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Drinking Fanta With Islamist Militants

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Nairobi — During my first trip to Mogadishu, Somalia, on my last night in town, as I was packing up my things, someone unexpectedly knocked on my door.

It was the hotel manager, and at first I thought he had come to settle the bill, but he remained silent in the doorway in a way that caught me off guard. I looked up from my mess of computer cords and chargers and sweaty clothes scattered across the floor.

“Abu Mansoor’s looking for you,” he said.

“Abu Mansoor?” I gulped.

“Abu Mansoor.”

“Me?”

“You.”

In this town, you didn’t want Mukhtar Robow, known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mansoor, looking for you.
He was a leader of al-Shabaab; people spoke of him in hushed tones that conveyed reverence and fear. It would be much better if Abu Mansoor didn’t know who you were. Or where you were staying.

I followed the manager downstairs, eyes locked on his back. As soon as we walked into the reception room, the manager turned around and disappeared. Abu Mansoor stood waiting for me, flanked by two boy soldiers.

He had a prayer bruise on his forehead, something you get only by banging your head against a prayer mat thousands of times. He wore a long shirt and short pants that stopped above the ankle — like capri pants, a Salafist interpretation of a cryptic clause from one of the Hadiths that says, “Whoever trails his garment on the ground out of pride, Allah will not look at him on Judgment Day.” With bright eyes, he motioned toward a table where two bottles of orange Fanta sat, one for him and one for me. The boy soldiers watched me closely.

“Please,” Abu Mansoor said.

I sat down and took a quick, nervous sip, the soda tasting sweeter because of the circumstances. I’ll admit it: I derived a slight thrill from sharing a Fanta with a real militant. “I heard you were asking a lot of questions about the Islamists,” Abu Mansoor said.

Before I could answer, he reached down under the table. The spit in my mouth dried up. I was sure he was going to pull out a gun.

THIS WAS THE FALL of 2006, just months before a failed American-backed effort to crush Islamist “aggression,” when there was a rapidly shrinking sliver of an opportunity to bring peace to Somalia. Somalia. I know what Americans see when they hear that word, because I, too, saw it before I ever actually set foot here: pirates and starving people, shot-up buildings and lifeless sand landscapes, AK-47s and battered jeeps, anarchy and ruin. Somalia seems to represent angry Islam and all that is wrong with the world and a threat to us.

But what I saw on that first trip stunned me, and this is one of the unsung thrills of journalism and maybe life itself, developing a hypothesis of how the world works and having that hypothesis shattered. An alliance of Islamist clerics had just seized Mogadishu. With grass-roots support, they had driven out a cadre of clan warlords who had been covertly supported by the C.I.A. It’s hard to keep a secret in Somalia, a country with an intense oral tradition and a mobile phone network that is amazing given Somalia’s history as a failed state. And so the C.I.A. effort was uncovered quickly and failed. Western diplomats started calling the Islamists the “African Taliban.”

Of course, very few of these diplomats had ever been to Somalia, but I was new and impressionable and eagerly jotted down their comments as if they were facts. So I was surprised when I started exploring Mogadishu to find boys — and girls — in school.

One of the first things the Taliban had done when they seized power in Afghanistan was to close girls’ schools, believing that half of humanity deserves to be shuttered in ignorance. But in Mogadishu I saw young couples strolling by the seaside, and men and women working together to lift garbage from the streets. It didn’t seem like window dressing. There were no other foreign journalists in town. This was just normal Somali life, finally resuming.

The peace was secured by young men with struggling beards and green prayer caps. They talked little but carried enormous guns. They succeeded at something no one else had managed to accomplish, including 25,000 American soldiers sent to Somalia in the early 1990s by the first President Bush in a humanitarian operation that ended in ignominy. For the first time in 15 years — and sadly the only time since then — Mogadishu wasn’t an abattoir. The killing had stopped, and the populace seemed indebted to the young men who had stopped it. They simply called them the Youth, but they used the Arabic word, al-Shabaab.

