The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia by James Fergusson
"Their culture has nothing to do with us."
Aden Ibrahim, a young Somali in Mogadishu, says this of al-Shabaab, the al-Qaida linked Islamist movement that occupied the southern half of Somalia from approximately 2008 until the summer of 2012. Just whose culture is whose, and how to distinguish "them" from "us" -- the transplanted jihadists, the Somalis, and the Somali diaspora -- this is the intricate web of history, violence and physical distance that James Fergusson seeks to unravel in his most recent investigative work, The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia.
An award-winning journalist and foreign correspondent for The Times and The Economist, Fergusson is also author of Taliban: The Unknown Enemy and his account of Britain's involvement in Afghanistan in the last decade, A Million Bullets. Luckily for his readers, Fergusson has both a flair for sensory description and the patience of a secondary school history teacher, for this is an investment of a book for both writer and reader: over the course of two years, it took him to nine countries across four continents. The book is divided into three parts: the who and why of al-Shabaab; the culture of nomadism, clanism, and piracy; and lastly, the Somali diaspora.
The book starts in March 2011 and ends in the summer of 2012, when al-Shabaab was ousted from Kismayo, an important southern port (for now, it seems to have released its regional hold). The World's Most Dangerous Place is a "cautionary tale for grown-ups" that goes like this: failed states produce refugee communities whose host countries ignore them at their own peril. In the case of the U.S. and Britain, Somali immigrants find themselves in a complicated relationship with host countries that have given them refuge, but whose foreign policies have in some ways exacerbated the ongoing war in their homeland. The children of refugees are often fatherless and without the psychological and educational support of a traditional Somali network of elders, and their ideas of Somalia can be distorted, Fergusson says, partly due to the Internet. These young individuals are the most vulnerable to radical, global terrorist groups. Fergusson builds an appreciation for this conundrum facing young American and British Somalis by spending the first two-thirds of the book painstakingly investigating their homeland, a place many of them have never set eyes on.
Fergusson uses references that Westerners are likely to understand -- the policy of containment that failed in Vietnam, M*A*S*H, Black Hawk Down, and general knowledge of World War I and II wartime conditions -- which helps paint pictures of some of the psychological and physical complexity that abound in the country that has not had a functioning central government in over twenty years. The book opens with a description of Fergusson's home away from home in Somalia during 2011: "Portakabins" sandbagged to protect against mortar attack, dubbed the "Bancroft Hotel" for the American firm that built the compound and trained the UN-mandated African Union Mission, or AMISOM troops (largely from Burundi and Uganda) in urban warfare. Fergusson is clear to point out that though the U.S. had stopped direct funding of Somali transitional government soldiers, the U.S. State Department picks up the tab for the fight against al-Shabaab through AMISOM and Bancroft.
Mussolini abandoned his massive ammunition stores in the hands of colonial thugs in 1941, and both world wars used Somalia as territorial launch-pads, giving cause for such mythic figures as Sayyid Mohammed Hassan, or "The Mad Mullah," to use Turkish rifles to fight the British in their northern protectorate, Somaliland. Then there was independence. General Said Barre's "secular scientific socialism" garnered Russian weaponry. When Russia refused to support Barre's aim to invade eastern Ethiopia, Barre appealed to and received military aid from the U.S., which turned Somalia into "one of the hottest fronts of the Cold War." And then in 1991, clan groups, armed and funded by various foreigners (Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, among others), overthrew Barre. The past two decades of stymied government has seen warlords play clans off each other, like the Rahanweyn, a minority farmer clan in the south who made up a sizeable part of al-Shabaab's supporters.
"No one knows for certain how many people have been killed since 1991," Fergusson writes. Bombs, bullets, disease, and famine have probably killed around half a million. Attempts at federal governments -- Transitional National Government, then its successor, Transitional Federal Government, TFG -- have been slowed by clan interests and corruption, and then there's the Islamic Courts Union, ICU, a network of Sharia-based judges who offered police, education, and healthcare as well as justice in local provinces, according to an Islam imported from Arabia and actually, according to Fergusson and clerics he interviews, "almost the antithesis, within Islam, of the liberal, hymn-singing Sufism traditional practiced in Somalia."
Because the ICU encompassed a wide range of doctrine, from Sufi moderates to Salafist hardliners, says Fergusson, the post-9/11 Bush administration concluded, to be on the safe (or war eagle) side, that the ICU was the enemy. This gave the U.S. strange warlord bedfellows and led UN General Secretary Kofi Annan to criticize the move.
