Wild life

Aidan Hartley: How Muslim militants and Western jihadis wrecked enchanting Somalia

The beautiful port of Barawe became a base for the vicious foreign fighters known as the 'muhajireen'

19 October 2013

9:00 AM

19 October 2013

9:00 AM

Wizards inland from the little Somali port of Barawe bewitched a person to come to them by banging a nail into a tree and chanting his name. ‘He comes no matter how far away he may be,’ wrote Gerald Hanley in Warriors, his unrivalled classic about Somalia — for him a place of ‘swirling sandstorms, heat and billions and billions of flies’. But I need no nail in a tree to return to Barawe, which to me is a paradise I once aimed to make my home.

I first saw Barawe from the high, red dunes of the hinterland. It glittered white against the azure Indian Ocean: beautiful houses and mosques, a colonial Italian lighthouse ringed by a necklace of surf. It was 1998 and I had never seen anywhere so exotic, populated by very light-skinned descendants of Portuguese, Arabs and Shirazis. They spoke a northern form of Swahili called Chimbalazi and were full of poetry. The perfume of incense and halwa sweetmeats drifted through sandy streets. I swam off a white sand beach and found Amharic inscriptions in the ruins of an old fort. I was made a guest at a four-storey mansion where a banquet of delicacies was prepared in the courtyard below and then hoisted up by a coconut rope on huge copper trays.

Barawe, in those days an island of beauty and sophistication amid the horrors of Somalia, was birthplace of the eponymous Sufi Sheikh Uways al-Barawi. This great religious leader promoted a tolerant form of Islam that so many Somalis still worship by today. Al-Barawi was murdered on the orders of the Mad Mullah, Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, a fanatic who fought Britain for 22 years and left nothing good except poetry extolling ultra-violence. That tension, between extremism and decency, has been played out again in Barawe’s recent history.


I noticed that some of the most delightful Bravanese houses were abandoned. I was told that clan militias had used the town as a battleground. They menaced the prominent families so much that they fled — overseas and along the Kenyan coast, where they continued to hand-weave their wonderful cloth with its geometrical designs that told a secret story. For now, Barawe was calm, and I did not want to go.

‘What if I were to live in Barawe,’ I asked. ‘What if I were to buy a house?’ ‘Certainly,’ replied my host. He revealed that the title deeds were held by the elders — in Minnesota and London’s East End. If my offer was accepted, I could settle down. The price of a very fine house was no more than £7,000. I was not the first Westerner to own a home in Barawe. My host showed me one lovely place that allegedly belonged to Graham Hancock, author of great books like Lords of Poverty.

I tried to pursue my purchase, dreaming that I might cut myself off from the outside world, learn Chimbalazi dialect and fish for yellowfin tuna. But I found myself in Yemen, and then London. One day an intricately carved camphor chest arrived on a flight, with best wishes from my host in Barawe, and this sits at home today. Meanwhile, Somalia’s civil war flared again, hiding the bright horizon of Barawe from the world once more.

A few years ago militants of Al-Shabaab seized Barawe. They murdered local inhabitants. They beat Sufi worshippers and desecrated their saints’ shrines. They imposed huge taxes on the people, denied them vaccines or poetry, music or even football. The place became a base for the most vicious of all the Al-Shabaab fighters — foreign jihadis known as the muhajireen. Some of them were probably from Britain and other western countries. In stolen lovely houses they designed suicide vests, truck bombs and massacres. In 2009 American special forces in helicopters ambushed and killed a senior al-Qa’eda leader a little way inland from the huge red dunes.

In June this year two of the nastiest factions of Al-Shabaab began liquidating each other — as they do — in Barawe’s streets and a number of foreigners went straight to hell. Up the road a few weeks ago, Omar Hammami, an American known as the ‘rapping jihadist’ because of his YouTube jingles, together with Osama al-Britani, a British bomber and allegedly father of Samatha Lewthwaite’s two younger children, also died during internecine feuding. It appears that Barawe became the place where plans were developed for the vile attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall last month.

