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


Chapter 6. What makes al-Shabaab tick?

Hodan district, June 2011

Somalia’s political process may have been foundering, but by mid-2011 it was increasingly obvious that AMISOM, against all expectations abroad, were not just making good progress but actually winning their war against al-Shabaab. In three short months, the atmosphere in Mogadishu had significantly changed. Senior UN officials now argued that the rebels could not hold Mogadishu indefinitely. Some even whispered that the insurgency might capitulate, and that a total victory was possible.

The insurgents, it was true, had been losing ground to every AMISOM offensive. Morale among al-Shabaab’s foot soldiers was said to be low, and not helped by the fact that their leaders seemed to be in just as much disarray as their opponents in the TFG. So much had happened since the movement emerged in 2006. The successful expulsion of the Ethiopians had removed al-Shabaab’s first raison d’être as a nationalist resistance movement, forcing a process of reinvention that was still incomplete. What did al-Shabaab now stand for – what did its leaders really want?

Two distinct factions had begun to emerge that summer. Al-Shabaab’s spiritual head, the 76-year-old Sheikh Aweys, and his protégé Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, 42, were the leading figures in the ‘indigenous’ faction, which was fighting to establish an Islamic theocracy in place of the democracy which, they believed, was being forced upon Somalia by America. Their aims, like those of the Afghan Taliban for whom Robow fought in the early 2000s, were fundamentally domestic: ‘Proper Islamic rule within Somalia’s current borders’, as Aweys put it.1

Robow had not just fought for the Taliban. An Islamic lawyer who studied at the University of Khartoum in the 1990s, he also once worked for the Somali branch of the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, an international Saudi charitable organization accused by the US in 2004 of having direct links to al-Qaida, and subsequently proscribed by the UN. Despite this background, most Somalis considered him a moderate compared to al-Shabaab’s other main leader, Sheikh Moktar Ali Zubeyr, known as Godane, who headed the rival ‘international’ faction within the movement, so-called because its ranks were swelled by foreign jihadist fighters from around the world.

Godane’s agenda was much more ambitious and dangerous than Robow’s. He had taken over from Robow as al-Shabaab’s ‘Amir’ in 2009 at the age of just thirty-one, and had since pushed him and the old guard to the margins of the debate on the movement’s future. Godane had also fought the jihad in Afghanistan, but the conclusions he had drawn from his experiences there were quite different to Robow’s. Godane publicly pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden when he became Amir, an act that propelled al-Shabaab to the top of the list of proscribed terrorist organizations in half a dozen countries. He became a natural magnet for Islamists from around the world who regarded Somalia as the newest and most promising battlefront in the global war against the infidel. In February 2012 bin Laden’s successor, the Egyptian surgeon-theologian Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced that al-Shabaab and al-Qaida had formally merged. Did Godane dream, as bin Laden once dreamed, of overthrowing the West through war and terrorism and establishing a new international caliphate? It was the question that kept the chiefs of Western intelligence organizations awake at night.

The version of Sharia that Godane advocated for Somalia was far more severe than Robow’s. His ideology was based on a foreign import – Wahhabist Salafism – and, unlike his rival, he appeared to have no respect at all for Somalia’s gentler Sufi traditions. For example, although Robow disapproved of the Sufi custom of ancestor worship, he stopped far short of ordering the destruction of shrines. The disagreements between Godane and Robow over such matters were no secret, but were played out in public via Mogadishu’s many radio stations. Indeed, the narrative of dissent within al-Shabaab formed an almost constant backdrop to the national news. And although some of this was undoubtedly TFG propaganda, it was clear from Robow’s occasional interviews and from intelligence leaks that a great deal of it was not.

The key to the difference between the pair was their clan heritage and where they were from. Robow, who was born in Berdaale in the south-central province of Bay, belonged to the Leysan sub-clan of the Rahanweyn, the clan group dominant in the south of Somalia that had long been subjugated by the ‘nobler’ clans of the north, and which formed the backbone of al-Shabaab’s rank and file. Godane, by contrast, belonged to the Isaaq clan and was born in Hargeisa in Somaliland, hundreds of miles from al-Shabaab’s heartlands. There were some who argued that Godane had no choice but to rely on foreign jihadist fighters. Unlike Robow, he was unable to count on the loyalty of any local clan for support. The flipside of this apparent disadvantage was that he also owed no obligation towards the clans of the south. Being an outsider allowed him to pursue any agenda he pleased, and the cruellest of policies, unconstrained by local sensitivities.

No one knew how many foreign fighters Godane really commanded. In early 2012, estimates ranged between 200 and 2,000. The majority were said to come from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the Muslim Swahili coast, although they came from further afield too. Many had simply travelled on from Iraq or Afghanistan, experienced fighters who had made a career out of international jihadism: Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Middle East Arabs. It was sometimes possible to identify the old hands from the methods they used. Al-Shabaab’s snipers, for instance, had been taught to shoot from far back in a building through a tunnel of ‘murder holes’ dug through a series of walls: a technique much used by the Taliban in Helmand during the urban platoon house sieges of 2006–7. The best al-Shabaab marksman was said to be a Chechen, a veteran of the Iraq war, who had shot so many people with his trademark Dragunov rifle that the medics at the AMISOM field hospital had learned to recognize his handiwork.

