Sunday 18 December 2011

Kids on the beach

Al Shabaab fighters parade on the beach somewhere south of Mogadishu. This photo was taken last month. These fighters, in their headscarves, guns and matching uniforms, are children.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Journalism and technology

Rageh Omaar on my book

"For the past two decades, books on Somalia have tended to mirror some of the attitudes about the country itself. They have been either analyses by a small and highly specialised field of policy analysts and academics, or written from and for the perspective that caters to the most common cliches and impressions about this most failed of failed states; a nation of warlords, pirates, jihadists and refugees fleeing in unseaworthy boats often only to drown. All of these are of course part of the narrative of Somalia's inability to break from its repeated cycles of the failure of domestic politics and outside intervention over the past 25 years, but what Mary Harper has done is to explain this narrative as a whole - rather than a series of snapshots. This is a book which is clear, accessible and thorough. It has done what books on Somalia rarely do, which is to examine the multitude of failures, misunderstandings, and wilful acts of destruction that have caused Somalia's downfall, but it has also gone much further, by outlining the huge part of the hidden Somalia that have survived the decades of turmoil and which are the only foundations upon which anything approaching a post conflict and stable Somalia can be built. There are significant parts of Somalia where civil society is functioning with fragile but functioning institutions of business and commerce, security and representation. She has written and explained this detailed yet vital aspect of the Somali crisis in a way that is accessible and enlightening not just to the international reader but also to those shaping global policy on Somalia. This is an important book for both."

Thursday 8 December 2011

Al Shabaab's Twitter Account

Here is my report for the BBC on Al Shabaab's latest experiment with the power of the internet:

(With the fiercest fighting for months in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and Kenyan troops deployed deep into southern Somali territory, the country is experiencing a particularly heavy period of violence. On one side is the Islamist group Al Shabaab, which controls much of southern and central Somalia. On the other, transitional government troops, African Union peacekeepers, and Kenyan and Ethiopian soldiers. Fighting is not only taking place on the ground. As Mary Harper reports, it’s also going on in cyberspace:)

At exactly five thirty-five on Wednesday evening, an email dropped into my inbox. It was from the Al Shabaab press office and it invited me to follow Al Shabaab on Twitter. I did so instantly, and there, with its distinctive white logo on a black background, was an image of the Al Shabaab flag.

The first tweet was in Arabic, b-ismi-llāhi r-ramāni r-raīmi, which translates as ‘In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful’. After that, Al Shabaab switched to English and got down to the serious business of military propaganda.

The first tweets gave a hint of what was, within a few hours, to become the most intense fighting for several months between the Islamists and government troops backed by African Union or AMISOM peacekeepers in Mogadishu.

The tweets spoke of an attack by Al Shabaab on an AMISOM base in the north of the city. This was despite the fact that Al Shabaab in August announced that it had withdrawn from Mogadishu, something the transitional government described as a massive victory.

The tweets then launched into what Al Shabaab described as the utter failure of Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia. One quoted a BBC story about the plan for Kenyan troops to join AMISOM. It said this was proof that Kenya had run out of money to pay for the military operation, so need the African Union to pay for it instead. The advice to the Kenyan soldiers was put into one word, in capital letters. It said simply ‘FLEE’.

There was also a tweet referring to the need for Somali government soldiers to sober up, accusing them of being intoxicated by the narcotic leaf, qat, which has been banned by Al Shabaab.

The Al Shabaab Twitter site has attracted dozens of followers since it was launched a few hours ago. So far, Al Shabaab is following nobody.

The Islamist movement has in recent months become increasingly adept at communicating its activities and messages to a non-Somali audience. It writes sophisticated press releases in excellent English, complete with photographs.

And now it has a Twitter account. Perhaps this is in response to the highly active Twitter account of Kenya’s military spokesman, Major Emmanuel Chirchir. He issues a steady stream of information about what he says are Kenya’s military successes in Somalia.

So far, he appears to be winning the Twitter war. He has nearly ten thousand followers. Al Shabaab has four hundred, but its site has only been active for a few hours, and that number increases every time I look at it.