On 5 October, special forces of the American SEAL Team 6 launched a night raid on Barawe from the ocean, in a bid to kill or capture a man they did not get. After they withdrew into the waves, Al-Shabaab took reprisals against the local population. In London, where Islamophobic arsonists burned down the Bravanese community centre in June, these moderate, civilised people must wonder what they did to deserve all of this.

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  • wiseman

    Sad story, but Somalis alone are not to blame for this countries problems. Like Libya and Iraq the Dictator Siad was overthrown by ruthles gangs/criminals supported by the west and then this backfired and hence terrorists and chaos.

    • Eddie

      Typical leftie liberal opinion – we are to blame for others wanting to attack us. It’s an echo of the French socialists in the 1930s, who betrayed their values, brothers and country using the same cod reasoning.
      But true, better if we left these dictators in charge – which is what I have been saying all along about Syria (which Muslims here want to go to war over to overthrow a non-Muslim leader – see, Muslims always support Muslims). We should have let Gaddafi alone in Libya too.
      By the way. the BRITISH part of Somalia – Somaliland – is and was fine. It should declare independence from Somalia and its mad Muslims who were created by the Saudi-oil-funded spread of Islamist propaganda, NOT by ‘The West’ at all.

      • Anonymous

        The Somali dictator (Siad Barre) was already backed by the west and if he still had power, peaceful, democratic Somaliland would not have existed. Since the early 80’s, the northern SNM rebels (Somali national movement) were fighting against Siad Barre. At the time, the Somali army was one of the most powerful in the whole of Africa. Siad Barre caused major atrocities in the north including bombing Hargeisa (the current capital of Somaliland) to the ground which killed over 50,000 people alone. The SNM defeated Siad Barre and helped establish Somaliland in 1991.

        While the west is backing the current corrupt regime in Somalia, they are dangerously ignoring Somaliland. Instead, Britain banned all travel to Somaliland earlier this year due to fear of a terrorist attack. Nothing happened in Somaliland while a terrible barbaric attack took place in Kenya. Since the west is all about spreading democratic and secular ideals, why have they not recognise Somaliland? One of the most democratic countries in Africa and the Muslim world.

        Video on Somaliland.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mgl2S55_0OE

        David Cameron congratulating Somaliland’s presidential elections in 2010.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuoRYG0kpf4

        By the way, Somaliland is not doing fine due to British influences in the colonial period. The British literally done nothing in their protectorate and called Somaliland “Aden’s butcher shop”. The name says it all really, they were only interested in a constant supply of meat to support the British garrison in Aden.

  • Tom Tom

    They are not doing a lot for Syria either…..but the British and French servants of Qatar seem to think Jizjah is the price for Christians to pay the Muslim invader. Hollande is on Qatar payroll when most problems would be solved by toppling Saudi and Qatari dictators. Instead the USA is selling them Cruise Missiles and Bunker Buster bombs !

  • Bonkim

    Carpet bomb coastal Somalia and eliminate the vermin.

  • Eddie

    Let us not forget that in the 90s, some countries – eg Germany – did NOT recognise Somalis as genuine refugees. Other idiot countries (Norway, the UK) did.
    Now Somali gangs run wild in London and many Somalis are planning Islamic bomb attacks here – and they were already part of 7/7 attacks on the underground.
    We should NOT have let these Somalis into the UK or the EU. Ditto for so many others. They are our enemies and always will be.
    In addition to that, we are far too generous to immigrants of all kinds – free housing, free help, benefits, help getting jobs, services translated into a myriad of languages on taxpayers money. I hate these people and the traitors who have allowed them to come to MY country.
    The British government is a joke. I’d hang em all for treason.

    • anyfool

      There is a pact between Saudi rulers and the Muslim theocrats in Arabia that they can continue to rule as long as they are allowed to spread the word according to their own interpretation.
      The big problem to come is that the freeloaders in the Saud family are funding them with ever increasing amounts of their unlimited resources, they need to do this because ironically the more money and power these people get the more Danegeld they can demand..
      The Israelis main enemy will be these fanatics when the Saud family is eliminated, that is the principal reason that they do not want any Arab country to acquire nuclear weapons, the non Arab Iranians will not bomb Israel but the threat or possibility that they could pass on a weapon to Arabs is a very dangerous thing for them to live with.
      Britain was the architect of the problems with these states in the Middle East, most like the gulf states are not countries, they are lines drawn on a map by FCO for administrative and political reasons.
      Ironically reinstating the Ottoman empire would probably undo some of the damage done.

