Saturday, 11 April 2015

Chasing West Africa's Pirates


When Somali piracy was at its height, I did a lot of reporting on the subject for the BBC. I spoke to lots of pirates and got to know people involved in trying to stop the problem, including British naval and other military personnel. They did a pretty good job - piracy dropped significantly in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. But it increased in West Africa, and some of the people fighting Somali piracy moved to the other side of the continent. They very kindly gave the superb journalist Penny Dale and me wonderful access to what they, the Nigerian navy and others are doing. Here is a link to our documentary:


And here are a couple of BBC Online pieces:






Here is the script of a From Our Own Correspondent I did on the subject:

It may come as a surprise to hear that Somalia is no longer Africa’s worst piracy hotspot. They may not be the subject of Hollywood movies or adventure stories, but West African pirates have overtaken the Somalis, both in terms of the number and the brutality of their attacks. Mary Harper went to Nigeria to find out more:

Under a busy bridge in Nigeria's mega-city, Lagos, women in colourful African print sit behind rickety wooden tables. On the tables are piles of fish, crabs, prawns, lobsters and squid. Stacked so high that they look like they're about to tumble down into the oily mud below.

"They come from the deep water" says the lady with the highest piles of prawns, glistening creatures in all sizes. Small, medium, large, giant, extra giant, extra extra giant. "The trawlers bring them in from the high seas."

But Nigeria's fishing industry is being decimated by piracy and the person best placed to tell me about this is Margaret Onyema-Orakwusi, the first female head of the Nigerian trawler owners' association.

On my way to visit her, I sit for some time in the famous traffic jams of Lagos. Inching along the bridges that swoop and soar over the lagoons. Tropical rain pounds down from the sky above. Water seems to be everywhere.

Margaret lives in a large house in a fancy part of town. There are pictures of ships on her walls, models of boats in her living room. Even her well-stocked drinks cabinet is shaped like a boat.

"The attacks are deadly and brutal" she says. "At times the pirates throw the crew into the ship's cold room where we store the fish. They freeze to death." Margaret tells me how pirates have planted explosives on her trawlers, shot dead one of her captains, and fired bullets into the face of her chief engineer.

Unlike most of Nigeria's trawler owners, who have packed up shop, Margaret is determined to carry on. As is Rotimi George, a Nigeria seafarer.

He has a sweet smile and a gentle face. He is dressed smartly in what Nigerians call an 'up and down, top and trousers in the same colour cloth. His is saffron, his shoes and bag a matching pale leather.

"I like the freedom of the sea" Rotimi tells me. "When I'm not on deck, I write. About love, about God, about myself."

But Rotimi was recently attacked by pirates. They boarded his ship in the dead of night, shooting open the doors and taking away the Russian captain and Ukrainian chief officer. They stole Rotimi's laptop and his phone. They looted the ship, even stealing chicken and other food from the kitchen.

Rotimi tells me how he and the bosun hid themselves away, and how awful it was. "I was thinking they might sink the ship. That would be the worst death, because you would die while hiding. I would want to see what was killing me."

Unlike many seafarers who are simply too traumatised to go back to sea after suffering pirate attacks, Rotimi was itching to get back to work. "Pirates can't stop my dreams" he says, before singing to me a song about the sea. "I will sail on as far as I can go."

And it’s by sailing out from Lagos harbour that I began to understand why piracy is such a problem here. The ocean is crammed with ships at anchor, many waiting to get in to the congested port. Great hulks of rusting metal, low in the water, almost inviting pirates to sling their ladders over the side and clamber on board.

I was taken out to sea by Sven Hanson, a man with giant muscles in his arms. He’s a former member of the British special forces and is doing very well out of West Africa’s piracy problem. His private security company works with the Nigerian navy, and he wanted me to see a safe area they have created in the middle of the ocean.

I found it difficult to absorb the information about the safe zone, essentially a big circle of sea patrolled constantly by gunboats. That’s because I was being horribly seasick as Sven described to me how not a single ship anchored inside this protected area has been attacked or even approached by pirates.