And then there were the diaspora volunteers, young Somalis who held Western passports: American, Canadian, British, Scandinavian. This category of foreign fighter worried the security services in those countries most of all – especially, in an Olympics-hosting year, Britain’s. A report published by London’s Royal United Services Institute in 2012 put the number of foreign fighters in Somalia at just two hundred, but estimated that as many as fifty of these were UK citizens, and spoke of the difficulty of preventing a ‘lone wolf’ attack in Britain by one of them.2 Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, had already warned in a speech in 2010 that it was ‘only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab’.3

Sure enough, a month before the Games in July 2012, a 24-year-old London Somali was arrested after he was spotted on CCTV crossing east London’s new Olympic Park five times, in specific breach of an earlier Home Office control order. Identified by police as ‘CF’, the man was already suspected of having fought for al-Shabaab, of trying to recruit other Britons to the cause, and of attempting to travel to Afghanistan for terrorist training. A Home Office lawyer warned that CF wanted to ‘re-engage in terrorism-related activities, either in the UK or Somalia’ and is ‘determined to continue to adhere to his Islamist extremist agenda’.4

On 8 June 2011, Western security services received a fillip when Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, al-Qaida’s leader in East Africa, was unexpectedly killed in Mogadishu. A suspect in the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 that killed more than two hundred people, the Comoros-born Fazul had been bin Laden’s amin sirr or ‘confidential secretary’ for over a decade, with an FBI bounty on his head of $5m. He had been one of the al-Qaida leader’s closest confidants – so close, indeed, that he managed bin Laden’s wives’ travel arrangements, and even used to shave his boss’s head.5

The Bancroft Hotel was still abuzz with what had happened. Fazul and an accomplice had been driving towards the al-Shabaab-held suburb of Dayniile late one night when they apparently took a wrong turning, and ran into a twenty-strong TFG checkpoint. Fazul tried to brazen it out with the sentries on duty by pretending that he and the driver were elders. One soldier, Abdi Hassan, ordered Fazul to show himself by turning on the car’s interior light, which he did, although only for a second. But this was long enough for Abdi, already suspicious, to spot that they were armed. He was fully alert, he helpfully explained to reporters later, because his unit always chewed qat when they were on duty at night.6

Fazul’s driver’s last act was to pull a pistol which, fortunately for Abdi, jammed. Both militants died instantly in a hail of return fire. A dusty black Toyota was later put on display for photographers, who counted more than a dozen bullet holes in its windscreen. Among the contents of the car were medicines, three mobile phones, three Kalashnikovs, a South African passport, $40,000 in cash, paperwork, and a laptop. The soldiers immediately took the cash and distributed it amongst themselves, but everything else was recovered by the security services. The laptop turned out to contain much valuable information on, for instance, al-Qaida funding networks. There was also a list of potential terrorist targets which included the Ritz Hotel in London and even the British prime minister’s alma mater, Eton College.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Fazul’s death was an allegation published in SomaliaReport, a news website set up and funded by the Canadian correspondent Robert Young Pelton, that it had been orchestrated by Godane. According to SomaliaReport, Fazul and his driver had been given instructions to meet some insurgent commanders at a certain al-Shabaab checkpoint outside Dayniile. Godane secretly ordered this checkpoint to be taken down, causing Fazul’s companion to drive straight on towards the enemy lines. If true, it was a piece of skulduggery worthy of the Borgias.

SomaliaReport speculated that Godane hoped to curry favour with the new al-Qaida chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had taken over the organization following bin Laden’s assassination in May 2011, and whose relationship with the influential Fazul, a bin Laden loyalist, had always been tense. The relationship between Godane and Fazul had not exactly been easy, either. In 2009, Fazul posted a lengthy autobiography online in which he expressed concern at al-Shabaab’s political immaturity, and revealed that he had even criticized the formation of the organization in 2006, on the grounds that it was likely to undermine the Islamic Courts Union, which he described as ‘an official body . . . whose authority ought to be respected’. Bin Laden, no doubt on Fazul’s advice, consistently rejected Godane’s courtship of his organization. It was not until after his and Fazul’s death that Zawahiri accepted Godane’s overtures, and al-Shabaab and al-Qaida merged.

The irony of all this was that Fazul, one of the main reasons that the US covertly manoeuvred to bring down the ICU in 2007–8, probably represented America’s best chance at the time of stopping al-Shabaab in its tracks. If Washington had found a way to work with the ICU’s moderates instead of opting to destroy the whole regime, how might history have been different?

I had hoped to find a way to get close enough to al-Shabaab’s leadership to interview them, but after months of trying I concluded I was probably wasting my time. Godane was a recluse who was said sometimes to issue his orders, Wizard of Oz-style, from behind a curtain. It was a mystique-enhancing trick worthy of Mullah Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Taliban whom no Western journalist had seen for over a decade, and I was discouraged by the noli me tangere message behind it. Even the relative moderates such as Sheikh Aweys or Mukhtar Robow rarely granted interviews to foreigners, and then only by email or, very occasionally, by phone. Face-to-face encounters were almost unheard of.

Mogadishu wasn’t like Kabul, where with the right contacts, money and patience, a foreign journalist could always find an insurgent willing to talk. The Taliban put great importance on getting their message across to an international audience, and were prepared to take considerable risks to do so. They understood that the continuation of Nato’s war depended on Western public approval ratings, and that the foreign media offered them their best opportunity to undermine these.

Al-Shabaab, by contrast, usually just wanted to shoot the messenger. Their common assumption, almost a default position, was that all journalists – even local ones – were traitors and spies. Al-Shabaab knew, or thought they knew, that AMISOM had access to CIA surveillance technology, and were paranoid about being traced. This meant that there was no phone number a journalist could call to request an interview, no email address to write to, and of course no physical office to visit.

