Somalia’s frightening network of Islamist spies

Somalia’s frightening network of Islamist spies

Somalia’s militant Islamists remain relatively undiminished, despite a 12-year UN-backed campaign against them, largely thanks to its sophisticated web of spies, writes the BBC’s Mary Harper.

Mogadishu bears the scars of nearly three decades of conflict

Often, when I return to the UK from Somalia, I get a phone call from al-Shabab. It usually happens even before I talk to my family, while I am waiting for my luggage or in a taxi on the way home.

Once, after a trip to the south-western Somali town of Baidoa, I was given a detailed account of what I had done and where I had been.

“You walked to a bank but it was shut. You knocked on the doors and tried to open them. You took some photos,” said the man from al-Shabab, an affiliate of al-Qaeda.

“Your bodyguards were not at all professional. They were wandering about, chatting amongst themselves with their guns slung around their shoulders, instead of keeping watch over you.”

When I ask members of al-Shabab how they know all these things, how they can be so accurate, my contacts simply tell me they have friends everywhere.

I tell them I am scared they know my itinerary so intimately, but they tell me not to worry as they have far more important targets than me. However, they do say I could be in “the wrong place at the wrong time” and suffer the consequences.

‘They are everywhere’

I presume some of the people who track my movements in Somalia are part of the militant group’s ruthless intelligence wing, the Amniyat. Others might be people who work on a “pay-as-you-go” basis, receiving small sums for imparting information.

Even more terrifying is the way the militants track people they want to recruit, threaten or kill.

“Al-Shabab are like djinns [spirits]. They are everywhere,” said one young man the militants wanted to punish because he sold fridges and air conditioners to members of the UN-backed Somali government and the African Union intervention force [Amisom], both considered enemies by al-Shabab.

Another man who had defected from al-Shabab explained how, one day, a member of the group called him to tell him the colour of the shirt he was wearing and which street he was walking down on a particular day at a particular time.

Others have spoken about how militants come to their houses and places of work inside Mogadishu to threaten or try to recruit them. All this, despite the fact that the group “withdrew” from the capital in August 2011.

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