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In the past week, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) rounded up thousands (you read that right) of men in Mogadishu suspected of being members of the Shabab. In one night last week, night raids carried out in the “recently liberated” districts of Mogadishu led to the capture of eight thousand men and boys. More than 500 of these were determined to be Shabab members and were thus sent to jail, and the rest set free. Another night, three thousand were reportedly captured.
The TFG head of security in Mogadishu, Khalif Mohamed, claimed that the thousand captured in the night raids were the people “behind” the insecurity in Mogadishu.
The way these raids are being carried out expose a major TFG intelligence weakness, rather than show their strength as they may have hoped.
The fact that 93.75% of all the people captured were immediately released shows that their arrest was random and the TFG security forces had no intelligence leading them to the 'suspects'. They apparently closed off a chunk of northern Mogadishu, went house to house, and rounded up any man and boy who could carry a gun, and sifted through them to find potential Shabab suspects.
A potential Shabab suspect is anyone with any combination of the following characteristics: aged between 14 and 35, has a big beard, wears Islamic clothing, lives in the immediate vicinity of Shabab activity, and is unfortunate enough to have been around an IED attack location (most men in such an area are indiscriminately rounded up).
Using these specifications for Shabab suspects, Tabligh members (Islamic missionaries – mostly harmless), old men who happened to be wearing Islamic scarves and other random people were arrested en masse by our very corrupt security forces.
Talking about corruption, the 'suspects' were released in a very interesting manner: many were asked to call whoever they knew; and the obviously innocent such as the Tabligh were released without any problems (after being paraded to the media, of course).
Calling a TFG contact was the surest way to get released, as if the mere fact of 'being known' was enough to guarantee one’s innocence. But again, if just living in a hotspot of Shabab activity made one a suspect, this is perhaps the only way of saving thousands of innocent people from the unfair TFG Shabab-identification process.
No doubt, some Shabab members were among the 7,500 suspects released, thanks to the 'who do you know?' policy. This policy is clearly ineffective in identifying Shabab members, but it is inadvertently helping save innocent people from the infamous TFG prisons, which are now packed beyond capacity.
I stress inadvertently because the TFG security forces and the government’s policies regarding the civilian population are hardly merciful, and tainted by what can only be described as a revenge mentality, to punish suspected Shabab supporting areas.
The TFG and allies’ use of heavy artillery to bombard Shabab-held areas is well documented, and the Shabab skilfully used images of hurt children for propaganda purposes. While the TFG is quick to deny this, it seems that its forces were punishing the civilians still living in Shabab-held areas, especially the formerly Shabab cash cow, Bakara Market.
Now that Mogadishu has fully fallen to the government, the areas that stayed last in Shabab hands, and areas where the TFG and its allies faced stiff resistance – and sometimes crushing defeats – are now subjected to heavy-handed night raids that are bound to increase antipathy to the government, and lower its already dismal public standing.
When night raids on the scale seen in Huriwaa, Dayniile, Yaaqshiid and Kaaraan are carried out in long TFG strongholds by the sea, then we can say the raids have a semblance of equality. For now, they seem to be targeted at people who lived longest in Shabab territory.
This policy is self-defeating in that, instead of attracting suspected Shabab supporters to the TFG, it puts them off and makes them believe the Shabab narration that the TFG is fighting the Sunnah, Islamic dress and tradition.
Many people in Mogadishu feel that the reason for the TFG night raids is to extort money from prisoners. While this can not be confirmed, a source claimed that two of his cousins had been released for 3000 USD. The way he was saying it, it seemed like they were real Shabab members.
If this is true – and I believe it may be so – then the Shabab that are not released immediately for not having a TFG contact shall be released later, after money exchanges hands.
The sad thing is that the improving security in Mogadishu is being overshadowed by this TFG war against hearts and minds.
I had wanted to write this week about how I haven’t heard an explosion inside Mogadishu since I went there more than two weeks ago (this doesn’t mean there was none), how very few civilians are being admitted into hospitals for gunshot sustained inside the city wounds daily, how even less die weekly, and why Ciudad Juarez, not Mogadishu, now deserves the title of “the most dangerous city in the world".
For all the safety, decreasing of attacks and whatnot, the city does not 'feel' safe to the inhabitants and others. And it is not because of the possibility of a Shabab attack, but rather because of the hoards of TFG soldiers, police, Special Forces, personal bodyguards of officials, and others who roam the city, many of them with their AK-47s safety lever pointing to burst mode. Incidents of TFG guys shooting “by mistake” are not rare. Or, of TFG police shooting in the air for issues ranging from marriages to opening up traffic.
Furthermore, hanging out in an area where no one knows you will probably put you into trouble if you are a potential Shabab suspect (refer above).
A young man I met at the airport told me about why he was leaving Mogadishu: he had been arrested 3 times for hanging out in cafes popular with TFG employees. Also, he was shocked by seeing 3 trucks with suspects “packed like goats”.
The questions they ask suspects reveal a clear lack of skill in interrogation on the part of the TFG security services: the first question is, “How long have you been working for the Shabab?” Somalis – being very argumentative – always shoot down the agents’ (who seem to have lesser IQ than the average Somali) absurd charges. I recently witnessed this ridiculous line of questioning first hand when I was detained by the TFG for 'being too handsome' and asked equally absurd questions. I was released shortly thereafter when the interrogators admitted my detainment was, in fact, absurd.
What the TFG should really concentrate on is the disciplining of its forces, and the purging of all defectors from the Shabab in the security services. These people know many Shabab, yes, but not all will identify their former pals because of various reasons ranging from sympathy, loyalty, honour (ratting out a friend is considered dishonourable by some Somalis, even if he is an enemy), and clan politics. The targeted killing of the real Shabab defectors may be facilitated by such people. One defector I knew (and allegedly 10 others) was killed last night, most probably by his own fellow 'defectors'. Hmm, and I thought he was a false defector (in hindsight, this explains his chewing of Khat the last night I saw him last week).
Furthermore, more secular people should be employed in the security forces. Now, many of the men who are in the front lines in the secret war against the Islamist Shabab are Islamists themselves - not only Islamists, but Salafists. Good luck with bagging many Shabab in the night raids. Also, good luck in keeping the raids secret – Islamists are very bad with secrets, always giving “glad tidings” about things to come.
The Islamists almost exclusively occupy all the top positions in the National Security Service Agency (NSSA), the internal spy agency, and almost all its agents are former Islamic Courts Union (ICU) members. Unless this organisation is diluted with secular officials, it will not only serve as a tool for the Islamists in the years to come, but a potential Shabab get-out-of-jail ticket.
The NSSA officials should also be given quality training to make them a more professional security force. Now, they are just a bunch of Islamists masquerading as security agents. Many of the good ones who really dislike the Shabab think of themselves as Mujahideen fighting against a heretic sect, not as nationalists defending the Somali nation.
Until that happens, poorly planned night raids and sloppy Shabab identification processes may continue, increasing hostility to the government and potentially laying seeds for a future backlash against the government.
This backlash will most probably be in the form of support for the Shabab, or unaligned revenge attacks on TFG forces. Few will easily forget their wrongful detention or their extortion by corrupt TFG officials. As the Somalis say, “He who doesn’t avenge is yet unborn."
Mubarak's weekly columns are published on Wednesdays. You can follow Mubarak on Twitter at @somalianalyst.