shabaab-controlled radio stations had announced that the bulldozers’ newly trained drivers were to be targeted as particular enemies of Islam.

One of these drivers, a short, bespectacled private from Kampala called ‘K’, was the toast of the Bancroft Hotel for his fearlessness. The story went that Private K was clearing a road near the front one day when he and his supporting ground troops were ambushed by al-Shabaab. His comrades beat a retreat, but not Private K who raised the bucket of his bulldozer and slowly advanced on his attackers, the bullets pinging off the glass and metal of his armoured cab. His surprised opponents broke and fell back into the surrounding buildings. Private K roared on, demolishing the exterior wall of a house as he went. The South Africans hooted with laughter as they described how he caught up with a gunman and ran him down in slow motion, even methodically reversing back over him to make sure that he was dead.

The Bancrofters were far from the only interesting people in the camp. There was, for instance, a team of Frenchmen, po-faced DGSE intelligence officers and glowering special forces soldiers, who used to barricade themselves in a corner of the bar each evening behind a wall of open laptops and (I suspected) specialist tracking equipment that they kept in dustproof metal suitcases. They spoke to no one other than themselves, but were assumed to be focused on the rescue of a DGSE colleague, Denis Allex, who had made the fatal mistake of staying at the Sahafi Hotel in July 2009 while masquerading as a journalist. Kidnapped by al-Shabaab, he was still in their custody three years later, the longest-held foreign hostage in the country.

Then there was a British military adviser, Roger Lane, a moustachioed former Royal Marines brigadier and another veteran of Afghanistan, who was trying to persuade AMISOM to deploy a radar system that would locate the launch point of shells and mortars, thus allowing them to prove they were not responsible for the civilian deaths that al-Shabaab accused them of.

Most colourful of all was another Frenchman, Richard Rouget, a former soldier of fortune of about fifty. He once fought for the presidential guard in the Comoros Islands, a former French colony almost synonymous with political coups and mercenary activity. Under the sobriquet ‘Colonel Sanders’, he had also commanded a force of South African-recruited mercenaries during the Ivory Coast’s civil war in 2003 on behalf of President Laurent Gbagbo, an adventure that led to his conviction in a court in South Africa. He was a product of Françafrique straight from the pages of Tintin.

His knowledge of Somalia’s clan structure was encyclopaedic, and he worked closely with the boss of Bancroft, Mike Stock, the 34-year-old scion of a wealthy Virginian banking family, who had used some of his private fortune to found the company soon after graduating from Princeton in 1999. Stock was a regular visitor to Mogadishu, and maintained an idealistic, almost preppy enthusiasm for his company’s Somali project. On a later visit he arrived accompanied by two young blonde women who were described as ‘assistants’ from the firm’s Washington headquarters. They were noticeably shy of fraternizing with the Bancroft regulars who, being too polite to ask, speculated wildly on their true reason for being there.

In the summer of 2011, by when visits to Mogadishu’s front line were no longer such a novelty to me, I came across Stock and Rouget at a forward operating base in the district of Bondhere, just north of the Bakara Market. They were wearing non-khaki flak jackets and helmets, and stood out in the open, discussing battle tactics with the hand-waving intensity of true enthusiasts.* I was travelling in a group of three other journalists then, with a Burundian press handler who insisted that on no account were we to photograph the ‘foreign advisors’; which of course meant that we all did when he wasn’t looking.

Stock, for his part, didn’t seem particularly troubled by our presence, and certainly wasn’t trying to conceal his – although, as it turned out, he might have been wiser to do so. The following day an al-Shabaab spokesman, Sheikh Abdi-Aziz Abu Mus’ab, called a press conference specifically in order to announce – inaccurately – that ‘a white man and an American military expert’ had been shot and killed by an insurgency sniper.

‘We are fully aware that more Westerners are fighting alongside our enemy which is also the enemy of Allah,’ he said. ‘We are calling all Muslims to come to Somalia and fight the enemy of Allah and the infidels whether they are black, red or white, because they are fighting together against us.’

Abu Mus’ab gave no names but could only have been referring to Stock and Rouget, who must have been spotted from an enemy position the day I was there. No wonder the US State Department were anxious not to ‘Americanize’ the conflict, if al-Shabaab were using even Mike Stock’s lone presence on the front line as an international recruiting sergeant against the Islamist world’s most hated infidels.