But West Africa is going to have to do a whole lot more if it’s going to win the fight against maritime crime. The waters off Nigeria, Togo and Benin have been declared a ‘War Risk Area’ pushing up the cost of insurance. This ultimately affects the price of our food, our petrol, anything that comes by sea from West Africa.


But the highest price of all is being paid by the seafarers. People like the gentle Rotimi, who the pirates brutalise and kill in their quest for plunder.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

My Latest Mogadishu Photo Album


Here are some of the photos I took on my latest trip to Mogadishu

A sunny day in Mogadishu 

Mogadishu port is open for business

Dhow - many of the sailors are Gujaratis and Yemenis - many carry goods from Dubai.







The port is being run by a Turkish company


Mogadishu's first apartment blocks

I hope this will one day be my apartment (if I can afford it) 
My future Mogadishu jacuzzi 
Pakistanis putting in the lifts for the apartments
I got lost in Villa Somalia - home of the government


Eventually I found my way to the president's office - these are the 8 Somalia's presidents
With President Number Eight - Hassan Sheikh Mohamud



Negotiating road blocks can be tiresome and time consuming





The Turks have fixed some of the roads. 



So taxis and wheelbarrows filled with fresh Afgoye fruit can move around...
 ....except during the frequent security alerts and lockdowns...

 ...which disrupt business and daily life. 



 If you look carefully you can see the people are wearing face masks..

,,,they are the suicide bomb cleaner-uppers... there was a huge suicide bomb outside the airport... they cleaned up the body parts, vehicle parts and other mess.

I didn't take this photo - a Somali journalist did.. It's of the aftermath of the same suicide blast (apparently the suicide driver was very young). I was told the white people come to the scene of suicide blasts and take bits of 'evidence' away. I don't know what they do with it. And I don't know who those men are - but here are lots of people like them 'behind the wire' at the airport. Some wear NATO uniforms and 'train' people. Others are private contractors.


Saturday, 14 February 2015

The connection between Somalia and Valentine's Day




Somalia is often described as the world's most dangerous country, the quintessential failed state. It has had no effective central government for more than two decades, and is affected by conflict, drought, piracy and famine. The BBC's Africa Editor Mary Harper has a special interest in Somalia. Today she found out something new:

I was somewhat taken aback when I opened my Facebook page this Valentine's Day morning. I discovered it was the birthday of 30 of my Somali Facebook friends. It reminded me of New Year's Day when 279 of my Somali Facebook friends had their birthdays. True, I have a lot of Somali friends on Facebook - but those numbers are extraordinary. Or maybe not. Many Somalis don't know when their real birthdays are. They have after all lived through more than two decades of war. Records have been destroyed and there is currently no functioning administration. Even before conflict tore their country apart, most Somalis were nomads, and their culture was largely oral. The Somali language wasn't written down until the 1970s. But back to my Facebook page. I wrote a post about the 30 Somali Valentine's birthdays - and all the ones on New Year's Day. Within two hours, the post had more than one-hundred-and-seventy 'likes' and more than fifty comments. Non-Somalis were completely baffled. My Somali friends quickly put them right - in witty and touching ways. Abdi said it was likely only one percent of Somalis who say their birthday is on Valentine's Day were actually born on the 14th of February. Saeed said his father tossed a coin to decide on his birthday. Maxamed was born in a refugee camp. His whole family was, as he put it, 'under such severe depression' that nobody thought about dates of birth. Another friend posted that Somalis should have their birthdays on Doomsday as, he said, 'they are in love with guns and war'. But I would like to say a special thank you to the Somali friend who posted on my Facebook page a photo of a luscious red rose. And to say Happy Birthday to my 30 Somali Valentine's Day friends -- whether or not they were actually born on the 14th of February.

You can listen to my BBC radio report here: The Somali/ Valentine's Day connection

The BBC Somali Service version is here: My report in Somali


Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Gambian government statement on the events of 30 December - code name of President, Sheikh, Professor, Alhaji, Dr Yahya AJJ Jammeh was 'Chuck'

GOVERNMENT STATEMENT ON THE TERRORIST ATTACK
OF 30TH DECEMBER, 2014
On Tuesday, 30th December, 2014, at 2am GMT, the State House was attacked by a well-equipped, well-funded group of Gambian terrorists living in the U.S.A., U.K., Germany and Senegal with support from their collaborators abroad with sophisticated automatic machine guns and assault rifles.

