He said no when fighters from Somalia’s notorious al Shabab militia came to recruit him. A month later, he was tied down in a stadium while his hand and foot were hacked off. The Star‘s Michelle Shephard talks to the victims and butchers in the world’s most failed state.
MOGADISHU, Somalia–Ismael Khalif Abdulle was on his way home from school when they came to get him.
He feared this might happen, as did every teenager who lived in the neighbourhood of Dayniile, where al Shabab has a stronghold. That’s why kids joined, Abdulle says. They didn’t believe in a religious obligation to fight; they were just scared, poor and, like him, had grown up with nothing but war. Joining a militia with big guns and deep pockets seemed like a smart thing to do.
But Abdulle wanted to go to school and said so. The two Shabab members who tried to recruit him came back a few days later to teach him a lesson, and this time they brought four truckloads of fighters.
“They pointed their guns at me and told me I was a thief and I was robbing people and took me to their prison,” the slight 17-year-old said, his eyes widening as he recounted his capture in an interview with the Toronto Star this week.
In the house where they were held, he met three older boys who said they, too, were told they had committed crimes.
Twenty-five days later, the four hungry and thirsty captives were taken to a stadium where a crowd had gathered. “They were holding me tight on my arms and I said, `Please don’t hold me that tight. I’m not running anywhere.’ They didn’t even answer,” Abdulle recalled.
Men in white coats, with masks and surgical gloves, stood around a dirty mattress on the stadium ground. Abdulle was held down first, suddenly thankful for the strong arms on him. “I asked, `Please tie me tight because when you start I don’t want to mistakenly move too much.’”
He doesn’t remember when they cut off his left foot because the pain and blood from losing his right hand made him pass out. The severed limbs of the four boys were later hung in the town as a warning.
In the years since the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., intelligence agencies worldwide have scrambled to keep ahead of growing insurgencies around the world. Security officials often glibly describe it as a game of whack-a-mole – make inroads with one group only to have another pop up elsewhere.
Al Shabab, a group Washington believes is Al Qaeda’s proxy in the Horn of Africa and has listed as a terrorist organization, is now demanding attention. With international pressure bearing down on the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, the problem here, just across the Gulf of Aden, is expected to grow worse.
And, as is always the case in this city that has not seen peace in nearly two decades, it’s those like Abdulle who are trapped.
ISMAEL MAHMOUD laughs when asked what he would do had he met a Western reporter under different circumstances.
“That would be a problem,” the 21-year-old Shabab member says in English.
The circumstances now, however, have Mahmoud lying on a cot, with an African Union soldier standing by. He was captured after a recent mortar attack shredded his left leg and has been recovering at the AU base hospital since.
He is still what officials here would call “hard core,” even though he says he can no longer fight because of his injury. Asked if he is still a member of Shabab, he nods.
“That’s my religion to be a guerrilla, a jihadi,” he says.
Then, he adds: “All of us al Shabab, we don’t like muzungus, white people.” Again, he smiles.
Al Shabab, meaning the Youth, began as a loosely organized group of militia in 2006, fighting to conquer corrupt warlords and implement a strict interpretation of sharia law throughout Somalia. They were not sophisticated at first and had trouble recruiting members, since most Somalis traditionally follow a mystical Sufi interpretation of Islam, not the dogmatic Wahabbi practice al Shabab demanded.
But the 2007 Ethiopian invasion that ousted Mogadishu’s self-proclaimed government of the Islamic Courts Union was a gift for al Shabab. The presence of troops from Somalia’s historic and much hated rival attracted recruits not just from within Somalia and the Horn of Africa but from countries like Canada and the U.S.
By the time Ethiopia withdrew in late 2008 and President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was declared president of a Transitional Federal Government, al Shabab had grown. In January, they publicly pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda.
But why was the Shabab carrying on its fight against a Somali government and president that vowed to incorporate Islamic law?
“Those people are not Muslims. They’ve changed their religion. They are kafir,” Mahmoud says, using the Arabic term for non-believers.
When Mahmoud’s wounds heal, he will return to his family. The 5,300-strong AU peacekeeping mission here of Ugandan and Burundian troops, known as AMISOM, has neither the authority to try captured fighters nor the mandate to turn them over to Somalia’s transitional government. Mahmoud says although he considers himself a member of Shabab he will not go back to the fight. “I would have to fight AMISOM and they have helped me,” he says. Others aren’t convinced.
A short drive from the tents that make up the AU hospital is a medical outpost where the women, children and elderly gather for treatment. Some have walked for hours to reach it, since what they get at the AU-run facility is the only free health care they can receive. Ugandan doctor Ronald Mukuye says he has seen women come from Kismayo, a port town 550 kilometres away.
Somali interpreters who help AU forces live in the hospital due to security concerns. “Hello, welcome,” calls one as a Star reporter passes. He wants to talk, but cannot give his name as his family still lives in town and would be targeted by al Shabab if it was known that he was helping the AU. “I want to work for my country,” the 50-year-old explains simply when asked why he takes the risk.
The mid-afternoon Monday line to get into the clinic is long. Mothers cradling limp babies in the sun plead for attention from AU armed guards. The clinic is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and AU officials estimate about 1,200 patients come each week.