When the ICU's militias lost to U.S.- and Ethiopian-backed TFG forces, this drew attention of regional Islamists who were committed to fighting any and all Western influence on Muslim soil. So before long, guerilla campaigns against the TFG were funded and peopled by international jihadists from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the Swahili coast -- some even came from as far away as Iraq and Afghanistan, including those who fought for the Taliban. Fergusson's experience in Afghanistan serves the reader here, as in so many instances, when he notes that it was possible to identify old jihadi hands from less experienced ones: Taliban-trained snipers used "urban platoon house siege" techniques and shot "from back in a building through a tunnel of 'murder holes' due through a series of walls."
So the hardliners who were divided at first, Fergusson writes, finally united under the umbrella of the anti-Western militia al-Shabaab. Technically al-Shabaab calls itself Wahabbist Salafist, or salafi-jihadist, though Salafist scholars are not agreed on al-Shabaab's religiosity. Armed with RTFs, bombs, automatic weapons, and "technicals" -- tricked-out pickups with four-barreled anti-aircraft bolted to load bays -- al-Shabaab used suicide bombing tactics and urban guerilla ambush warfare to control large sections of Somali capital Mogadishu and southern Somalia until summer 2012. Ugandan and Burundian soldiers fought with AMISOM to oust them and returned from the battlefield with bullet wounds, deep panga knife wounds, and even blows from rocks -- stuff of your worst "Oliver Stone nightmare."
Fergusson clarifies ironic twists and turns in this dizzying story of foreign intervention in Somali uprisings: the al-Qaida leader in Somalia who the U.S. feared was the link to al-Shabaab, he says, turned out to the be the one Al-Qaida leader who was against the merger of the two organizations. And when Fazul Abdullah Mohammed was killed in 2011 (possibly by an al-Shabaab leader), his successor in Al-Qaida agreed to the union, and the organizations formally announced their alliance.
Life under al-Shabaab was a world of "Lord of the Flies with automatic weapons." A young man accused of theft is subjected to cross-amputation; teachers are beaten for teaching girls; soldiers at road checks inspect people's mouths for gold fillings, a sign of vanity, and remove them with pliers; frequently, al-Shabaab issues death threats to anyone who seeks medical care from the hospital on the UN-backed AMISOM base. Defection from al-Shabaab ranks can result in the murder of one's family. The leadership of al-Shabaab is mostly foreign, and that's no secret, Fergusson says. Aden, a young man who had fled al-Shabaab's vicious recruiting tactics, breaks it down: "These are bad, bad people. They are not acting like human beings." According to him, the Pakistani clothes, the long-tailed shalwar kamiz from Afghanistan, and the intent to destroy Somali Sufi shrines all were dramatic evidence that al-Shabaab was "engaged in a systematic assault on Somali values and culture."
Fergusson devotes an entire chapter to Aden, and later in the book transcribes occasional emails he receives from Aden, which serves to illustrate one young person's perilous struggle to survive amidst this chaos: Aden lost his family to incessant shelling, and he stays on the move to avoid conscription into al-Shabaab army, which promises but seldom delivers food to starving boys in return for fighting. Jobs may come and go depending on clan affiliations. "We reject them in our hearts, 100 percent," says Aden of al-Shabaab. And yet he is clear about the reality of an al-Shabaab controlled life, which boils down to three choices: "To fight for al-Shabaab, to be killed by them, or to run away again." "It is small wonder," writes Fergusson, "that so many Somalis blame outsiders for their country's ills."
I confess to experiencing a secondhand adrenaline rush from reading this book. Fergusson risked his life or at least his safety countless times to meet with the leaders of UN-allied forces, pirates, provincial leaders, and patients in makeshift hospitals wards and prisons. The rush might also have come from the overwhelming amount of information, which left me a little light-headed, even though Fergusson does a bang-up job of making it all relevant for people who consider themselves citizens of the world. For most American readers not engaged in counterterrorism law enforcement or international relief work, it will be new information. After page 100 or so, Fergusson thoughtfully reminds the reader of certain figures and conversations from the first part of the book -- anticipating correctly -- for me, anyway -- that numerous settings and names of his exhaustive investigation start to blur.