But that was in the future. Back in March 2011, I was stuck on the AMISOM base, fascinated and frustrated in equal measure. As an embedded journalist I was entirely reliant on AMISOM’s Casspirs to reach the city where the story was. But securing a place on one of these vehicles proved a slower and more difficult process than I had anticipated. There were a great many false starts and long waits.

Access was controlled by a legendarily capricious Ugandan press officer, Major Bibi, who had been in Mogadishu for three years. This was a long front-line tour by any standards – the British Army, for instance, limits its tours in Iraq or Afghanistan for most personnel to six months – and he had perhaps inevitably grown cynical about the war. His posting was at last coming to an end, however, and now he could hardly wait to go home. His enthusiasm, not surprisingly, had been slipping for months. Nevertheless, the success of any journalist’s Mogadishu visit could depend on whether or not he liked you. And so one evening, Richard and Will, another British ex-soldier resident at Bancroft, took me to meet him, bumping along the sand dunes in an armoured Land Cruiser with the hazard lights on, as camp regulations required.

They knew their mark well, and had brought a bottle of Monkey Shoulder Scotch whisky for me to give to him, along with a set of Perudo liar dice. Bibi turned out to be a droll and sophisticated 51-year-old, who had once spent seven years studying in Cuba – President Museveni had flirted with Marxism in the 1960s – and consequently spoke Spanish as well as English fluently.

‘Ahhh, Espada de Mono!’ he purred, when I presented the whisky. ‘Welcome to my palace!’

His quarters amounted to an officer’s Portakabin set down in the ruins of a once lovely seaside villa, and were palatial only in the sense that they were better than the tents that the UPDF’s rank and file had to make do with. I asked him if he had managed to pick up any Somali during his time here.

‘The only way to learn any language is socially – drinking with them, screwing their women,’ he replied, his eyes glazing at the memory of his youth in Cuba. ‘Unfortunately there has been no opportunity for me to do that here.’

The evening was balmy, as usual. Bibi sent his lanky batman, Mubarak, to fetch glasses while we sat down at a plastic table with the dice on what remained of a patio. Somewhere off in the darkness to the north, a Dushka heavy machinegun opened up with a kettledrum flourish.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Bibi announced, flipping out the whisky cork with practised thumbs, ‘the music is playing and the nightclub is open.’

I had played Perudo often before, but Bibi’s rules were new to me. Instead of the normal last-dice call of ‘Palefico’, we were instructed to use the phrase ‘Al-Kabaab’. And instead of saying ‘Dudo’ on suspicion that the previous player was lying, we had to say, inexplicably, ‘On the knob, John.’

The hilarity grew as the whisky flowed. Bibi was a mine of good stories. He recalled an incident, early on during his deployment, when the militants tried to attack AMISOM’s heavily defended checkpoint at the K4 junction, but threw away any element of surprise by arriving in a minivan.

‘A bus full of martyrs!’ he laughed. ‘Can you imagine? They got out one by one, all of them wearing white, with their hair nicely oiled and singing Muslim chants. We ordered them to move on but they just kept coming closer and closer . . . We had no choice in the end. The van was turned to ashes.’

It sounded a strangely wasteful sort of suicide attack, although Bibi said he’d seen such things before. Most of his military contemporaries had fought bush wars back home against Joseph Kony’s eccentric Christian insurgency, the Lord’s Resistance Army, or against his even more eccentric predecessor Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement. ‘The possessed priestess’, as Lakwena was known, notoriously sent her fighters into battle smeared in shea butter that she told them would ward off bullets, and armed with rocks that were supposed to explode on impact. She added her own insane injunctions to the Ten Commandments, including: ‘Thou shalt not go into battle armed with a walking stick.’ It was a reminder that Islam is not the only religion that harbours extremists, and that Christians in Africa are just as susceptible as Muslims to outlandish superstition.

