After years of progress, a deadly setback in Somalia

The New Yorker
Nairobi, Kenya

The bombing that killed over three hundred people in Mogadishu, on Saturday, signalled the resurgence of the Shabaab and the weakness of Somalia’s American-backed government (Photograph by Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP)

The district of Hodan, in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, exemplifies the city’s transformation in recent years. Visitors can find open-air pizza restaurants, ice-cream parlors and shisha bars, hotels and restaurants, barrow boys hawking bananas and mangoes, and taxis and cars honking their way through the throng. Pretty much every day is busy, but Saturdays are especially so. This past Saturday, a massive truck bomb detonated in Hodan, killing more than three hundred people, an unprecedented death toll in Somalia which may rise as bodies are hauled from the wreckage. Continue reading After years of progress, a deadly setback in Somalia

Forgetting Westgate: how Kenya erases terrorism

Agence France-Presse (AFP)
Nairobi, Kenya

Staff of the Nakumatt supermarket chain gather in front of candles lit to mark the second anniversary commemorations of the Westgate shopping mall attack by militants (Simon Maina/AFP)

On the inside Nairobi’s Westgate mall is a shiny shopping centre, all sparkling glass shop fronts, Bose-conveyed muzak and boutiques stuffed with expensive imports. On the outside it is a fortress.

Four years ago, Islamic militants raided the mall killing at least 67 people. They tossed grenades over the balustrade from the pavement then stormed through the front entrance and up the car parking ramp shooting as they went. The modus operandi was reminiscent of the Mumbai attacks five years earlier.

Yet Westgate has drifted into what Caine Prize-winning Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor describes as “our national propensity to amnesia for ‘bad things’.” Two years after the mall reopened, Westgate remains glossy and new, as if nothing happened. There’s plenty for the well-heeled shopper but not even a plaque for the dead. Continue reading Forgetting Westgate: how Kenya erases terrorism

Rights groups question Kenyan police account of ‘terror attack’

Agence France-Presse (AFP)
Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi has been battling the Shabaab, an al-Qaeda linked militant group headquartered in Somalia, that carries out regular deadly attacks in Kenya (AFP Photo)
Nairobi has been battling the Shabaab, an al-Qaeda linked militant group headquartered in Somalia, that carries out regular deadly attacks in Kenya (AFP Photo)

On a Sunday morning in September three young women were killed by officers at the main police station in Kenya’s second city — but that’s the only fact beyond doubt in a case that activists say is further evidence of a police force gone rogue.

In the official version of events, police thwarted an attempted terrorist attack on September 11 when the women — who they say recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group — entered Mombasa Central Police Station armed with a knife, a petrol bomb and a suicide vest. Continue reading Rights groups question Kenyan police account of ‘terror attack’

Islamic State makes inroads into Kenya

Agence France-Presse (AFP)
Nairobi, Kenya

A Kenyan police officer folds up a flag inscribed with the logo of the Islamic State group following a raid on two mosques in the coastal city of Mombasa (AFP Photo)
A Kenyan police officer folds up a flag inscribed with the logo of the Islamic State group following a raid on two mosques in the coastal city of Mombasa (AFP Photo)

Recent arrests show the Islamic State’s growing presence in East Africa, where they are recruiting young Kenyans for jihad abroad and raising fears some of them will return to threaten the country.

Kenyan intelligence agencies estimate that around 100 men and women may have gone to join the IS in Libya and Syria, triggering concern that some may come back to stage attacks on Kenyan and foreign targets in a country already victim to regular, deadly terrorism.

“There is now a real threat that Kenya faces from IS and the danger will continue to increase,” said Rashid Abdi, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank in Nairobi. Continue reading Islamic State makes inroads into Kenya

East Africa’s Shabaab ‘can survive for 30 years’

Agence France-Presse (AFP)
Nairobi, Kenya

Somalia's Shebab have been blamed for a spate of car bomb attacks in Mogadishu (AFP Photo/Mohamed Abdiwahab)
Somalia’s Shebab have been blamed for a spate of car bomb attacks in Mogadishu (AFP Photo/Mohamed Abdiwahab)

On a Sunday afternoon in late February a car exploded outside a crowded restaurant in Baidoa, Somalia, and moments later a suicide bomber blew himself up among fleeing survivors. At least 30 people died in the attack, the latest by the Shabaab, a Somali-led Al-Qaeda group in East Africa that continues to defy repeated predictions of its demise. Continue reading East Africa’s Shabaab ‘can survive for 30 years’

In the city of the lost: review of ‘City of Thorns’ by Ben Rawlence

The Times Saturday Review

9781846275876Dadaab is a confounding place, a low-slung conurbation of wind-swept, sun-beaten shelters adrift in Kenya’s wild northeast. The wind is unrelenting, the heat unbearable, yet it is home to 350,000 people, refugees who escaped war and famine only to find themselves trapped here.