The movement had a spokesman, the entertainingly named Sheikh Rage, who regularly issued press releases, but it was difficult if not impossible to speak to him, because his number, like all al-Shabaab numbers, was constantly changing. Then even if you were lucky enough to have the right number, there was no guarantee that he would answer your call, because like everyone else in Mogadishu he tended not to pick up if he didn’t recognize your number. He must have been one of the least accessible press spokesmen in the world.

Even local journalists struggled in this environment. When I went for help to a friendly producer at Radio Bar-Kulan, an AU-funded station with a well-established news operation, every one of the many phone numbers he produced for Sheikh Rage turned out to be defunct. He rang colleagues on two other radio stations, but neither of them could produce an extant number either. I put this problem to one side, and went to ask the Burundians what they thought about al-Shabaab.

In late February 2011 the Burundians, the junior partners in AMISOM, had attempted to oust al-Shabaab from their main military base in the city, the former Ministry of Defence headquarters. The government in Bujumbura, facing tough questions about Burundi’s apparently open-ended commitment to the Somali mission, was tight-lipped about their casualties. A fortnight later, however, Burundian military sources revealed that they had suffered 43 dead and 110 wounded: one of the costliest operations of the entire campaign.

‘They started coming in with bullet wounds the moment the offensive began,’ recalled Ed Parsons, the Canadian medic assisting at the field hospital. ‘Then they started coming in with knife wounds: deep panga slashes. Then they started coming with blows from rocks. It was basically your worst Oliver Stone nightmare . . . You can criticize the Burundians for their lack of tactics, but there is no doubting their courage as fighters. Boy, they fight.’

The failure to provide the assault force with enough ammunition did not slow it down one bit. One soldier, unable to extract his bayonet from the al-Shabaab fighter he had just impaled, simply disconnected his rifle and charged on using its shoulder butt as a weapon, leaving the dying al-Shabaab fighter skewered to a wall.

It was hard to square such stories with the Burundian soldiers I had met around the AMISOM camp, who smiled shyly whenever I greeted them before answering in courtly, archaic French. They were far less experienced than the Ugandans. Apart from a small policing contingent in earthquake-struck Haiti, the Somalia mission was the Burundi army’s first ever international venture. I found their lack of worldliness rather charming. They had a gentle, curiously artistic side to them, evident in the homely way they marked out the territory around their bivouacs with neat lines of half-buried orange juice cartons and yoghurt pots. Most of them were deeply Catholic, a hangover from Belgian colonial times. They held mass in their section of the base every Sunday, when African harmonies would soar ethereally above the tangled thornscrub where they were encamped. An AMISOM propaganda film showing a new rotation of Burundians on parade had to be scrapped when it was realized that the soldiers were marching beneath a giant illuminated cross, an obvious gift to the crusader-obsessed propagandists on the other side.

But for all their naivety, the Burundians were no strangers to violence. As Hutus and Tutsis, they had been killing each other at home for half a century. Many of the older soldiers had first picked up a gun as children. One of their colonels had started fighting at the age of seven. It was only in 2005 that Burundi, a nation of less than nine million, emerged from a twelve-year civil war that killed 300,000. An end to that bloodbath was negotiated through the African Union, which was why the grateful Bujumbura government had voted to contribute troops to AMISOM, the only African country apart from Uganda to do so.

The Ministry of Defence complex, a collection of identical concrete blocks built in the communist brutalist style by Siad Barre at the height of his power in the 1970s, sat on a hill dominating the district of Hodan, the north-west corner of the city. Mogadishans nicknamed this imposing place Gashaandhigga (‘Drop Your Weapons’) – a reminder, if any were needed, of the iron fist with which the old dictator ruled his people for so long. The authority of Afweyne (‘Big Mouth’), as he was known, rested primarily on the army and the National Security Service, both of which were dominated by his own Darod Marehan clan. Hundreds of his political opponents disappeared into Gashaandhigga during the 1980s, where they were murdered or tortured to death, or imprisoned indefinitely without trial.

The ministry building at the centre of the complex, a famous symbol of Afweyne’s regime, had been shot to pieces long before al-Shabaab’s time. Gunfire and the elements had continued to round off the corners of its facade, turning windows and monumental doorways into rough-edged holes. Its sweating interior resembled a series of gloomy interlocking caves rather than former offices, with walls so pockmarked by bullets they looked like formations of grey coral.

My guide was the sector commander, Major Gerard Hamenyimana, an officer with a joke-shop scar down his cheek and chin, who grimaced at the memory of the battle he had fought a few weeks previously. Al-Shabaab counter-attacked almost immediately after his battalion’s capture of the complex, and went on counter-attacking for ten consecutive days. Three months later, the defenders were still on high alert. Ramadan was due to begin soon, and planeloads of ammunition had been arriving all week from Kampala in anticipation of a repeat of the previous year’s al-Shabaab offensive. Yet despite the ferocity of the recent fight for Gashaandhigga, it was the major’s confident opinion that the insurgency was now militarily spent. They were losing ground with every AMISOM attack, while the fighters opposing his men seemed to grow younger and more desperate with every passing day.