A bottle of rum joined the Monkey Shoulder on the table, and before very long we were all uproariously drunk. Only Mubarak stayed sober, watching his master impassively from a daybed by the door. He sat cross-legged and with a Zen-like stillness, moving only to answer his mobile phone, the shrill and unnecessarily loud ringtone of which was a muezzin’s call to prayer. I asked Bibi discreetly if his batman was a Muslim. ‘Mubarak?’ he roared. ‘Is the Pope a Catholic? Of course he is!’

I had not appreciated until that evening how big a proportion of Ugandans were Muslim – as many as 30 per cent, according to Bibi.* What, I wondered, did Uganda’s Muslims make of al-Shabaab?

‘Ask Mubarak,’ Bibi replied.

Mubarak smiled inscrutably and said nothing.

‘There is a very small number of Muslims in Uganda who are extremists,’ Bibi answered for him. ‘Not in the army . . . political Islam is tightly controlled in the ranks.’

But, as Bibi pointed out, the world was changing. Radical Islam was on the rise in Uganda, just like everywhere else; and terrorist campaigns do not require large armies.

On 11 July 2010, three suicide bombers attacked Kampala, killing seventy-four people and injuring seventy more. Most of the victims were football fans who had gathered at a rugby club to watch an open-air screening of the World Cup Final. It was al-Shabaab’s first-ever terrorist strike outside their homeland: a significant step towards the al-Qaida-style internationalization of their cause that the West had feared for so long.

‘Uganda is a major infidel country supporting the so-called government of Somalia,’ one of al-Shabaab’s leaders, Sheikh Yusuf Sheikh Issa,* announced. ‘Whatever makes them cry makes us happy. May Allah’s anger be upon those who are against us.’6 The suicide bombers did not act alone. Ugandan police made several arrests and eventually charged thirty-two people with murder. Somali nationals were naturally among the accused but so, alarmingly, were several Ugandans. There were also Kenyans among the suspects, and even Pakistanis.

Opponents of Museveni often questioned his motives for involving Uganda in AMISOM’s battle, accusing him of strutting on the world stage at the expense of the lives of his people. None of the AU’s other members had responded as fulsomely as Uganda when the appeal for troop contributions was launched in 2006. They argued that al-Shabaab was not Uganda’s problem, and that Museveni had brought the Kampala bombings upon himself. Yet Uganda, it was easy to forget, is just one country away from Somalia, with only the increasingly lawless, Somali-dominated regions of northern Kenya to separate them.

It occurred to me that Museveni might understand, better than his critics, how much Uganda had to lose from the growth of Islamic extremism in the Horn. There are Muslim communities in every sub-Saharan country between Somalia and Mauritania, many of whom live as minorities with legitimate social grievances. AQIM, al-Qaida In the Maghreb, was active in Algeria, Mauritania and Niger. Ansar Dine, a militant Tuareg group thought to be linked to AQIM, was taking control of northern Mali. Another group, Boko Haram – ‘Books Forbidden’ or ‘Western education is sinful’– was already terrorizing swathes of northern Nigeria. Did Museveni worry that such Islamist groups could link up in the future, and that Islamism, if left unchecked, could topple his country like a domino? He was not alone, if so.

The Ugandan military had encountered a contingent of Boko Haram operating from a former pasta factory in northern Mogadishu when they first arrived in 2007.7 In 2012 General Carter Ham, the commander of Africom, the US Africa Command, told an audience in Washington that there were other more recent indications that extremist groups, particularly AQIM and Boko Haram, were attempting to coordinate their efforts through the sharing of funds, training and explosives; and he warned that others, including al-Shabaab, could do the same in the future.8

The westward creep of Islam, including its extremist elements, was hardly a new phenomenon in Africa. Gerald Hanley, a British officer who spent years among the northern Somali in the 1940s, theorized in 1971 that it was a reaction to a century or more of colonial racism. ‘Christianity is right to worry about the spread of Islam in Africa, and must honestly face the question of why it has happened,’ he wrote.9 ‘Islam does wonders for the self-respect of non-white people . . . I have never been able to find any colour bar in Islam, and, dreary though the ignorant and fanatical portion of Islam can be – as dreary as Victorian Imperial Christianity was – it does start off from a firm base about colour. It does not try to show it has no colour bar; it has none.’*

Bibi’s mobile phone rang almost constantly. He generally ignored the calls, although once when he did answer I was astonished to hear him launch into a protracted series of comedy farting noises, loud and impressively inventive. It turned out that the mobile phone company had sold or given his number to al-Shabaab, who then paid locals to plague him with nuisance calls, including death threats. I asked him why he didn’t just change his number.