The point of all this isn’t to airbrush the Shabaab and the later horrible things they did. I’ve covered those, too — attacks in Kenya that maimed friends and suicide bombings that smeared children across walls. Even from those earliest days, known Qaeda terrorists were hiding within the Islamist ranks, and I’m not saying it would have been easy sifting out the moderates from the messianic killers. But the American government didn’t even try.

In December that same year, the Pentagon helped the army of Ethiopia, Somalia’s historic enemy, invade.
That decision set off a chain reaction that continues to plague us: The Islamists were pushed underground; the Shabaab became an insurgency, then a terrorist group; pirates hit the high seas; famines broke out across the land. The American government keeps getting sucked deeper in, and just this month, a Navy SEAL was killed near Mogadishu, the first known American combat casualty in Somalia in more than 20 years. I can’t help wondering whether his death could have been avoided.

I WAS RELIEVED that evening when Abu Mansoor came up not with a pistol but with a black plastic bag.

“I got this for you in the Bakara market.”

I reached in and pulled out something relatively slender but as heavy as a brick.

“It’s in English,” he said. “Will you read it?”

I didn’t know what to say. It was the most beautiful Quran I had ever seen. He leaned toward me and grabbed my hand.

“We don’t have a problem with Americans,” he said. “Look at you, you’re here, we’ve been protecting you all week — maybe you didn’t even know it. We want peace, we crave it more than you could ever understand, to get out of this darkness, to stop killing each other, to stop being the laughingstock of the world.”

He looked me squarely in the eyes, as had many of the other Islamists I’d met that week.

“Ever since I was 15, I’ve been dreaming of Shariah. And now ….” He was so choked up, he couldn’t even finish his sentence.

What we often see as a nightmare, Shariah, traditional Islamic law, is another man’s dream. Abu Mansoor and his colleagues were true believers in their religion’s dogmas, but at the same time, they were turning to Islam for a very logical reason. Somalia’s civil wars and chaos had been caused by clan rivalries; Islam was a way to unite a violently divided people. If we don’t try to at least understand what is driving people to embrace the things most Westerners oppose — like Shariah — then we are doomed.

Abu Mansoor took one last swig of Fanta, killing it, and stood up. His last words to me were, “See you soon, inshallah.”

Somali News

Kansas Trio Convicted in Plot to Bomb Somali Immigrants

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WICHITA, Kan. — A federal jury on Wednesday convicted three men of plotting to bomb an apartment complex where Somali immigrants lived and worshiped in Garden City, Kan., giving prosecutors a victory at a time when threats against religious and racial minorities are rising nationally.

“These defendants conspired to build a bomb, blow up a building and murder every single man, woman and child inside,” Tony Mattivi, a federal prosecutor, told jurors during closing statements.

The men, Curtis Allen, Gavin Wright and Patrick Stein, all of whom are white, appeared stoic as the verdicts were read. They face up to life in prison when they are sentenced in June.

The jury of six men and six women deliberated for about seven hours over two days.

Defense lawyers tried to convince jurors that their clients were manipulated by the F.B.I., and had been unfairly targeted for exercising their rights to own guns and speak freely.

“He was a member of a militia. He loved his guns. This was a lifestyle,” Melody Brannon, a lawyer for Mr. Allen, told the mostly white jury. “The government tried to criminalize that lifestyle.”

The trial, which played out over about a month in Wichita, focused on a period before the 2016 presidential election when a paid F.B.I. informant infiltrated a militia group that prosecutors said included the three men. Prosecutors, who built much of their case around secret recordings that the informant made of the men talking, said that they planned to carry out the bombing on Nov. 9 of that year, a day after voters selected a president.

“They wanted to send a message to the people living there that they’re not welcome in Garden City, they’re not welcome in southwest Kansas, they’re not welcome in the United States,” Mr. Mattivi said.

The men, who called themselves “the Crusaders,” were arrested about four weeks before Election Day and charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against rights, which the Justice Department considers a hate crime. Mr. Wright was also charged with lying to the F.B.I. The three men were found guilty on all counts against them.

The trial came amid a national escalation in threats against religious and racial minorities, especially Muslims, according to the F.B.I. and organizations that monitor hate crimes.

“It is now approaching the level of hate violence against the same communities that we saw in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks,” said Suman Raghunathan, executive director of SAALT: South Asian Americans Leading Together, a national advocacy organization.