From a heavy machinegun-emplacement on the roof of the ministry building, we peeked out at the northern suburb of Dayniile, al-Shabaab’s new field headquarters. In between was a no-man’s land of cactus and thornscrub pushing up through roofless ruins, a landscape with which I was by now becoming depressingly familiar. To the east were the tower blocks and radio masts of the Bakara Market, with the top of Mogadishu stadium visible just beyond. In the 1990s the stadium had served as the headquarters of the UN’s Pakistani peace-keeping contingent, to whom exhausted US soldiers pelted for safety at the end of Black Hawk Down: the finish line of what American military trainers still call a ‘Mogadishu Mile’.

The major led us back downstairs and out to the perimeter, which had been massively reinforced with sandbags. The troops were thickly spread along the fire step: four hundred of them, the major said, around the ministry building alone. The wall was so high that we were able to stroll along the gunline in its shade, safe from everything but a chance mortar strike. Hamenyimana called this a quiet day, and his troops did seem relaxed. Several radios were tuned to Radio Africa, so that jolly pop songs wafted up from their dugouts as we passed. Yet al-Shabaab’s fighters were always probing. Twice in five minutes, an enemy bullet snapped overhead, prompting bursts of return fire from the sentries stationed above us.

At one point, surreally, I thought I heard men singing. Hamenyimana grinned: I was not mistaken. It was coming from a couple of hundred yards away, along and back from the gunline, where the battalion choir was at practice for next day’s Sunday mass.

‘You know, I would like to have been un prêtre – a priest,’ the major suddenly confided. ‘I would like to have studied theology in London.’

We made our way over to the source of the hymn. The choir, all off-duty soldiers in T-shirts and shorts, were sitting in rows of plastic chairs arranged like the pews of a church, facing an altar built of ammunition cases, in a ruined chicken coop of a building that had once housed officer cadets in Siad Barre’s army. The major, clearly an aficionado, cocked his head to listen, before nodding with approval and leading us on.

‘It is a tragedy, but Somalia was once the first military power in Africa,’ Hamenyimana observed. ‘Officers came from every country to study at the academy here. Even Burundians. We admired the Somalis in those days. We wanted to be like them.’

We picked our way out of the ministry complex on to the Terebunka Road, once a major artery of the city but now blocked with truck containers filled with sand: al-Shabaab had expected AMISOM to attack their position with tanks, not infantry. It was the start of a long morning’s hike along the Burundian front. I took photographs of sleeping Burundian soldiers, a pair of emaciated cows grazing on rubbish, and the bullet-pocked front of a grocery decorated with bright little paintings of the goods it had once sold, standard advertising practice in a country with an illiteracy rate of over 60 per cent.7 We had to sprint across one sniper-exposed section of the line helpfully signposted DANGER DE MORT. Beyond was a pharmacy with its side blown off, the shelves within still stocked with tempting-looking packets and boxes, a sign that the shop was almost certainly booby-trapped.

In another wasteland of shattered concrete and tangled thorn, a district known as the Milk Factory although no milk had been processed there for many years, we were high-fived by a TFG soldier, one of the many interspersed with AMISOM’s troops all along the line of control. Hamenyimana looked apprehensively at this one, who was wearing combat trousers and a dirty yellow vest that read FBI: Female Body Inspector. His nearby bivouac didn’t look any more military than his vest. He and his friends had fenced off a large, tumbledown villa, and had brought their families to live with them there, front line or no. A group of women and children were visible in the villa’s trash-strewn courtyard, squatting around a fire from which a thin plume of smoke rose. A ‘technical’, a rusting pick-up truck with a four-barrelled anti-aircraft gun bolted to its load bay, was parked nearby. This weapon of choice for the warlords of the 1990s was a Somali innovation – perhaps the only thing to be created during those years of terrible destruction – that was subsequently copied by everyone from the Taliban to Libya’s anti-Gaddafi rebels in 2011.

The sight of these men, all members of the SNA, the fledgling Somali national army on which the TFG’s authority supposedly depended, did not bode well for the future. Western advisers had repeatedly pointed out that, to preserve discipline and foster esprit de corps, the SNA’s troops really needed to be housed in proper military barracks. As an ex-military dictatorship, Somalia was hardly short of bases. But the ranks of the SNA were filled with exclan militiamen like these, who were used to living on the streets ‘with their brothers’ – and the SNA’s officers could not afford to alienate them by ordering them to do otherwise. It was another sign of the fragility of the TFG’s hold on power. Could clan loyalty ever be supplanted by patriotism in circumstances such as these?

We came eventually to a district called African Village, built in 1974 to house the VIP delegates to a summit of the Organization of African Unity – the forerunner, ironically enough, of the African Union, the sponsors of the AMISOM troops now in occupation here. The district had been a showcase of modernity in its day, with large, airy accommodation blocks neatly arranged along leafy avenues that must once have been very pleasant.

In the 1980s it was so favoured by senior civil servants and their families that less fortunate Mogadishans nicknamed it Booli Qaran (‘Stolen Public Money’). That affluent era was long gone now, commemorated by the burned-out carcass of a yellow, American-style school bus.

Back at the ministry complex the major stopped by the eastern gate. This had been filled in with Hesco barriers on which ‘8 BN AMISOM’ had been picked out in empty strawberry yoghurt pots. It was a memorial to his battalion’s fallen, spontaneously constructed at the scene of the fiercest fighting of all. Just inside the gateway was a deep conical crater in which lay a blackened engine block and a twist of axle: all that remained of an al-Shabaab suicide truck. Hamenyimana described how, after a week of trying to force the gate, the insurgents had massed for one final attempt. The truck had tried to ram its way through, but the weight of Burundian gunfire pouring through the windscreen was too much, and the driver was killed before he was able to detonate the explosives in the back. The gate was partially blocked by the riddled vehicle, which finally blew up just as al-Shabaab’s main force of infantry was trying to negotiate its way around it.