Hours later, just as the clinic was getting ready to close, a man reportedly joined the line of patients. As forces prepared to search him a bomb went off, killing at least four and injuring more than eight others. One Ugandan peacekeeper was among the dead.
An al Shabab spokesperson claimed responsibility for the attack.
SOMALIS REFER to it as “flashing,” as in the common practice of calling someone’s cell and hanging up so they’ll know to call back. To receive a call requires fewer pre-paid minutes than making one.
Applied here, flashing is the name given to the reaction of AMISOM forces to Shabab provocation. As a peacekeeping mission, AU forces are unable to attack unless attacked first. But this happens daily, as al Shabab routinely fire mortars at Villa Somalia, where the president works and resides, and at the AU base near the airport. Before dawn this week, the morning call to prayer echoing throughout the city was accompanied by the booming of tanks and the sound of gunfire.
Somalis are tired of the fighting. They complain that while the Shabab attacks kill dozens, the retaliation of much higher-grade AU weapons also kills civilians. And when mortars are raining down on shopkeepers in the Bakara Market, where al Shabab hides, all that matters is their impact, not who’s firing. There are no good or bad guys – just ones with weapons and those without.
In this fragile state, survival is the only goal. That’s one reason Shabab is able to get money from residents whom government or AU forces can’t protect.
“Whether you support them or not, if you’re in a Shabab area you might get security, but this security is based on intimidation,” says Abdusalam Omer, a Somali-born American who served as the chief of staff for Washington’s mayor in the late 1990s and now advises the finance minister in Somalia’s transitional government.
“This is the biggest danger facing Somalia – that people who grew up with 20 years of war could live with this.”
TWO RECENT ATTACKS here show al Shabab’s sophistication, but may also hint at its vulnerability.
In September, twin suicide bombers travelled in two stolen UN vehicles to the inner gates of the fortified AMISOM compound near the airport before detonating their explosives. Seventeen peacekeepers, including the Burundian force’s deputy commander, were killed, and many more injured.
Three months later, on the morning of Dec. 3, they targeted a graduation ceremony for new doctors at the Shamo Hotel. Senior government ministers and nearly a dozen journalists attended the event, and while security was plentiful, participants said few were searched.
“The hall had been brightly decorated, and there was a feeling of excitement – such ceremonies rarely happen in Mogadishu,” Mohamed Olad Hussan, a local journalist who files to the BBC and the Associated Press, later wrote of the incident.
“Then all this brightness turned to darkness. All I remember is being covered in dust… I looked across and the young guy sitting next to me was dead. The seat he had been sitting on was mine. We had changed positions for one moment, when I had left momentarily to move my recorder nearer to the speakers.”
The bomber was dressed as a woman, reportedly hiding the explosives under a shapeless abaya. Witnesses said the bomber approached the panel, said “Peace,” and then blew up.
In total, 24 people died, including four journalists and three government ministers. Ibrahim Hassan Addou, the minister of higher education, and minister of education Ahmed Abdulahi Waayeel – both observant Muslims who had been forceful in their denunciations of al Shabab and were highly regarded – might have been the intended targets. In a 2006 interview with the Star, Addou had stressed the importance of free education for Somalis and implementing laws guided by Sharia law.
The attack was condemned worldwide and horrified many in Mogadishu, where locally trained doctors are desperately needed.
Perhaps sensing a backlash, Shabab issued a statement denying responsibility for the attack.
ABDULLE DOESN’T have anywhere to go. A double amputee, he is forever identified as an enemy of the Shabab. He came to the president’s compound this week to talk with the Star, but normally resides in another guarded minister’s house. Government officials have tried to get refugee status for the four victims to get them out of here but so far have had no luck.
Part of the problem is that the boys’ stories are difficult to verify. Some reports state that they were actually once members of al Shabab and tried to defect, taking the cellphones they had been given with them. Others believe they were embroiled in a feud over business.
Whatever the circumstances, there is no doubt Abdulle and three others were led into a stadium June 26 and before a crowd of hundreds had their limbs severed.
Abdulle says he is still amazed he didn’t bleed to death. For weeks he lay captive inside a Shabab home with three other boys as they moaned and cried. But his torture had not ended.
On the 15th day, Abdulle claims he was visited by Shabab leader Fuad Shangole, a Somali-born Swedish citizen, who returned here to fight against the Ethiopians. Abdulle said Shangole looked at the wounds and chastised Abdulle’s captors. “He said, `You only cut to here,’” Abdulle recalled, drawing his finger across his right ankle.
Shangole demanded they cut more and again Abdulle was held down screaming.
Eventually, the Shabab seemed to tire of caring for the captives. One of the older boys got a cellphone and called friends to rescue them.
Abdulle wants to stay here and be reunited with this family, who he hasn’t seen since he was taken six months ago. He isn’t confident, though, that the Shabab can be conquered.
“They don’t think in terms of human beings,” he says, sweating and shaking even though a cool breeze blows through the government hall where he sits.
“Lots of kids that I was going to school with joined the Shabab. They are made to believe when they die they will be martyrs and go to heaven,” he says.
But perhaps the biggest draw was the cash and cellphones with prepaid minutes.
“And,” Abdulle notes, “they top them up for them.”
Source: The Star