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.