His narrative voice is that of a dependable tour guide who walks the reader through places like hospital ward tents smelling of "suppurating" bomb and bullet wounds. A Ugandan nun tells Fergusson that the closest thing she can use to explain the psychology of most Somalis is to refer to PTSD, except for Somalis, there is no "post." By the time Fergusson's book went to print, al-Shabaab was in retreat, and had relinquished control over Mogadishu, yet the vacuum they left behind shows no signs of being filled with anything but continued instability. "You have to understand what motivates the violence," chief medical officer Colonel James Kiyungo explains. In Somalia, he says, chaos is hope.
Fergusson takes pains throughout all three sections of the book to suggest in various ways that the notion of tribal competition and rivalry is at the very least exacerbated, if not partially manufactured by foreign military intervention as well as foreign extremist intervention. His discussion of clanism illustrates that our understanding of history and a foreign culture is tenuous and depends on our sources, something that comes into play as he acquires information for the book. Fighting or blocked roadways thwarted more than one intended interview, he reports. Al-Shabaab viewed journalists as traitors and spies, and even their spokesperson, Sheikh Rage, didn't keep a consistent cell phone number.
Pointedly, Fergusson reminds his readers of the foundation on which many Westerners built our stereotypes of Somalis: the 2001 Ridley Scott movie Black Hawk Down. In the film, enraged Somalis drag the mutilated body of a U.S. helicopter crewman through crowded, war-torn streets of Mogadishu, based on real news footage that flashed across television screens throughout the west. With this visual of Somalis as "bloodthirsty savages," the wider mission and the Somalis were taken out of context, Fergusson reports, and according to a representative of AMISOM, "Ridley Scott had more or less single-handedly set back Somalia's prospects for peace for an entire generation." His repeated reminders of colonial sources like Gerald Hanley and Richard Burton demonstrate that there may be a limit to what a Westerner can fully understand.
"I had come prepared for anti-Western hostility from a gang of hardened jihadist militants," Fergusson writes about his visit to a camp of ex al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia. "Instead I found a crowd of school age teenagers, spirited, unruly, and for the most part instantly likeable. Their average age was fifteen." Fergusson finds again and again in his interactions with government, military authorities, and ordinary Somalis that al-Shabaab is not only directed and funded by outside forces, it is made up of largely young, fatherless, and uneducated men and boys. With the end of the Barre regime, so ended the era of state-funded higher education scholarships that sent Somalis abroad for university degrees.
Years of war have decimated multi-generational family connections that serve to nurture and guide young people. Fergusson pulls from psychoanalytical research to formalize this profile of the al-Shabaab fighter: U.S. military psychoanalyst Nancy Kobrin has delved into the psyche of suicide bombers and suggests cognitive impairments rooted in disrupted maternal bonding, which she theorizes is further exacerbated in the instances of boys growing up without the guiding force of their fathers. Fergusson points out that orphans made up a sizeable portion of both Taliban and al-Shabaab recruits. A theme runs throughout The World's Most Dangerous Place that Somalia and young Somalis everywhere are vulnerable to following ideologues because they are stand-in parents.
What sustains a reader through this and additional grim reportage on the 2011 famine and Somalia's role in international piracy? Fergusson's ability to set the scene, to characterize the players in Somali warfare and ordinary Somalis, is reminiscent of Gay Talese's, and the British Evening Standard likens him to longform journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. With a few brushstrokes he can convey the way a military official has become numb to mortar fire during an interview, the subtle expressiveness of a malnourished, bedridden patient who betrays traces of his bloodthirsty past as a killer, and just as vividly, he conveys the "coarse and glottal" accents of prosperous English-Somali politicians near Queen's Crescent in London. He delves into the oral poetry legacy of Somalia, or what the West knows of it, anyway, and how snippets of this legacy show up in recruiting propaganda for jihadists in current wartime. The tapestry Fergusson weaves is a convincing portrait of an interconnected world that has done a disservice to one culture in particular.