‘We picked up sixty of their dead,’ said the major, shaking his head. ‘Sixty! Can you imagine?’

Al-Shabaab’s supply of fighters prepared to martyr themselves did seem inexhaustible, like an industrial conveyor belt of young suicide. I wondered, not for the first time, how their leaders had managed to create this demonic meat-grinder. As Somalis never tired of telling you, suicide bombing was a foreign import, almost unheard of until a decade ago and unfavoured as a tactic even at the height of the civil war. Yet I suspected that many of the traits required in a successful suicide bomber were deeply rooted in the national character. Nomadic warrior tradition, for instance, placed great importance on the obviously useful quality of fearlessness.

‘I never saw a Somali who showed any fear of death, which, impressive though it sounds, carries with it the chill of pitilessness and ferocity as well,’ wrote Gerald Hanley. ‘The Somalis died as they liked to die, contemptuously, throwing off the cloak-blanket and staring at the firing squad, sneering at the trembling rifles. They had had their fragment of living, their brief satisfaction, and they had prayed. Now die. Hrun sheg! Wallahi!8

Fearlessness, however, is not quite the same thing as actively seeking to die as you kill your enemy, as these young suicide bombers appeared to do. It is not natural to want to destroy oneself. The mindset it takes to do so therefore has to be nurtured, if not taught from scratch. Al-Shabaab’s suicide bomber mentors were skilled theologians, expert at twisting the tenets of Islam to promote and justify martyrdom. Just as importantly, perhaps, they knew exactly which psychological buttons to press in their young charges.

Martyrs for Islam, famously, are rewarded with the attentions of seventy-two virgins when they reach heaven. In Somalia, al-Shabaab’s mentors were said to have shown their pupils Bollywood DVDs, and told their young charges that they were watching footage shot by militants who had already blown themselves up and gone to Paradise.9 It obviously helped that the trainee bombers were uneducated and highly impressionable boys, for the most part, who were easily misled and lied to. Their gullibility was sometimes breathtaking. But so, too, was the religious hypocrisy of their mentors. Bollywood movies are a byword for licentiousness in Muslim Asia. Their troupes of gyrating houris are seen as agents of moral corruption, to be resisted at all costs. Indeed, the popularity of the genre in Afghanistan was one of the main reasons that the Taliban banned television when they came to power in 1996.

There was no doubt that al-Shabaab’s foot soldiers were sexually frustrated. In this, perhaps, they were no different from teenagers in all those other parts of the Islamic world where pre-marital intercourse of all kinds is haram. In one recently overrun al-Shabaab position, AMISOM troops were astonished to find the walls covered with doodles of the most obscene type.

‘There was a lot of rape imagery – a lot of bestiality, and half-man, half-beast stuff,’ said an AMISOM public relations officer who saw it. ‘It was certainly not the sort of thing you would associate with pious Islamists.’

The discovery led one UN official in Nairobi to joke that to neutralize al-Shabaab as a fighting force, all AMISOM needed to do was to fly in two planeloads of prostitutes from Bangkok and ferry them up to the front.

The connection between pornography and Islamic terrorism had been made before. One of the more intriguing discoveries made by the US Navy SEALs who stormed Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in May 2011 was a ‘fairly extensive’ collection of porn films.10 Did the puritanical scourge of the ‘decadent’ West have a porn habit? It seemed so unlikely at the time that many Westerners dismissed the report as black propaganda put out by the CIA. Yet US officials who had seen evidence gathered during investigations of other Islamic militants said it was ‘not unusual’ to discover porn in such cases.

I was later amazed to discover a large body of psychiatric literature dedicated to the role of sex in suicide bombing.11 I could just about grasp that to enable them to kill innocent people, suicide bombers commonly ‘dehumanized’ their target before pulling the pin – and that this process, according to one analyst, was very similar to the ‘desensitizing’ effect on the male brain of too much pornography. In both cases, I could see, human beings were reduced to the status of objects. But I did not realize that some Islamist suicide bombers literally wrapped up their genitals before their mission in order to preserve them for the promised seventy-two virgins; nor did I know that the act of suicide is commonly described as their ‘wedding’. Some psychiatrists interpret the moment of detonation as a kind of consummation, the ultimate physical release of the frustrations of a virgin’s life on earth, a grotesque orgasm of body parts.

The US military psychoanalyst Nancy Kobrin delved even deeper into the suicide-bomber’s psyche. She thought suicide bombing was a symptom of early ‘problematic bonding’ between sons and their mothers, which she regarded as inevitable in Muslim societies where ‘the female, instead of being valued and cherished, is denigrated, abused and pathologically controlled from day one. There is no regard for the mother’s stress hormone level or her devotion to her newborn. Ultimately, this not only jeopardizes the infant’s health but can lead to severe ego dysfunction as well as cognitive impairments, such as flying planes into buildings rather than just fantasizing about it.’

The West had long assumed that Islamic terrorism was primarily about politics. How much of it was actually driven by dysfunction in the terrorist’s maternal relationship? It was certainly suggestive that in the 1990s, the Saudis repeatedly sent bin Laden’s mother, Umm Usama, to Sudan and Afghanistan in order to get her son to ‘behave’. Kobrin noted that Ummi – ‘Mummy’ in Arabic – comes from the same root as Ummah, or ‘community’, the Koranic term for the global Muslim diaspora that bin Laden hoped to unite. ‘The Arab Muslim communal self-perception is [thus] linked to the maternal,’ Kobrin wrote.