Five of these attackers launched their assault from the main gate of the State House by the Albert Market while the three others attempted to enter through the rear gate by Marina Parade.

The leader of the attackers was Lamin Sanneh (codename ‘Gibia’), a former Lieutenant Colonel of the Gambia Armed Forces and former Commander of the State Guards Battalion who was dismissed from the GAF and fled to Senegal and then to the U.S.

He was accompanied by Njaga Jagne (codename ‘Bandit’), a retired Captain of the US Army; Baboucarr Lowe, a former Warrant Officer Class 2 of the Gambia Armed Forces referred to as ‘Bai Lo’ who was wanted in connection with drugs and fled to Senegal and then to Germany; former Private Modou Njie (codename  ‘Mike’) of the Gambia Armed Forces and Private Landing Sonko (codename ‘Young’), an active member of the Gambia Armed Forces who was on study leave, was a former orderly of Ex-Lt. Col. Sanneh.

During the exchange of fire at the main gate, Sanneh and Jagne were killed. Lowe and Sonko escaped while Modou Njie was captured and is currently helping the intelligence and security services in their investigations. Glass windows and buildings pockmarked by bullets can be vividly seen by the gate.

The attackers from the rear gate included Musa Sarr, Ex-Lance Corporal of the Gambia Armed Forces (codename ‘Kampama’); retired US Army Sergeant Papa Faal and, Alhagie Nyass, a former personnel of the defunct Gambia National Gendarmerie and one Dawda Bojang. 

Faal positioned a heavy machine gun by the entrance of the Accidents & Emergency Unit of the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital and repeatedly fired rounds at the gate. Nyass who attempted to ram his vehicle into the gate was shot dead. Dawda Bojang who was dressed in military uniform and body armour and positioned by a heavy machine gun was also killed. Musa Sarr and Papa Faal fled leaving behind their equipment and military attires.

Other members of the group were stationed at Brufut Heights, some 25 kilometres from Banjul, the capital city. They were:

·      Cherno M Njie (codename ‘John’), the main sponsor of the attackers and proposed Interim Leader. He fled the country after the attack failed.

·      Alhagie Saidy Barrow (codename ‘X’) was the coordinator of the group, responsible for logistics and clearing of their weapons and other gadgets from the seaport.

·              Dawda Bojang, Ex-Private of Gambia Armed Forces who deserted in 2014.

·      Mustapha Faal is a Gambian resident in Germany. He deserted the group before the attack. His whereabouts are not known.

According to documents retrieved from the attackers, this group was to arrest and kill Service Chiefs and other individuals. The team was awaiting the taking over of the State House by the attackers and for the proposed leader, Cherno M. Njie to take over the reins of power. All the four escaped and Cherno M Njie and Papa Faal are facing legal charges in the United States.

After the confrontation and the defeat of the attackers by the security forces, a large quantity of arms was retrieved which included:

·      Two (2) Heavy Machine Guns with telescopic sights
·      Seventeen(17)  M&P 15 individual assault rifles with aiming devices
·      Nine (9) AKM automatic Assault Rifles
·      Four (4) Light Machine Guns
·      Three (3) pistols
·      One (1)  Night Vision Goggle, (although FBI reports that the group had two)
·      Eleven sat Pro Communication devices. 

    These gadgets  were intended to be used for communication among themselves and to communicate to the outside world when they have destroyed the communication infrastructure in the country after failing to capture the State House.

·      Seventeen (17)  body armour
·      Twenty (20) webbing jackets
·      Five (5) camel bags.

It is clear from the documents retrieved from the attackers that this operation was well-planned. The documents revealed their intention to destroy key infrastructure including the Central Bank of the Gambia building, Denton Bridge, GAMTEL House and Kotu Power Station among other national assets.