They depend on food handouts yet the markets are also stuffed with fresh mangos and Samsung smartphones. There are few jobs yet some are spectacularly wealthy. It is a place of hopelessness and opportunity. Dadaab is temporary, but has existed for 25 years and is the focus of Ben Rawlence’s book.

City of Thorns is a portrait of a place that should not exist, and the people who by turns survive or thrive, live or die, love or mourn there. Most are Somali; some are the third generation to be raised in Dadaab on paltry UN rations, trapped between al-Qaeda militants in Somalia and the rapacious Kenyan police. Continue reading In the city of the lost: review of ‘City of Thorns’ by Ben Rawlence

‘Close Your Eyes and Pretend to be Dead’: What really happened two years ago in the bloody attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall

Foreign Policy
Nairobi, Kenya
Published 21st September, 2015

Adults and children run through the mall to escape the gunmen (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
Adults and children run through the mall to escape the gunmen (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

12:55 p.m. Simon Belcher lay on his front beneath a black Range Rover, breathing deeply, wanting to unsee the pile of mangled bodies a few yards in front of him. He turned his head toward his wife, Amanda, who was hiding beneath a white 4×4 to his right. “I love you,” he mouthed silently before resting his head on the pavement.

The bullet that had struck Simon a few moments earlier passed through his torso and right arm while shrapnel from an exploding gas canister had torn into his abdomen. An unexploded hand grenade lay nearby. The masked gunmen, two of them, with military webbing slung around their bony shoulders and AK-47 assault rifles in their hands, had disappeared. Inside the mall, Simon guessed.

The blood from his wounds began to pool around him until it reached his ear, forming a seal. Suddenly, the muffled noises from within the five-story building were amplified, as if he had put a glass to a wall. Over the birdsong, car alarms, and ringing of the unanswered mobile phones of the dead and wounded, Simon could now hear gunshots, explosions, and screaming. Continue reading ‘Close Your Eyes and Pretend to be Dead’: What really happened two years ago in the bloody attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall

The Ivory-Funded Terrorism Myth

International New York Times, Op-Ed
Nairobi, Kenya

Late last year, the Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow produced a powerful short called “Last Days,” about the dangers and depredations of “ivory-funded terrorism.” Viewers — and Ms. Bigelow’s celebrity friends — were encouraged to share #LastDays on social media, which many duly did. Their efforts gave yet another boost to the widely accepted belief that terrorists across Africa are killing elephants and selling the ivory to finance their attacks. But like her full-length feature film “Zero Dark Thirty,” Ms. Bigelow is offering a beguiling story divorced from reality. Continue reading The Ivory-Funded Terrorism Myth

The claim that illegal ivory is funding a major terror group in Africa may not be true

GlobalPost
Nairobi, Kenya

A pyre on which over a thousand kilos of elephant tusks will be incinerated (Marco Longari/AFP)
A pyre on which over a thousand kilos of elephant tusks will be incinerated (Marco Longari/AFP)

Hollywood director Kathryn Bigelow has made a 3-minute animated short called “Last Days,” telling the story of ivory poaching and the threat it poses to elephants. The film begins in the markets of Beijing and New York, then rewinds to Africa, where elephants are being hunted and killed at an astonishing rate.

It is mostly a 2-D animation but also features footage from last year’s Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi because, according to Bigelow’s film, Al Shabaab, the Somalia-based Al Qaeda group responsible for the attack, earns money from poaching elephants.

Terrorists killing elephants to fund their atrocities is a powerful, troubling story that deftly taps two hot-button issues linking them in one awful, unified narrative. No wonder it grabs attention.

But is it true? Continue reading The claim that illegal ivory is funding a major terror group in Africa may not be true

Inside the fight for Somalia’s future

GlobalPost
Qoryooley, Somalia

Somali National Army troops are trained by European Union soldiers in Jazeera, Mogadishu (Tristan McConnell/GlobalPost)
Somali National Army troops are trained by European Union soldiers in Jazeera, Mogadishu (Tristan McConnell/GlobalPost)

In the end, it wasn’t clan militias or Islamic militants but a government soldier who killed Dr. Osman.

Over his 54 years, the pharmacist had earned a reputation for fair dealing in business, kindness among friends, and piety in the mosque. A family man, he had survived Somalia’s clan wars and then kept his head down when the Islamic militants known as Al Shabaab overran his hometown in southern Somalia five years ago. A follower of a softer, mystical branch of Islam, he obeyed the ultraconservative occupiers’ harsh new rules — don’t smoke, don’t chew khat, pay the Islamic tax, go to the mosque five times a day without fail — and carried on.

Continue reading Inside the fight for Somalia’s future