Prosecutors portrayed the Kansas defendants as aspiring domestic terrorists who joined a militia and decided to bomb the Somali apartments after considering other attacks — on elected officials, churches that helped refugees and landlords who rented to immigrants.

Defense lawyers, who criticized the F.B.I.’s investigation throughout the trial as government overreach, suggested that their clients had merely engaged in idle talk inspired partly by the 2016 election. Expletive-filled recordings of the men played before the jury contained repugnant, bigoted language, the defense lawyers said, but not evidence of a federal crime.

“It is not morally right to hold such hate, but it is not legally wrong,” said James Pratt, a lawyer for Mr. Stein, who acknowledged that his client referred to Muslims as “cockroaches.” Mr. Stein referred to himself, the recordings showed, as an “Orkin man,” referencing the pest extermination company.

“We all have the right to hate,” Mr. Pratt added.

A bombing never took place, and no one was physically injured in Garden City, a point defense lawyers emphasized to jurors. They said the men lacked the ability or commitment to carry out such an attack, and that the F.B.I.’s paid informant helped steer the plot and suggested targeting the apartments.

Garden City is a racially diverse place about 200 miles west of Wichita with around 27,000 residents. Many Somalis and other immigrants have moved to the area in recent years to work at a nearby meatpacking plant.

The apartment complex that prosecutors say was targeted is a center of Somali life in Garden City. Many refugee families live in units of the complex; others come to pray in a makeshift mosque inside one unit.

Moussa Elbayoumy, who chairs the board of the Kansas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the verdict affirmed his faith in the justice system.

Many Muslims he talked to in Garden City had not followed the trial closely, Mr. Elbayoumy said, but had hoped for convictions.

“The instance was troubling, was concerning. People were afraid,” Mr. Elbayoumy said in a phone interview. “But after that, they put this behind them and moved on with their lives.”

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What’s triggering tension between Somalia and the UAE? | Inside Story

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Somalia has been in conflict for much of the past 25 years. But the horn of Africa nation has been showing signs of recovery.
And that’s provoked interest from many regional countries including the United Arab Emirates.

The Gulf nation has been conducting a military training programme and running a hospital in the capital Mogadishu.

But, the UAE’s government has now abruptly ended its involvement on both those fronts after a series of recent diplomatic disagreements.

So, why are the UAE and other regional countries interested in Somalia?

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AMISOM asks for more police officers in Somalia

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DAILY MONITOR — KISMAYO- The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has asked partners states to contribute more police officers to expand its operations in the war-torn country.

The call was made on Tuesday by Ms Christine Alalo, the acting AMISOM police commissioner while receiving 145 police officers from Sierra Leone.

The deployment of the force from Sierra Leone brings to 160 the number of police officers from Sierra Leone.

“We expect other police contributing countries to do the same because we are expanding our operations. We are moving away from Mogadishu,” Ms Alalo said.

Apart from Sierra Leone, other police contributing countries in Somalia are; Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia and Ghana.

Early this month, over 500 Ugandan Police Officers sat for interviews that would see successful ones join police operations in Somalia.

Ms Alalo said since police operations will be extended to other federal states and districts, it is inevitable to increase the number of police units.

Between 2015 and 2016, AMISOM trained 600 Somali officers in Jubbaland, but Ms Alalo said that number has to be reinforced.

Meanwhile, the AMISOM Assistant Inspector General of Police, Mustafa Solomon Kambeh, said the police officers would be deployed in Jubbaland and Kismayo.

Mr Kambeh doubles as the Contingent Commander of the Sierra Leonean FPU in Mogadishu urged the forces to stick to the AMISOM mandate of pacifying Somalia and its regional states.

The Formed Police Unit is charged with public order management, protection of facilities and support to police operations that require a concerted response.

The United Nations Security Council Resolution adopted in 2017 approved an increase to a maximum of 1,040 police officers serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)

AMISOM is committed to redoubling its efforts to train and recruit more police officers during the transition period as it prepares to hand over security responsibilities to the Somali security forces as stipulated in the Security Council Resolution.

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