It was also discovered that the codename the attackers used to refer to the President of the Republic of The Gambia was “CHUCK”.  This is the same code name that the US Secret Services used to refer to His Excellency, the President during the last US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington DC.

While we continue to assess the situation and developments, the Government of The Gambia under the leadership of His Excellency, the President, Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J Jammeh assures all citizens, residents and all true friends of The Gambia near and far, that the security and stability of the Republic of The Gambia will never be compromised.

The Gambia will continue to depend only on Allah, the Almighty for the peace, security and prosperity of our proud and dignified people.

The Government of The Gambia thanks all those countries that have expressed their genuine goodwill and solidarity with The Gambia in the wake of this terrorist attack.


Thursday, 1 January 2015

A Circus in the Sand

 Books for Peace

One of the most magical weeks of my life was the one I spent at the Hargeisa International Book Fair in July 2012. Like many things in Somaliland, I found it delightful, surprising and inspiring, a bit like opening a box of secret treasures.

I have chosen to write about the book fair because, in many ways, it represents in microcosm many of the good things about Somaliland. It also shows how challenges can be overcome because the very idea of holding such an event in Somaliland requires courage, imagination and determination.

When I wrote a blog post about the fair, a journalist from a respected international publication asked if I was joking, if I had made the whole thing up. For many outsiders, the idea of a book fair on Somali territory is impossible to imagine because for them the word ‘Somali’ is associated with piracy, terrorism, war and famine. Somaliland suffers from a similar image problem; most people don’t know it exists, and have no idea that it is relatively peaceful, with a functioning economy, society and political system.

Contributors to this book were asked to touch on some of twenty themes offered for discussion. They ranged from the environment to women’s empowerment, from youth employment to heritage and culture, from the diaspora to diplomacy. As I went through the list, I realised the Hargeisa International Book Fair embodied almost all of them.

One of my favourite sessions at the fair was the one entitled ‘The Future of Our Environment’. The environmental campaigner, Amina-Milgo Mahamud, showed us a film about how chopping down trees for charcoal is wrecking the Somali environment. There was a speech by the environmentalist, Ahmed Elmi, who looked quite the part with his enormous white beard and white cloth hat.

At the fair, I bought a wonderful book, written in English and Somali, called Environment in Crisis: Selected Essays with a Focus on the Somali Environment. I read about the precious resources of Somaliland, including the Zizyphus Tree, whose fruit makes a nourishing drink and whose leaves are used to make shampoo and face masks. The chapter started with a Somali proverb:

There is a big Zizyphus tree on the surface of the moon with leaves matching, at any given point of time, with the number of living people on the planet. When a baby is born, the tree brings forth a new leaf and when a person dies, his or her leaf withers away and falls from the tree.

I also read a chapter called ‘Me and My Toothbrush Tree’ about the Caday tree whose twigs are used to clean the teeth and freshen the breath. The next chapter was about Maydh Island, situated off the coast of Somaliland, which is rich in birdlife. I learned about the Dragon’s Blood Tree, which is so resilient that it can even grow out of vertical cliff faces. It gets its name from its red resin, which is used as lipstick, medicine and, to this day, as a varnish for violins.

The theme of ‘women’s empowerment’ was much in evidence as the book fair gave women more public space than they usually have in Somali society. Many of the presentations were by women, and several of the most intelligent questions and comments came from young women in the audience, who are often marginalised in Somali public life. Women also played a major role in activities taking place outside the main hall, selling books, refreshments, Somali handicrafts and clothes.

The Somali youth also had their day in the sun. Enthusiastic young members of book clubs from all over Somaliland were given the stage, as were young singers, dancers and actors. The Hargeisa International Book Fair was far more than just a book fair – there was also poetry, music, song, dance, theatre and more.
           
There was such enthusiasm for the fair that, from day one, there were far too many people to fit inside the large hall where the presentations were held. The organisers showed a typically Somali innovative spirit, technological know-how and ability to think on their feet by immediately setting up large screens outside the hall so people could see and hear what was going on inside.