There was no doubt something in this thesis, although again it did not quite explain what was happening in Somalia. From a Freudian point of view the mother–son relationship was ‘problematic’ for all Muslims, according to Kobrin. Yet the epidemic of suicide bombing was not universally spread, any more than the extremist ideology that underpinned it was. It seemed to me that neither would have flourished in Somalia without the civil war, which had silenced the voices of moderation that might have countered the extremists. There were no schools or teachers, the clan elders had been scattered, and the fathers, very often, were dead.

‘One asks – where is the father?’ wrote Kobrin. ‘The father’s absence seems to reflect the frequently heard complaint in the interview literature of terrorists that their fathers were absent. We might conclude that the reason terrorists remain forever tied into their mothers is precisely because of the absence of a father in Islamic regimes.’

Like the first generation of Taliban in the 1990s, many al-Shabaab recruits were indeed orphans of parents killed by famine or war. The careers of thousands of other al-Shabaab fighters had begun, as Mohamed Omaar observed, with the trauma of sudden abduction from the family home, a separation that all too often became permanent. In either case it meant that youths were left vulnerable, hungry, and ripe for exploitation by ambitious ideologues operating in loco parentis.

At the AMISOM base, just beyond the north perimeter, was a camp set aside by the TFG for deserters from al-Shabaab. The existence of this place was little advertised, and I was told early on that there was no chance of gaining permission to visit it. The inmates’ first-hand knowledge of how the insurgency worked made them a source of intelligence which neither the TFG nor AMISOM much wanted to share. Eventually, however, I and three other foreign journalists badgered the Ugandan civil-military affairs officer, an avuncular lieutenant colonel called Katwekyeire, to let us accompany an army medical officer there on one of his weekly health visits.

There were 168 ex-al-Shabaab fighters living in the camp, almost double the number three months previously, which was another indicator that the war was going AMISOM’s way. The numbers were not huge, yet al-Shabaab fighters were already deserting faster than the TFG could handle them. It was not even their intelligence officers but AMISOM’s who screened and interrogated the inmates before releasing them into the camp for rehabilitation. There were also dark rumours that TFG officials close to President Sharif had sold some al-Shabaab deserters back to the enemy, with senior fighters commanding the highest prices.

I had come prepared for anti-Western hostility from a gang of hardened jihadist militants. Instead I found a crowd of school-age teenagers, spirited, unruly, and for the most part instantly likeable. Their average age was fifteen. They lived in large, closely packed dormitories that looked out over a sandy parade ground to a huddle of half-built blockhouses on the other side. Dozens of them clustered around the back of the Casspir from the moment we arrived, clearly bored and apparently glad of the novelty of strangers to talk to. It was disorienting, but in their Lakers T-shirts and Nile Sports tracksuits, they resembled schoolboys anywhere in the world. They behaved like them too, particularly in the way they made faces behind the back of Najib, an officious type who ‘coordinated’ the camp on behalf of the TFG. No one had warned Najib of our visit, and for a moment it seemed we would be ejected from his kingdom, although he was soon calmed by a phone call back to Katwekyeire.

I asked the crowd for their names.

‘Saifullah,’ said one, after a moment’s hesitation.

‘Musa,’ said another.

‘Hizbullah,’ said a third, to titters all around.

‘Mohamed al-Shabaab,’ said a fourth, to guffaws.

It was a good joke – absurd pseudonyms to please the silly gaalo – and they clapped me on the back when I smiled to show that I got it and didn’t mind being teased.

‘Our real names are all left at the door here,’ one of them added apologetically. ‘I’m sure you understand.’

The atmosphere felt part army boot camp, part school sports day. There was no perimeter fence to speak of, and no guards, for the inmates here had all volunteered for ‘deprogramming’, as Najib called the rehabilitation process. There were plans to run vocational training courses in mechanics and electronics when the sheds across the square were finally completed. In the meantime, the boys underwent three mandatory hours a day of ‘correct’ Islamic instruction, designed to undo the ‘lies’ they had been taught by al-Shabaab.

At first they answered our questions with platitudes. Al-Shabaab was bad and the TFG was good, they said, because there was ‘no life, no prospects’ in the insurgency.

‘We are taught how to load and unload – that’s it,’ said one. ‘We don’t matter to them. I want to fight for the TFG.’

But as the novelty of our presence wore off and the crowd began to thin and break up into smaller groups, the conversations became more interesting. Among the older ex-al-Shabaab, the young men who were no longer in their teens, I detected a troubling level of discontent, and they were keen to explain why.

‘Don’t let this place fool you,’ said one long-faced young man, glancing over his shoulder. His name, he said, was Jabril, he was twenty-one, and he had been living in the camp for six months. ‘Some of the younger ones here are believers, but in truth we are just TFG showpieces. I was promised a better life when I came here – a job, a visa, a passport – but that doesn’t happen. So far they have given us nothing.’

‘It’s true,’ said his friend Abshir, a Kenyan Somali who had come to the camp at the same time. ‘The TFG have been very welcoming. At least we are alive and well. Yet most of us are thinking every day: how do I get out of here?’

‘You ask about our future,’ Jabril went on, ‘but we cannot think beyond surviving in the present. And meanwhile, we are losing our families.’

Defection, he explained, came at a high cost to the older, married fighters. Jabril had left behind a wife and baby somewhere in al-Shabaab territory, since when the wife had been ‘taken’ by another fighter. It seemed that battlefield marriages had been forced on the wives of several of the deserters here, no doubt in order to deter others from running to the gaalo.

