Mary Harper, the veteran BBC reporter on Africa and now its section editor, has written a truly timely book which cuts through the political posturing, diplomatic niceties and, often, stereotypically violent narratives and imagery, to present a book which examines Al-Shabaab more accurately through the ‘real stakeholders’ eyes. The title, as catchy as it is, reflects the extent to which even foreign correspondent from faraway lands are drawn into the Al-Shabaab narrative through a combination of targeted information, charm and even pastoral care as Al-Shabaab members advise Mary to convert to Islam to save her soul because “she is a good person” not like her counterparts in one of her many conversations with them.
What makes Mary Harper’s story so unique is that she is one of the characters who has witnessed and lived the very story and history she is telling alongside those whose stories she includes. She has seen the violence first-hand and heard its impact on the people directly from those most affected. Harper is an experienced journalist on Somalia and this well-structured book explains how Al-Shabaab, an internationally designated terrorist organisation, seeks to affect the lives of the Somali people through violence, manipulation and control. It is clear from the book that there is much complexity and, aside from what Al-Shabaab does and discloses, very little is known about them, including their size.
This book presents Al-Shabaab as ruthless, efficient and resilient as well as conflicted and confused in its strategy. A great example is, on the one hand, it would appear through their indiscriminate violence Al-Shabaab is no longer interested in winning hearts and minds but just overthrowing what they see as a Western-backed “infidel” government and replacing it with a theocratic state of their making at any cost. On the other hand, the organisation spends time and effort to communicate effectively with the public and media organisations to get itself heard, promote its values and be better understood.
Harper is careful to not over analyse and be as balanced as possible through her reliance on interviews, personal engagements and analysis of past events. However, while she presents a terrorist organisation which is well versed in strategic communications and outreach with a ferociously efficient intelligence structure, she challenges their violent narrative through the stories of victims, former fighters and her own questions to her media liaison officer from Al- Shabaab who happens to know her movements during visits to Somalia and is able to contact her directly in London to relay information of attacks and to provide advice on her welfare.
This book is unique in its intimate portrayal of the interactions between Al-Shabaab and the people which some academic, policymakers and media analysis and reporting often ignore. Readers will be shocked to learn, for example, Al-Shabaab is encouraging the Diaspora to return and invest in the areas they control. However, many in the Diaspora, including those who face deportation after mandatory prison sentences in Europe, are frightened to be sent back by their respective governments for fear of Al-Shabaab’s terror. The book also explains to readers the motivations behind Al-Shabaab attacks on key hotels in Mogadishu where Somali government officials reside and work and their view of what constitutes an “infidel” in accordance with their doctrine.
While the book does not dwell too much on international community interventions, of which there are many, it highlights the successes, and more often, the challenges that come with a recovering central government and its international partners working together to defeat Al-Shabaab in the media, on the ground and in the hearts and minds of the victimised yet resilient Somali people. Whether this will end as a success or not is something Harper leaves to the reader. Harper is not in the business of labelling as she understands the complexity of the story she is telling but it would have been useful to get a deeper understanding of her own views having lived the experience alongside those she features in the book.
The title “Everything you told me is true” is even more important once you read the book. This is because when Harper finishes telling the story one is left thinking the title repeatedly. A section which resonates most with those with experience of Somalia is the one which discusses the number of industries that have sprung up alongside Somalia’s misfortunate security situation. Private security firms, barrack-like over-priced hotels, an epidemic of consultants of all sorts, ineffective communication companies paid handsomely to reach an audience they do not understand and, even, new almost permanent fixtures within an international airport which reinforces the idea of “Them and US” that Al-Shabaab has exploited so well to date. Following hot on the heels of this is the gigantic wealth disparity within Somali society created by this distortion of the economy to favour a short-term war-style existence which benefits a few well-connected locals and foreigners at the expense of the Somali people and their sustainable development.
Somalia is a complicated place and this book directs readers attention to the often-omitted hidden interests that prolong the insecurity and political challenges which are equally to blame for the fear and violence that ordinary Somalis suffer. What and who are these? The Somali Federal Government has referred to them as spoilers in the past, but this group and key individuals need to be identified, investigated, named and dealt with appropriately by all stakeholders to create a better future for the Somali people.
One feels that if this book is ever updated, it would benefit from the stories of radicalisation and how Al-Shabaab operates on the ground from the captured operatives who were interviewed by the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) in recent months. This agency has improved its detection and intelligence capabilities under its new leadership and now more senior Al-Shabaab members responsible for ground terror operations are telling their stories openly. What they say supports the argument of an efficient, ruthless terror organisation with real penetration of Somali society as presented in the book with one difference-now they are on the back foot and are being hunted more and more by the authorities and their international partners in Somalia.
Looking forward, there is no doubt that the on-going security sector and governance reforms, as well as the Federal Government’s access to Grant resources to rebuild Somalia after the successful achievement of debt relief from the International Financial Institutions and the Paris Club creditors, will have a positive impact on the future security and stability of Somalia. Security and good governance policies including the Anti-Money Laundering laws, Anti-Corruption Law, Company Law and Mobile Money regulations as well as the planned national ID supported by the World Bank are also likely to strengthen transparency and accountability in the financial sector. This will most certainly disrupt illicit financial flows further damaging terrorist financing. These policies are as important as, and complement, the implementation of the National Security Architecture and the Transitional Plan.
Now, with all the above efforts, the notion of securitising Somalia from destabilising the rest of the world must transition to assisting the country to develop to sustain and build on the security and socio-economic gains. The Covid-19 pandemic’s devastating impact makes this a truly pressing priority in Somalia as budget priorities need to be expanded to include public service delivery and building resilient institutions alongside security going forward.
This book is a must-read for those seeking to understand violence and insurgency in Somalia today because Mary Harper understands Somalia and its people well. She has lived what she has written and genuinely engaged the people that she features in her book. She is also experienced enough not to make value judgements and allows readers to draw their own conclusions in a situation where it is all too easy to do. These, combined, make this book a valuable addition to the literature on modern Somali history simply because it raises as many questions as it answers. If readers have the time, this book is best read with “The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally” by Harun Maruf and Dan Joseph as they complement each other well.
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