The fact that so many young people came to the book fair revealed not only a thirst for knowledge, but also highlighted the lack of activity and entertainment for the youth of Somaliland. Being young and having nothing to do can be a dangerous combination. Just a few hundred kilometres to the south Hargeisa, many young Somalis were finding distraction by taking up arms and joining the various militia groups tearing apart Somalia.

I found myself thinking of this as I watched boys, dressed in animal print costumes, sailing through the air, forming giant human pyramids and throwing fire. They were members of the Somaliland Circus, which performed on the last day of the fair. They were the same age as those being forcibly recruited into the Islamist Al Shabaab movement and other armed groups, across the borders in Somalia.

The book fair, which by 2012 was in its fifth year, is the brainchild of the publisher, mathematician, computer analyst and inventor, Jama Musse Jama, who is based in Italy. As well as trying to revive Somali cultural life, much of which was destroyed by the long years of conflict, Jama says he also started the book fair for the youth:

“At the end of the day, I did it for young Somalis. Literature and culture give young people a wonderful way of growing up, and allow them to make their minds up for themselves. The book fair offers the Somali youth an alternative to guns; it gives them a platform to come together and express themselves. It helps fills the vacuum left behind after the war.”

Like so much in Somaliland, the book fair only works because of volunteers, from those who give their time to plan and organise the events, to the contributors who fly in from abroad. Young Somali volunteers ran the book stalls with great professionalism, writing out a neat receipt for every purchase. I ended up with many such receipts, as I could not resist the books on sale. Among my purchases were a trilingual Physics book, in Somali, English and Arabic, Somali translations of Anton Chekhov’s short stories and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and a book called ‘Somalis do not Lie in Proverbs’, which was launched at the fair by the Russian Somali expert, Georgi Kapchits.

The Somali diaspora plays a prominent role in the book fair. Many of the organisers are based in Europe, and several of the speakers came from abroad, including the London-based author, Nadifa Mohamed, and the famous Somali poet, Said Salah, who is based in Minneapolis.

Much has been written about how the diaspora helps Somaliland economically, mainly through remittances. But the involvement of the diaspora in the book fair adds another dimension, showing how the global Somali community can enhance cultural life in Somaliland. However, the diaspora can also play a negative role by meddling destructively in politics from abroad, or running irresponsible media operations.

‘Those who stayed behind’ sometimes feel resentful towards members of the Somaliland diaspora who jet in from overseas to take up political posts or flash their money around during the summer holidays. But such feelings were not much in evidence at the book fair, when both ‘sides’ seemed to bring out the best in each other. As one of the main organisers of the fair, London-based Ayan Mahamoud, explains:

“The diaspora has both something to give to and something to learn from the book fair and Somaliland in general. We members of the diaspora should be humble enough to learn from those who have worked harder than us and have done the legwork. We are there to give people a platform to determine their own future, to bring together youth groups, women activists and members of the diaspora, who usually work in isolation from each other. The book fair brings together youth from different regions of Somaliland so they can learn from each other.”

The passionate engagement of the diaspora in the fair and other activities, and the amount of time it spends in Somaliland, suggests the word ‘diaspora’ is in some ways misleading in the Somali case, as so many people have a foot permanently in both worlds.

The book fair plays a significant diplomatic role for Somaliland. Jama Musse Jama says it is a good advertisement for the territory because it “shows that Somaliland exits and that Somaliland is cool”. The 2012 fair was treated to a surprise visit by the British ambassador to Somalia, Matt Baugh, and other senior European diplomats. Mr Baugh could not hide his delight as he listened to the presentations and wandered around the stalls. Security was discreet, a sharp contrast to the armoured vehicles and heavily-armed bodyguards he is used to in Mogadishu. The ambassador’s smile turned to slight embarrassment when he was presented with a huge Somaliland flag; Britain, like all other countries in the world, does not recognise Somaliland as an independent nation.

It was not only foreign diplomats who came to the fair. Other foreigners also took part, including an editor from Penguin Books, Helen Conford and the Korean-Brazilian film-maker, Iara Lee.