‘I have,’ he said. ‘Dozens of times.’

‘But – doesn’t it drive you mad?’

‘It would take more than this to take away my sanity.’

Bibi looked weary, though, as his mobile rang yet again. This time, Will answered and propped the phone next to the speaker of an iPod he had set up. The caller, had they gone on listening, would have been treated to a diverse playlist containing everything from Eminem to Supertramp.

Nuisance-calling sounded a childish tactic, but it had in fact significantly hampered the ability of both AMISOM and the TFG to communicate. Al-Shabaab’s access to the mobile phone companies’ customer databases was so total that Mogadishu’s residents had learned not to answer any incoming call unless they recognized the number. I also suspected that the never-ending death threats, however empty they might have been, were far more wearing than Major Bibi was prepared to admit. In the digital age, the most effective response to a technologically superior enemy was often surprisingly low-tech, as al-Qaida first spectacularly proved with their attacks of 9/11.

This memorable evening unfortunately had little effect on my bid to secure a seat in an outgoing Casspir, and the waiting about at the Bancroft Hotel continued. A pair of lion cubs in a cage at the back of the camp provided an unlikely distraction when there was no one around to talk to. The animals, thought to be orphans from the south of Somalia, had been captured by smugglers hoping to sell them on as pets to rich Arabs. Port officials had found them in the hold of a UAE-bound ship docked at Mogadishu and, not knowing what to do with them, passed them on to Bancroft. They were kittens then, perhaps just three months old, but they quickly grew into cubs that paced purposefully around their enclosure, and devoured a dead goat every three days. Like the outcome of the AMISOM mission itself, the eventual fate of the beasts was uncertain. The original plan was to have the Somali speaker present them as a gift to his Ugandan counterpart, but that scheme had fallen through. Returning them to their natural habitat had been suggested, but this was rejected on the grounds that they were already too domesticated to survive. The truth was that no one quite knew what to do with them – a bit like the international community’s attitude towards Somalia itself.

When I last saw the cubs in 2011, they had fallen gravely ill with a respiratory disease that no one could diagnose, and had lost so much weight that they tottered when they walked. The Ugandan orderly who had been put in charge of them shook his head sadly, and explained there were no zoologists or lion experts in Somalia. The lions wouldn’t eat goat any more, or even the cooked chicken he tenderly proffered them. The only hope, he said, was outside help, perhaps from the Born Free Foundation based in South Africa. So far, though, no lion vet had agreed to undertake the journey to Mogadishu; and very soon, he thought, it would be too late for these animals anyway. For both the lions and the state, foreign intervention, if it was to have any chance of succeeding, had to arrive in time; and it had to be the right kind of intervention, or it could easily end up making matters worse.

* Qat, the leaves of Catha edulis, a flowering shrub native to East Africa, have been chewed for centuries in the region for their stimulating effect. The plant contains cathinone, a naturally occurring alkaloid that acts like an amphetamine by triggering the release of dopamine to the brain.

* Later that summer, on the advice of AMISOM’s public relations department, Rouget broke cover when he gave an interview to the New York Times in which he gave a good flavour of the sort of advice he dispensed. ‘Urban fighting is a war of attrition. You nibble, nibble, nibble,’ he said.5

* The CIA World Factbook puts the proportion at 12 per cent, but that figure relies on the census of 2002, since when Uganda’s overall population has grown from 24 million to 34 million.

* The rules governing the use of the honorific ‘Sheikh’, a title used in many parts of the Muslim world, are particularly loosely applied in Somalia. Taken from the Arabic word for ‘elder’, the term denotes political authority and/or religious scholarship. Many al-Shabaab ‘Sheikhs’, however, are not recognized as anything of the sort by Somalis outside the movement.

* Even Hanley, however, might have been surprised at the rate of the rise of Islam. According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, the Muslim population in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to grow by nearly 60 per cent in the next twenty years, from 242.5 million in 2010 to 385.9 million in 2030, almost double the projected rate of increase for the Muslim world as a whole.