Many leaders of all groups vying for power in Somalia are members of the diaspora who have never lived full-time in Somalia. A member of Parliament might be just as likely to have a northern Virginian accent as an English one. In the last third of the book Fergusson splits his time between Minneapolis and London -- the former is the U.S. city with the highest concentration of Somalis. The rebellion against Siad Barre actually began with meetings of the exiled Somali National Movement in 1981 in Whitechapel, in East London's docklands, Fergusson points out. The anecdotal profiles of Somali politicians raised abroad are so numerous that by the end of the book, this reader was convinced that monolithic national identities are truly a thing of the past. The Somali diaspora sends $2 billion to Somalia each year, one third of its gross domestic product. Fergusson slices and dices the facts about the Somali diaspora in between on-site interviews with educators, law enforcement officials, and youth group leaders and their members in Minneapolis and London, including one heartwarming visit to a dance club in Southall, where he was the only white man, accompanied by Ayaan, a Somali-born social worker who led him into the club to show him a bit of Somali youth culture.
Fergusson spends time with a sizeable number of Somali community members to get a better sense of their struggles to adapt, their attitudes on religion and their host countries, and what might lead a young Somali to travel halfway across the world to a homeland he's never seen to fight infidels. Some are killed, few return. Many are called "soft city boys" who had no idea what they signed up for and miss the comforts of McDonald's and Starbucks in the nightmarish Somali warzones.
Fergusson interviews relatives of missing boys who turned up en route to fight with al-Shabaab in Nairobi, and who accuse the Minneapolis Abubakar mosque leaders of luring and radicalizing the boys; yet when Fergusson spoke with clerics at the mosque, the answers were not cut and dried.
Though none of the clerics supported al-Shabaab, he found few would condemn them. Many of the clerics described the gulf between American and Muslim cultures, and how this prevented sound foreign policy that has understandably provoked rage in the form of al-Shabaab. Fergusson was interviewing Sheikh Jaamici at Minneapolis's Da'wah Center on the day that the U.S. announced that its drone-launched missile had killed the al-Qaida ideologue Anwar Al-Awlaki, who happened to also be a U.S. citizen. "Killing him will do no good. It will only create more anger and more radicalism. You will see," Jaamici says. As Obama called Al-Awlaki's death a milestone in the fight against terror, Jaamici told Fergusson that al-Awlaki's influence "could and should have been Washington's most powerful weapon against radicalism."
Fergusson's narrative voice gives over to more direct quotations from Somali community and religious leaders, young and old, and appropriately makes this section of the book feel the most relevant and dramatic. He succeeds at sketching vivid profiles of transnational identities caught between two very different cultures. "The U.S. targets those who are angry with them, but it never stops to try to find out why they are angry," Jaamici said.
Here is where Fergusson's constant sprinkling of colonial sources like Hanley and Burton really pays off: Westerners, especially post-9/11, cannot distinguish between the moral and religious code of Islam and a jihadist splinter group that purports to carry out its own strict form of Sharia. As Minneapolis imam Sheikh Hassan Mohamud says, "Mogadishu has been destroyed... Thousands have been killed, two million people displaced, yet no government has yet mentioned human rights violations... [T]he young are angry at the silence of the world."
And here is where one part of the global in global terror comes in: many young Somali boys and men are recruited to a notion of Somali nationalism and Islamist pride that is based less on familiarity with the Koran and Somali culture than it is on charismatic YouTube videos that promise to quench this amorphous anger and lack of belonging. Fergusson found that in both Minneapolis and London, gang participation among Somalis is a strong correlating factor to Islamist radicalization and in some instances, Somali teenaged boys joining up with al-Shabaab. The incidence of Somali youth going missing and turning up in East Africa as jihadis, says Fergusson, has chilled Minnesotans' attitude of hospitality toward the refugee community.
Fergusson is careful to end both his London and Minneapolis chapters on hopeful notes: there are burgeoning Somali youth organizations that battle their elders' notions of clan allegiance, and many successful young Somali women have opted to don the traditional hijab head wrap as a gesture of pride and solidarity with fellow Muslims; both upswells of confidence can serve to counter derogatory stereotypes and misinformation in their host countries.
The payoff from reading this book is more than an increased understanding of the country that ranks at the bottom of the Transparency International's annual corruption perceptions index, and whose corruption is so bad that state coffers see only $3 of every $10 of international aid. It's also a primer on global terrorism and modern cultural diaspora. By the time you reach the end of the final section, Fergusson's painstaking reporting has earned him your trust, and you can't help focusing on these indications that the young adults in the Somali diaspora can and will contribute thoughtful and moderate conversation in the next stage of Somali state-building, which seems, now that al-Shabaab has retreated but not perhaps disappeared, to be never-ending. Embracing fluidity has never been so crucial.
The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia by James Fergusson
Da Capo Press