  • chan chan

    Somalia’s problems are caused by Islam – nothing or nobody else. I have seen an academic advancing the argument that EU fisheries policy is to blame for piracy, but like much of what comes out of academia with respect to the middle east etc., that is total bollocks.

    I’d drop a load of daisy cutters on any coastal town suspected of harbouring sea borne jihadists. What happens in the rest of Somalia is of no interest to me. If they want to chop each other up in the name of islam, they can go for it. It’s none of our business.

    • Eddie

      You are spot-on about academia. Out of touch, leftwing, ‘politically correct’, pompous, aloof, contemptuous of ordinary people, and deluded – most academics thing what they do and think actually matters.
      I would advise all students to look on academics as one would consider those suffering from delusory mental disorder – just nod, smile, go along with them, whilst thinking and knowing what they say is utter tripe.
      The rise of political Islam is not our fault in any way, shape or form. After all, just look at the aid and technology that The West has given the more backwards parts of the world. Maybe they just hate us for stopping them practising their ‘values’ however (eh slave trading, forced child marriage, burning widows alive, amputation of limbs etc).

    • Anonymous

      The root cause of the problems in Somalia stem from tribalism. When the civil war broke out in the early 90’s, the warlords only cared about their clans and tried to take land held by other clans. Extremist influences became a real problem in the south of the country during the late 90s early 20’s. However, these Islamists were far less dangerous than the current Al Shabab. The Islamic courts union stabilised much of south Somalia and the inhabitants finally thought peace was going to reign. This was not the case since the US backed Ethiopian invasion in 2006 eradicated the ICU. This led to splinter groups forming including the Al-Shabab. Fast forward to 2013 and this same group is still causing havoc in east Africa.

      Earlier, I pointed out that tribalism is the root problem in Somalia. This is evident in the Jubba region, a fertile region bordering Kenya. When Kenya invaded Somalia, they did not only chase Al Shabab, but also helped create Jubaland state to form a buffer-zone. Kenya is also backing a Somali warlord named Ahmed Madobe and his Raskamboni movement. He is discriminating against the minority Somali clans in the Jubba region while causing much dissent. This is why there is so much fighting in the port of Kismayu even after Al Shabab has been ousted out of the city and in much of the region.

  • Virginia Lionheart

    I do hope the resoundingly asinine responses to this article don’t completely betray it’s quality, or the sentiment in which it was written.

    • Rahma

      Thank you, Virginia, for phrasing your response in a much more eloquent fashion than I could have mustered after reading these comments.

      Aidan – such a pleasure to read again your writings on Somalia. When shall your fans anticipate a second book? 🙂

  • Anonymous

    “This great religious leader promoted a tolerant form of Islam that so many Somalis still worship by today. Al-Barawi was murdered on the orders of the Mad Mullah, Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, a fanatic who fought Britain for 22 years and left nothing good except poetry extolling ultra-violence.”

    Muhammed Abdullah Hassan (the Mad Mullah) was not a fanatic, rather he was a Somali nationalist who used religion to unite the divided Somali clans in north Somalia. On the other hand Al Barawi was against Italian colonisation of South Somalia but he focused more on proselytising. Interestingly Abdullah Hassan’s wife, Hasna Doreh, commanded one of the nine divisions of his army. Surely a fanatic would not let a woman command a section of his army?

    “It was 1998 and I had never seen anywhere so exotic, populated by very light-skinned descendants of Portuguese, Arabs and Shirazis.”

    The Portuguese bit is a myth and quite offensive to the Bravanese people (according to my Bravanese friend). Barawe/Brava at one point was burnt and looted by the Portuguese in the 16th century. However, the town was in control of the Somali Ajuuraan empire and its successor state the Geledi sultanate until Italian colonisation. Although the Arab and Shirazi (Persian) lineage is consistent with Bravanese oral tradition.

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