Saturday 3 December 2011

The Guardian's assessment of my book

'Somalia is one of the most neglected and misunderstood casualties of the war on terror. If you want to understand more, this is your book: succinct, perceptive, judicious, it traces a compelling narrative which brings vividly to life an extraordinary country and its turbulent history. Its scope is wide, ensuring that there are many questions here relevant to places far beyond Somalia: issues of how a people and culture adapt to the challenges of globalisation with ingenuity, as well as how they suffer from its impact; of how Western interventions pursue their own agenda. This was a book which urgently needed writing.'

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Comment on my book

I have just received this wonderful comment on my forthcoming book from the well-known documentary maker, Adam Curtis:

‘Mary Harper has written a brilliant book that will completely change the way you look at not just modern Somalia but also much contemporary journalism. So much reporting today divides the world beyond Britain into Goodies and Baddies – Mary Harper's book cuts through that simplistic naivety in a fantastic way. She vividly shows how the cartoon nightmare vision of Somalia as a failed state is wrong. It's like being lifted up in a helicopter and looking at something you thought you knew in a completely new way.’

Thursday 17 November 2011

Here is a review of my forthcoming book, coming out in February next year. The reviewer read a manuscript that was written before the Kenyan invasion of Somalia; I have since updated it to include references to Kenya's action.

Sunday 6 November 2011

"Mogadishu goes to the beach"

I have just received this press release from the African Union peacekeepers (AMISOM) in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The photos came with the press release.

*Mogadishans Take to Beaches as City Reawakens*

"Hundreds of Mogadishu residents last week took to the beaches for the first time in three years in a dramatic display of a new found sense of security following the forcing out from the city of Al Qaeda-linked terrorists.
The revellers, who included former president Ali Mahdi Mohamed, converged on the scenic Lido beach on Friday where they enjoyed a game of football and took a dip in the waters.
Ever since the Somali National Army, with the support of the African Union Mission in Somalia, forced the extremists' retreat in August, the capital has been experiencing something of a resurgence. Roads are being repaired, homes rebuilt and markets reopened. Real estate prices along Via Moscow have doubled and there are people out in the streets late into the night, despite the ongoing threat of terrorist attack.
However, as the city reawakens, it is also experiencing problems common to other capitals around the world. Traffic jams along the busy streets are a perennial headache and crime rates are up, according to Mayor Mohammed Nur 'Tarzan'.
Last week, the city's business community presented a gift of thirty animals to AMISOM in appreciation of the Mission's effort in helping secure the capital."

The man 'playing football' is former president Ali Mahdi Mohamed.

Al Shabaab said its withdrawal from the main parts of Mogadishu was a 'tactical retreat', not a 'forced retreat' as described in the press release. It has continued to carry out devastating suicide and other attacks in the city.

Friday 4 November 2011

Major Chirchir's tweets

As I sit here in Nairobi speaking to Somali friends about how uncomfortable things have become for them following the Kenyan incursion into/ intervention in/ invasion of Somalia, I cannot help but be amazed by the increasingly surreal stream of tweets coming from the Kenyan army spokesman, Major Emmanuel Chirchir.

Here is a compilation of his tweets on how donkeys should now be considered the enemy:

"Information reaching us confirms that Al Shabaab has resorted to using donkeys to transport their weapons. The locals use donkeys to fetch water for domestic use however, due to the heavy rains water fetching is not feasible. Thus, any large concentration and movement of loaded donkeys will be considered as Al Shabaab activity. In addition we are also reliably informed that the cost of donkeys has risen from $150 to $200 for a donkey. Kenyans dealing in donkey trade along the Kenya-Somali border are advised not to sell their animals to Al Shabaab. Selling donkeys to Al Shabaab will undermine our efforts in Somalia."

You can read more of his tweets on Twitter:

Monday 24 October 2011

Welcome to my blog.

Here are some recent photographs of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, taken shortly after the Islamist group, Al Shabaab, announced its withdrawal from the city.

Since 'withdrawing', Al Shabaab has launched several deadly suicide and other attacks in Mogadishu, killing dozens of people.

These photographs were taken in districts previously occupied by Al Shabaab. As you can see they have been emptied of people.

The other day, I met the new Somali foreign minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, in a fancy hotel in Nairobi. He told me he was rather embarrassed because Al Shabaab was still visible in the outskirts of Mogadishu. As we sat drinking tea, he said he would like the American military to come in to help Somalia. For now, he has the Kenyans. And a bit of American help in the form of drones (to bomb suspected Islamist targets) and 'advisors' (to help 'train' the Somali security forces).