Helen Conford:

“When I arrived in Somaliland it didn't feel much like London (beside the
numerous English accents on the plane) but the Hargeisa Book Fair feltjust like the best Book Fairs and Literary Festivals I've attended. Iwas struck by the range of publishing and the palpable energy aroundculture; the mix of events and live performances, authors and debate. Itwas very professional - in the best sense of the word - and exhilaratingto be a part of.”


For the jazz clarinetist from New Orleans, Evan Christopher, who played with the ‘King of the Somali lute’, Hudaydi, his trip to Somaliland was the first he had ever made to Africa:

“In America, most people don’t know what Somaliland is, let alone where it is. The country is much greener than I expected. I thought it would be a desert! I didn’t expect to find so many similarities between the culture of Somaliland and the culture of New Orleans. It’s strange but both locales are dealing with a large exodus after, in our case, the devastating flooding or our city, and, in the case of Somaliland, of war. But, remarkably, in terms of the role of culture in the rebuilding process, I have found a lot of similarities.

The book fair has led to constructive dialogue and idea-sharing between Somaliland and Somalia, despite the often tense and unresolved relations between the two territories. The director of the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, Abdi Aynte, has been to the Hargeisa book fair twice, and was so inspired that he wants to try out the same thing in Mogadishu:

“The message I got from the events was that of peace, prosperity and civility. As I returned to my native city of Mogadishu after almost 20 years in the diaspora to start a think tank, I thought that a book fair would restore the cultural prowess of the Somali capital, and would promote a culture of learning and inquiry. More importantly, the book fair would contribute to the peacebuilding efforts, and would create a platform for civil discourse and engagement.” 

As the title of this book suggests, Somaliland is at a crossroads. With so much international attention, time, manpower and money being focused on Mogadishu and other parts of southern and central Somalia, the issue of Somaliland risks being pushed into the backs of people’s minds.

There does not seem to be much room for manoeuvre in terms of its status. The new president of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has said unequivocally that he believes in the unity of Somalia, and that this includes Somaliland. Somaliland, however, says its independence is non-negotiable.

Somaliland is under increased risk from Al Shabaab, which has moved northwards after withdrawing from many of its southern strongholds in Somalia. In January 2013, Britain urged British citizens to leave Somaliland, warning of a ‘specific threat’ against Westerners. The warning has already had an impact, with some Westerners leaving Somaliland or cancelling planned visits to the territory. Even if the ‘specific threat’ never materialises, the warning in itself has done significant damage to Somaliland’s reputation, which has for many years been considered to be the safest part of Somali territory.

Somaliland is also at a crossroads in terms of its domestic politics. The government in 2012 took the bold step of further opening up the democratic space by allowing more political parties to compete in local elections, with the winning three allowed to contest national polls. This resulted in a clan-related violence and a number of deaths, showing the vulnerability of the political situation.

Somaliland is facing a new set of challenges, but it has faced numerous obstacles before. The theme of the 2013 book fair is ‘The Journey’, and Somaliland’s journey over the next few years is likely to be difficult, but not impossible. The book fair shows how much people can achieve with a little money and a lot of passion, imagination and commitment. In this way, it resembles Somaliland, which in a space of just 20 years has built itself up from the rubble of war into a functioning polity. It also shows what a crucial role art, literature and culture play in society, not just as a form of entertainment, but in the case of Somaliland, offering an alternative vision and choice to violence.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Speaking to Al Shabaab

Here is a piece I did for the BBC about my communications with the Somali Islamist group, Al Shabaab.

You can read my report for BBC Online by clicking here.

And you can listen to my piece for BBC From Our Own Correspondent by clicking here.

Here is the script for my report:


Speaking to Al Shabaab

The other morning I woke up to a text message and missed call from Al Shabaab.  

As always, the message was written in perfect English. It informed me about a film Al Shabaab have made called Beyond the Shadows which, it said, gave an ‘accurate portrayal’ of what happened when French commandoes last year tried – and failed – to rescue a suspected French intelligence agent held hostage by the group.

