Watching Al Shabab claim responsibility for this weekend’s atrocities in Kenya reminded me of my own encounter with Somali militants a few years ago. It was back in 2006, and I was in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, to report on a most unusual story – an outbreak of peace.
After 15 years of civil war between various militias, an Islamist group called the Islamic Courts Union had finally pacified the world’s most anarchic city, kicking out the warlords and establishing a degree of law and order for the first time.
Rather like the Taliban in Afghanistan, their Islamic vision was an austere one, with the Courts’ more radical factions wanting bans on music, films and dancing. But for most of Mogadishu’s long-suffering residents, it was better than what had gone before, when even a short trip across town meant risking rape or murder by some warlord’s drunken, drug-crazed thugs.
One of the Courts’ strategies was to conscript the warlords’ footsoldiers into their own forces, sending them to religious boot camps for military training and Koranic “rehabilitation”.
In one of my few reporting triumphs in Somalia – others have been a disaster – we got access to one of these camps one day, watching the new recruits goose-step up and down on a dusty parade ground outside of town, chanting “Allah Akbhar”.
Made of rapists, murderers and ex-drug addicts, many of whom were missing various eyes, hands and ears, they were a scary bunch. Indeed, judging by the words of their trainer, a man called Colonel Abukar Sheikh Mohamed, the old drill sergeant’s phrase “horrible little men” might have been specially coined for them.
“Some of these men were alcoholics, others chewed or smoked drugs all day,” he told me, gesturing with a long, thin twig that he used as a swagger stick. “But now we have taught them the Islamic religion, they cry about their past sins and obey only the word of God.”
What these would-be holy warriors thought of their new vocation, I never found out. When I tried to interview a few of them after drill practice ended, they gathered around me in an eager crowd, apparently keen to speak.
Then I felt the hand of my fixer on my shoulder, pulling me out. What had seemed like a friendly huddle, he said, was in fact probably a prelude to them robbing me. He knew this because it was because it was exactly what had happened to the last journalist he’d brought there, a Spaniard who’d been relieved of his cameras.
He also pointed out how a lot of them seemed nervous and fidgety, constantly glancing around them. “That is the sign of people who have killed many times, maybe a dozen or more,” he said. “Always checking that nobody is coming to take revenge.”
The really worrying twist to this tale, though, was that these were apparently one of the less scary of the Courts’ various military factions. As we left the camp, I asked the fixer if we had just come to face to with Al Shebab, about whom little was known back then except that they were one of the Courts’ affiliated military groups. No, came the abrupt answer. Al Shabab were a much radical, dangerous bunch. They would never agree to meet a Westerner like me in the first place. And if they did, I might not survive the encounter.
Media-shy as they were, it was the presence of groups like Al Shabab within the Courts’ set-up that prompted America to bring them down just a few months later. Fearing that the new, Islamist-controlled Mogadishu was likely to become a haven for al-Qaeda types from all over the globe, Washington gave the tacit go-ahead for an invasion by Somalia’s Christian neighbour and long-time enemy, Ethiopia, in early 2007.
That the Islamists had established a degree of stability in Mogadishu did not matter. Nor did the fact that many of the Courts’ leaders were moderates. Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, for example, later became president of Somalia, and was invited to Downing St in 2010. Instead, “War on Terror” considerations took precedence. Officials also argued – with some justification – that however much they appreciated the relative peace that the Islamists had brought, most Somalis did not really a long-term future under some sort of African Taliban.
Sure enough, the Islamists proved no match for Ethiopia’s well-equipped army, and scattered within a few weeks. But like so many Western-backed invasions of recent years, it had two unfortunate side effects. One was to turn Mogadishu into a battlefield for the next five years. And the other was to split the Courts’ more radical factions away from the influence of their more moderate ones. While the likes of Sheikh Sharif entered peaceful politics, Al Shabab went down the road of all-out insurgency, having got the message that no Islamist government would be tolerated by the West. Six years on, the knock-on effect is being felt in Nairobi’s shopping malls.