Magazine article The Spectator

An African Khmer Rouge

Magazine article The Spectator

An African Khmer Rouge

Article excerpt

If Al-Shabaab was behind the terrorist attack in Nairobi, then the group has come a long way since its foundation in a derelict shampoo factory called Ifka Halane - 'Clean and Shiny' - in Mogadishu in 2006. I know a little about the group because I am the only westerner to have met its founder, Aden Hashi Ayro, before he was killed in a US air strike. In those days Al-Shabaab was a small militia providing muscle for the Islamic courts in Mogadishu. For a brief spell the courts did a good job of bringing a degree of law and order. Then Washington foolishly backed an Ethiopian invasion of the country.

For Al-Shabaab, this was a godsend. Afghan trained Salafists don't enjoy fixing drains or street lights. Insurgency is much more worthwhile.

Extremist Somalis who had been laughed out of jihadi conferences because they lacked the courage to embrace martyrdom set out to prove themselves with IEDs, suicide jacket detonations, truck bombs, and spectacular multiple attacks. And when Al-Shabaab did control territory, they were an African Khmer Rouge, banning vaccinations and precipitating a polio outbreak, starving children to death or desertifying Somalia by running a massive export trade in charcoal. Most Somalis are good people who loathe the extremists.

Amisom, an African Union peacekeeping force, has pushed Al-Shabaab back with 18,000 troops - though it needs at least 40,000 plus air power, more drones and intelligence resources. Overall, however, this must be a Somali-led process in which we sign the cheques. Last year Somalia appointed its first legitimate government for 22 years under President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. But despite shows of support from Britain and other donors, the government urgently needs help to fulfil its functions - even to pay its troops regularly and finance the process of bringing the world's most spectacularly failed state back from the abyss.

For two years Al-Shabaab has been losing territory and engaging in bloody infighting - but under its emir, Ahmed Godane, it has reconfigured itself into an al-Qa'eda franchise that aims to migrate beyond the camel speckled acacia scrublands of Somalia and take on the world. And so it may be that the terrorists fighting inside Kenya's Westgate mall are Somali Al-Shabaab - although there is no evidence for this whatsoever, apart from claims made on a series of Twitter accounts.

The Westgate siege, for sure, is the first terrorist attack defined by Twitter.

Victims' families who look to me like worried passengers at an airport waiting for news of a plane crash poured their grief out on Twitter. …

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