I watched the film. Like some of the other material made by Al Shabaab's media arm, Al Kataib Foundation, it was slickly produced. It was like a cross between a video game and a war movie, and was full of suspense. It showed a drone hovering in the air, emblazoned with the words 'Eyes of the Crusaders'.


The drone showed in the Al Shabaab film

The film showed the bodies of white men, one with a crucifix around his neck.




It also showed an Al Shabaab fighter in full camouflage. He was wearing white plastic gloves.



The film contained the testimony of a man described as a spy. At the end of the movie it said the 'spy' had been executed.



A few days later I got another call from Al Shabaab. The clear, relaxed voice on the other end of the phone told me I was about to receive a text message about the group’s role in the killing of a senior police official in Somalia earlier that day. Sure enough, a few seconds later the text message arrived. Then came a second call to confirm I had indeed received the message.

This is the usual pattern. A call, a text message, then another call to check the message – or as Al Shabaab calls it – ‘SMS press release’ - has arrived.

Scrolling through these messages on my phone, I can chart the history of Al Shabaab attacks. Many of the recent ones are in Kenya. One five-part message, written in the style of a news agency report, claims responsibility for an attack on a restaurant in Djibouti, popular with foreigners. Or, as Al Shabaab calls them, ‘Western crusaders’.

I have seen Al Shabaab’s violence at close hand. Earlier this year, I was just a few buildings down from the Jazeera Palace Hotel in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, when it was attacked, first by one suicide car bomber, then another, who waited for the emergency services to arrive before driving his vehicle into them and the hotel to ensure maximum casualties.

The blasts from the exploding cars were huge. Bullets cracked down the street as the security forces tried to beat back Al Shabaab fighters who had come - in a minibus I was told - to try to storm the hotel.

In the middle of all this, the main target of the attack – a senior security official – came with his entourage to the place where I was. We set up a circle of chairs for them, and they sat there like statues, in stunned, stony silence.

I sometimes find it difficult to relate these acts of extreme and terrifying violence to the calm, measured voice of the Al Shabaab official on the other end of the phone, to the precise, clinical wording of those text messages.

What started as brief calls about particular attacks have over time developed into longer, wider discussions about the movement’s practices and philosophies. Sometimes there is room for debate. But when I ask about certain subjects, the treatment of spies or adulterers for example, the tone of voice changes. It becomes cold and mechanical, as if learned by rote.

I had the conversation about spies one lazy Sunday morning when I was still in bed. I got a call from Al Shabaab, and as I sat in my safe, comfortable bedroom, I heard about how, “if you are found guilty of spying, there is only one punishment. You will face the firing squad in a public place. Everybody must witness the killing of a spy. The spy must receive three, four or five bullets to the head.”

But perhaps the strangest conversation I had was one sunny day outside the British Houses of Parliament. I was due to attend an event there but as I was early, I was sitting in a park outside, in the shade of those grand buildings. My phone rang. I saw the words ‘Al Shabaab’ flash onto my screen.

What started as an update on the latest attack on the Kenyan coast ended up as a lecture about my faith. “Have you thought about the afterlife?” asked the official. “You know, Mary, you won’t be around in 20, 30, 40 years time. I seriously recommend you consider converting to Islam.”

This man seemed genuinely concerned, as he urged me in a gentle voice to take up the Muslim faith. All the time, images of people I know or have known, who have been caught up in Al Shabaab attacks, flashed before my eyes. Some of them are now dead. Others have suffered horrific physical injuries, like a politician I met whose body was ripped apart in an explosion. His black skin mottled with raw, angry, bright pink scars. His inability to hear anything because of the damage the blast had done to his ears.

Of those that don’t bear any physical scars, but who jump every time they hear a bang, even if it’s just a door. Who shudder when they walk past a parked car in Mogadishu for fear it might explode. Whose hearts miss a beat whenever someone they don’t know approaches them for fear they might be a suicide bomber. Who, like me, have received texts from Al Shabaab, only the nature of the messages is very different as they often contain death threats.

I never quite know when I am going to receive the next message from Al Shabaab. I might be on holiday with family, having supper with friends, when all of a sudden, a text message will burst onto my screen, bringing two very different worlds into sharp collision.