‘So what is stopping you from leaving?’ I asked, nodding towards the camp’s unguarded entrance. ‘Could you not go back for your wife and baby?’

Jabril and Abshir looked at each other.

‘Two guys did leave here two days ago,’ said Jabril. ‘They wanted to find a better life for themselves. They got as far as Afgoye, but then someone recognized them.’*

‘And what happened to them?’

There was the tiniest pause.

‘They were beheaded by al-Shabaab this morning,’ said Abshir.

‘But how do you know?’

‘We are still in touch with people,’ Jabril said. ‘We hear things.’

‘The hills have ears round here,’ Abshir added.

Just then, as if on cue, a third man sauntered up: a fresh-faced 17-year-old who wanted to tell me how he had arrived in the camp just two days before. He had come all the way from Kismayo, he said, travelling at night to avoid the militants who would certainly have killed him had they realized where he was headed. There was a puppyish quality to him that reminded me of ‘Young Thing’, the naive, wannabe suicide bomber in Nuruddin Farah’s novel Crossbones. Young Thing was the type of beta-male who would do anything to impress his peers, a willingness to please that also made him highly dangerous. It was clear from their sudden silence that Jabril and Abshir, the camp’s old lags, did not trust this newcomer one bit. I could almost see them wondering if he was an al-Shabaab infiltrator. Their camp had no walls but it was a prison to them nevertheless, with all the vicious internal politics associated with such places, and similar behavioural conventions.

‘No one in here will tell you if they’ve killed people, but there’s more that have than haven’t,’ Jabril observed at one point.

I suspected that belonging to the right clique or gang in here could easily be a matter of life or death.

Later that summer, in Puntland, I met a French criminologist called Daniel LaDouceur, an expert in youth gang culture who knew this deserters’ camp well. Gang membership, he explained, was a primitive survival tactic based on strength in numbers. With the collapse of central authority in 1991 and the breakdown of the clan system, Somali society had disintegrated further into a constellation of gangs, the continuing survival of which, he thought, presented the single greatest obstruction to Somalia’s civil reconstruction.

‘Everything here is about gangs: gangs of kids,’ he said. ‘Pirates operate in gangs. People smugglers in the Gulf of Aden are gangs. The militias in Mogadishu say they are clan organizations but really they are gangs too . . . Al-Shabaab is a super-gang, a collection of small clans ganging up on the big clans. And they are all just kids.’

LaDouceur was piloting a UN-funded scheme called ‘Youth at Risk’ which aimed to take potential gangsters off the street by paying them to take lessons in citizenship, governance and the rule of law.

‘At the moment the international community’s strategy is to try to control the violence through the clan elders. But the elders are the wrong interlocutors because, as they themselves acknowledge, they have lost control of their young men.’

In the jargon of sociologists, talking to elders was a ‘top-down’ approach, when what was needed was a ‘bottom-up’ one: job-creation schemes, paid community work, and education-based initiatives such as his Youth at Risk programme. Until the UN started viewing Somalia through this prism of gang psychology, he thought, the country would never be demilitarized and nothing would change.

In the deserters’ camp I was introduced to a friend of Jabril and Abshir, Abdi-Osman, whose story suggested that the gangs could be literally interchangeable. Abdi-Osman was not just an ex-al-Shabaab fighter: he was also an ex-pirate. He recalled the night when two friends had persuaded him to put to sea in a small fishing skiff, with no plan other than to head out and see what happened. His friends told him they would be gone for a night or two, although the voyage ended up lasting for eighteen. They drifted about, waiting for a ship to pirate, and eventually attempted to board a French-flagged freighter.

‘I don’t remember its name, but it was pretty big,’ he said.

Unfortunately for them, their skiff wasn’t fast enough to come alongside their quarry, and the attack was a dismal failure. In fact, the whole adventure was madness. Abdi-Osman and his friends were from Hiraan, an inland state, and had no experience whatsoever of the sea. As he sheepishly acknowledged, they were hopeless amateurs compared to the professional pirates they sought to emulate. He was eventually put ashore at Mogadishu, hungry, sun-burned and destitute. He was picked up in the port by two al-Shabaab recruiters, and immediately agreed to join the insurgency. He shrugged when I asked him what was going through his mind at the time.

‘Every man who has nothing will try something to get money,’ he replied.

At twenty-three, Abdi-Osman had experienced enough desperate adventure to last most people a lifetime. Al-Shabaab or piracy? Morality simply didn’t come into the equation for him.

The two great Somali scourges of the West were simply alternative livelihoods to him. This roguish attitude had a certain charm to it. It was hard not to admire his survivor’s instinct and the way he had made his own luck. He reminded me somewhat of the Artful Dodger, the plucky chief pickpocket in Oliver Twist. On the margins of another of the groups I spoke to, meanwhile, I thought I spotted innocent Oliver himself, a small child in an embroidered green shirt that was much too long for him. I waved at him, and he was propelled forward until he stood looking up at a circle of his elders, wide-eyed and mute, the reluctant camp mascot. His name was Liban, and he was nine years old.

