This was the answer I was given by the expressionless Kenyan security official at the tiny airport in the remote northern town of Wajir, when I asked him why we had been obliged to land there. This was not what I had expected. My airline ticket said ‘Destination: Nairobi’.
‘You have come from Somalia. Every plane from Somalia has to land at Wajir for security reasons. Somalis are dangerous people, linked to al-Qaeda. We do not want such people in Kenya.’
The fact that we had flown in from one of the most peaceful capital cities I have ever visited in Africa was of no interest to the security man. Nor was the fact that we had come from the self-declared republic of Somaliland, not Somalia.
Although it is not internationally recognized, Somaliland has, over the past twenty years, built itself up from the rubble of war into a viable polity. Somalia is recognized as a country despite the fact that it has been in a state of permanent implosion since the collapse of central government more than twenty years ago.
We went through security, our bags and bodies scanned and searched, our names checked against lists, our passports scrutinized and stamped. We then had to wait for long hours in a small room, the heat of the sun beating down on the roof. It was like being in an oven.
We were eventually allowed back onto the plane, and flown to Nairobi. For us, there was none of the tawdry, false glamour of an international airport arrival. There were no air-conditioned buses, no glossy posters promising golden beaches and safari adventures.
We were dumped onto the tarmac at the back of the airport and herded into a shabby, airless room. Again, we were made to wait. This time, our passports were checked against three different lists by three different officials. Our bags were searched and scanned again. So were our bodies.
Tempers frayed. Elegant Somalis in expensive suits started to shout. Some were late for a United Nations conference in Nairobi, others had connecting flights to catch. A cabinet minister from Somaliland broke out in a sweat.
‘This makes me angry’, said a tall, slender man. ‘It makes me angry with Kenya. But it makes me even more angry with America.’
This was just a mild taste of how things have changed for Somalis since 9/11.
Somalia came under the spotlight almost as soon as the planes smashed into the Twin Towers in Manhattan. The Somali Islamist movement, Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, was one of the first groups to be put on the US terror list. The next target was one of the country’s biggest money transfer and telecommunications companies, al-Barakat, which provided an essential service for hundreds of thousands of Somalis who depended on remittances for their survival.
I am reminded of the closure of al-Barakat every time I visit the Pakistani restaurant, Tayyab’s, in Whitechapel. A few doors down is a shop that has been closed for ten years, its metal shutters firmly rolled down. The fading, flaking sign says al-Barakat. This modest shop used to serve as a hub for East London’s substantial Somali community, allowing them to send money to relatives in their war-torn homeland.
The history of Somalia was rewritten after 9/11. Many people now believe that the killing in 1993 of eighteen US servicemen in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, was an al-Qaeda plot.
But when I visited Mogadishu a few months after the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident, there was no talk of al-Qaeda. The few American troops that remained in the city were confined to a heavily fortified compound. The only ones I saw were sorting through a mountain of gold jewellery brought into the compound by Somali women desperate for cash. At that time, everybody, including the Americans, agreed that the servicemen had been killed by a clan militia in retaliation for the killing of their fellow clansmen by the US-led international peacekeeping force.
America’s post-9/11 policy towards Somalia has backfired spectacularly. By viewing the country through the prism of al-Qaeda, the United States and its allies have in many ways created the very nightmare they were trying to avoid. This approach may well have contributed to the growth of violent Islamism in the country: a self-fulfilling prophecy, those treated as terrorists are now pulled into the militant fold.
The consequences were brought into sharp focus in 2006 when a loose alliance of sharia courts took control of large parts of southern and central Somalia. They brought a degree of peace and order to a country that had been shattered since 1991; they even managed to reduce piracy off the Somali coast.
The United States mistakenly equated this home-grown form of political Islam with al-Qaeda-linked extremism; in December 2006, it backed an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, driving the courts from power.
By portraying Somalia as a haven for al-Qaeda, the United States inadvertently advertised the country as an attractive new destination for global jihadis. Hundreds of foreign fighters arrived from other parts of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. They were joined by dozens of diaspora Somalis from Europe and the United States. The man often described as America’s ‘first suicide bomber’ was a young Somali-American from Minneapolis, Shirwa Ahmed. In 2008, he went back to Somalia to blow himself up, killing about thirty other people in the process.
Somalis no longer confine their violent Islamist activities to their homeland. In July 2010, two al-Shabaab suicide bombers killed more than seventy people in Uganda as they watched the football World Cup final. Three of the four men convicted of the botched bombing of the London Underground on 21 July 2005 were Somalis. The British former minister for Africa, Lord Malloch Brown, said in 2009 that Somalia posed a greater threat to the UK than Afghanistan. The United States authorities are so concerned about Somali extremism in Minnesota that the FBI has set up a Joint Terrorism Task Force in Minneapolis.
On my trip, I found Mogadishu mostly in the control of al-Shabaab. The authority of the ‘government’ was restricted to a few districts. There was fighting every day. A woman I met on the plane offered to take me to al-Shabaab areas. ‘I will bring you a thick black robe, a black veil, black gloves and black socks. That is what we have to wear in those areas. Nobody will know you are a Westerner because you will be completely covered. Even your eyes, fingers and toes will be hidden.’
I declined her offer. But it made me wonder about the United States. Of course it is not entirely responsible for what has gone wrong in Somalia. But its decision to drive out the sharia courts, for many, the one glimmer of hope the country has had in the past twenty years, resulted in the rise of al-Shabaab, a movement that represents a threat, not only to Somalia but to the United States itself.
As one Somali told me, ‘9/11 changed everything for Somalia. Now all Somalis are classed as enemies of the Western world. Somalia is much worse, much more dangerous and much more extremist than it was before 9/11’.
But I got a very different impression as I sat in Jomo Kenyatta International Airport waiting for my flight from Nairobi to Mogadishu to take off. Most of my fellow travellers were large Somali family groups returning from their holidays. Women and children sat together in a noisy, bustling mass, the men slightly apart. A few thick-necked, sunburned white men in tight T-shirts spoke in heavy South African accents; there is plenty of business for private security firms in Somalia.
I switched on my recording machine, thinking I would say something tense and exciting about flying into ‘the most dangerous city on earth’. I gave up. I did not feel any tension, and children kept running up to me, giggling into the microphone.
Photograph by John Martinez Pavliga