Magazine article Newsweek

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Magazine article Newsweek

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Article excerpt

How Somalia's legendary 'Mad Mullah' prefigured the rise of Osama bin Laden--and the 'forever war' between Islam and the West.

At Dul Madoba, which means black Hill in Somali, a jihadist known to his enemies as the Mad Mullah enjoyed a great victory in 1913. It is a place and a moment of legend in these parts, but the site remains as it was, a wilderness of thorn bushes and termite mounds. No heroic memorial marks the spot. No restored ruin, no sturdy plinth holding up a statue. The place is venerated in other ways.

Every Somali with an education knows what happened here, back when the area was a protectorate ruled by British authorities. Some have memorized verses of a classic Somali poem written by the mullah. The gruesome ode is addressed to Richard Corfield, a British political officer who commanded troops on this dusty edge of the empire. The mullah instructs Corfield, who was slain in battle, on what he should tell God's helpers on his way to hell. "Say: 'In fury they fell upon us.'/Report how savagely their swords tore you."

The mullah urges Corfield to explain how he pleaded for mercy, and how his eyes "stiffened" with horror as spear butts hit his mouth, silencing his "soft words." "Say: 'When pain racked me everywhere/Men lay sleepless at my shrieks.'a" Hyenas eat Corfield's flesh, and crows pluck at his veins and tendons. The poem ends with a demand that Corfield tell God's servants that the mullah's militants "are like the advancing thunderbolts of a storm, rumbling and roaring."

They rumbled and roared for two full decades. The British launched five military expeditions in the Horn of Africa to capture or kill Muhammad Abdille Hassan, and never succeeded (though they came close). British officers had superior firepower, including the first self-loading machine gun, the Maxim. But the charismatic mullah knew his people and knew the land: he hid in caves, and crossed deserts by drinking water from the bellies of dead camels. "I warn you of this," he wrote in one of many messages to his British foes. "I wish to fight with you. I like war, but you do not." The sentiment would be echoed almost a century later, in Osama bin Laden's 1996 declaration of war against the Americans: "These [Muslim] youths love death as you love life."

History doesn't really repeat itself, but it can feed on itself, particularly in this part of the world. Sagas of past jihads become inspirations for new wars, new vengeance, until the continuum of violence can seem interminable. In the Malakand region of northwest Pakistan, where the Taliban today has been challenging state power, jihadists fought the British at the end of the 19th century. In Waziristan, a favored Qaeda hideout, the Faqir of Ipi waged jihad against the British in the 1930s and '40s. Among the first to take on the British in Africa was Muhammad Ahmad, the self-styled "Mahdi," or redeemer, whose forces killed and beheaded Gen. Charles George Gordon at Khartoum. But no tale more closely tracks today's headlines, and shows the uneven progress of the last century, than that of Muhammad Abdille Hassan.

His story sheds light on what is now called the "forever war," the ongoing battle of wills and ideologies between governments of the West and Islamic extremists. There's no simple lesson here, no easy formula to bend history in a new direction. It's clear, even to many Somalis, that the mullah was brutal and despotic, and that his most searing legacy is a land of hunger and ruin. But he's also admired--for his audacity, his fierce eloquence, his stubborn defiance in the face of a superior power. Among Somalis, the mullah's sins are often forgiven because he was fighting an occupier, a foreign power that was in his land imposing foreign values. It is a sentiment that is shared today by those Muslims who give support to militants and terrorists, and one the West would do well to better understand.

The Rise of the Mullah

Muhammad Abdille Hassan was slightly over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and intense eyes. …

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