In a telephone interview in 2011, Sheikh Aweys asserted that ‘in Islam, the age of responsibility is defined as fifteen years old’, and denied that anyone under that age took any part in the fighting on behalf of al-Shabaab – as well he might, since employing child soldiers under the age of fifteen is defined by the International Criminal Court as a war crime.12 Liban’s story, delivered in barely audible monosyllables that had to be coaxed from him by the older boys, proved how untrue the Sheikh’s claim was. The boy was an orphan – he just looked at me blankly when I asked about his parents – who had been with al-Shabaab since he was seven. To begin with he was used as a runner. Like a Royal Navy powder-monkey in the nineteenth century, he carried supplies and ammunition up to the fighters in the front line; as he grew older he was sent further forward in order to scope out enemy positions because, as an older boy explained, ‘children make good spies’.

I asked if he had ever carried a gun, and he replied that he had; and yes, he had used it once or twice, in order to kill people. I wondered what had prompted him to leave his unit, which after so long must have felt like a surrogate family. An older boy again answered for him: Liban had been starving because his unit, low on food themselves, were no longer able to feed him properly. And so one night he had wandered out to a road and flagged down the first passing car, asking the driver to take him somewhere, anywhere, to find something to eat. It was pure chance that he had ended up in this camp.

‘And what will you do next, Liban?’

He looked me in the eye for the first time: here, at last, was a question he understood and recognized.

‘I’m ready to fight again!’ he trilled. ‘I want to fight for the TFG! I’m not scared!’

He said this with such fervour that one or two of the crowd looked away, sucking through their teeth. Liban was no Oliver Twist, I realized, but a deeply damaged little boy, a dangerous, feral creature who knew only how to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of the warzone. His reasoning seemed binary, as simple as a mollusc’s: hungry, not hungry, alive, not alive. Did he know that killing people was wrong? I was sure not. His moral compass was terrifyingly absent, and there was no soft-hearted Nancy figure at hand to redeem him.

There was, though, a contender for the role of Bill Sykes. I had been speaking to the boys for over an hour, and was beginning to think I had learned all I could from the deserters, when I fell into conversation with an older man with a skull cap and a long, Islamist’s beard – the only beard among the deserters, in fact.

‘I can’t afford a razor,’ he deadpanned when I asked him, jokingly, why he had not shaved it off.

But Abdikadir, 33, was no joke. The other deserters were visibly wary of him. He was not an ex-foot soldier but a former mid-level commander, who had quit the insurgency suffering from what sounded like old-fashioned battle fatigue.

‘I still hear the sound of fighting in my head,’ he said, with a faraway look in his eye. ‘All we ever did in al-Shabaab was fight. The battle against the Ethiopians was the worst. I tell you how long I’ve been fighting. You see that guy over there? He’s twenty-three. I remember when he was turned down by al-Shabaab because he was too young.’

It was another dark joke. Abdikadir had been in the camp for less than two months but was already regretting it. He had expected to be debriefed by the TFG when he deserted, and indeed was willing to share all he knew. Yet no one had so far asked him anything, and now he felt slighted.

‘I had a good life in al-Shabaab,’ he said bitterly. ‘I had a house, and three cars. My family had enough to eat. Look. This was me.’

He produced a mobile phone and prodded at the buttons. Across the tiny, cracked screen flickered some shaky footage of a man in combat gear with his head wrapped in a keffiyeh, posing by a Toyota. In the background was a newly built concrete bungalow.

‘I gave all that up for this,’ he said, waving dismissively at the dusty parade ground, ‘and now, even my wife has been taken from me. Why does the government not want to talk to me? I have a book full of names of people who could help them . . . After Ramadan, if nothing has changed, that might be the time for me to start walking from here.’

He said there had been between three hundred and four hundred fighters in his group, including several foreigners, most of them from Kenya and Sudan but also people from America and Europe.

‘The foreigners were mostly being trained as suicide bombers,’ he said then. ‘They were kept apart from us, in a different camp. Outside, we would walk on one side of the road, they on the other. They had hero status. Even the Somalis from abroad were treated as heroes.’

He recalled a Somali from Britain among this latter group who had been encouraged to take part in a recruitment video, although he couldn’t name him. Did he know of any British-Somali suicide bombers; had he heard of Abu Ayyub al-Muhajir, ‘the Migrant’, the 21-year-old student from Ealing, west London, who blew himself up in Baidoa in 2007?

‘You know of one,’ he replied. ‘I know of many.’

‘And what do you think about suicide bombing?’

Abdikadir stroked his beard and looked at me as though the question was strange.

‘It was what they had registered in themselves to do,’ he shrugged eventually. ‘It was part of their path to Heaven.’

The Ugandan medical officer reappeared, his rounds of the dormitories complete. At the sound of our Casspir’s engine starting up, a group of 15-year-olds materialized and asked to pose for a team photograph. Abdikadir melted away, and suddenly we were back in the world of schoolboy buffoonery as they crowded in for the shot, laughing, swearing, their white teeth flashing as they jostled for the best positions. They looked like the cream of Somalia youth, in far better condition than the Mogadishu average. The MO confirmed that they were mostly in rude health. The only new medical problem he had found was an infestation of fleas in the dormitory bedding. There seemed to be hope for the future. And yet the horror remained just a step away for all these young men. As we queued to climb back into the vehicle, one of the 20-year-olds pulled me aside again.

‘The bearded man – Abdikadir,’ he said. ‘What did he say to you?’

‘Why do you ask?’

‘You shouldn’t trust what he says. He’s a bad one.’

‘In what way is he bad?’

‘He was one of the executioners. He used to chop off people’s heads with a sword.’

* The so-called Afgoye Corridor just south-west of Mogadishu, home to over half a million refugees displaced by years of fighting in the capital, is a well-known al-Shabaab stronghold.