A former al-Shabab fighter tells his story
DW: Hassan Ali, what is your life like at the moment?
Hassan Ali: I am, of course, a target for al-Shabab. One day they’ll kill me. They keep calling me and telling me that they’ll kill me. They have already killed several friends.
What made you join the group?
I was working at the market. At the time, I still thought al-Shabab was a good organization. I didn’t know they were completely different from what they purported to be. Once I got to know the organization from the inside, I realized that what they are doing is wrong. I’m an educated person and I can tell right from wrong.
What did you think was good about them at the time?
I thought that what al-Shabab was saying about true religion was right. Moreover, there were Ethiopian occupation troops in Somalia. I subscribed to the positions al-Shabab held.
Is money also a reason to join the group?
Most of the rank-and-file fighters do it for the money. There is no work in the country. That’s why al-Shabab provides one of the few opportunities for people seeking employment. There are only very few people who truly share their ideology.
How does one go about joining an underground organization?
Naturally, there is no office where you can apply. And normally they don’t accept anyone who simply approaches them. Usually, they approach you, often through people you know. I have a few relatives who had joined al-Shabab. They talked me into joining.
What made you eventually realize that they aren’t what they’re purporting to be?
They say they are fighting for the spread of religious traditions. But they’re doing the exact opposite. They are killing people indiscriminately. It’s only about furthering their own interests.
What kind of work did you do for al-Shabab?
At the beginning I was in the so-called battalion department. That means you go off to war as a fighter. Then I joined the health department. Eventually, I ended up in the finance department. After all, few in al-Shabab really know how to read and write. If you do know how, they’ll soon give you a good administrative job.
Did you carry out any attacks?
No, I was a real soldier. Those carrying out attacks are secret groups. I had nothing to do with them. We mostly fought against Ethiopian troops that were stationed in the country.
What you’re describing makes it sound like al-Shabab is some kind of a state.
Yes, the structure is really that of a government. Al-Shabab has ministries of information, health, domestic affairs and so on. It’s just that they call them offices, not ministries.
What is al-Shabab’s goal?
They want to turn Somalia into an Islamist state. But they also have pan-African and international ambitions.
A former information minister would always say that “as long as we can’t hoist the Islamic flag in Alaska, we have to go on fighting.”
There are many Islamist terrorist groups in Africa: al-Shabab, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, among others. How interconnected are they?
There are very close links. First, there are the shared beliefs. But that is by far not all. To give a concrete example, many important Boko Haram figures from Nigeria were trained in Somali training camps. Al-Shabab fighters regularly travel to Yemen for training and vice versa. There are many such links.
Nigerians came to Somalia?
I remember that there were three Nigerians receiving training in a camp north of Mogadishu. I was also aware that al-Shabab’s head of finances once travelled to Boko Haram controlled area in Nigeria.
These groups have all been banned. How can its members simply travel around?
They have found ways to do it. A major one is disguising themselves as migrants on the way to Europe. They blend into larger groups of migrants. That’s how they manage to cross the borders all the way to Libya. From Libya they don’t set off for Europe; they disappear into the Sahara to the south.
Where does al-Shabab get its money?
It often comes from rich Arab business people who sympathize with their ideology. But there are no direct transfers of money. Instead, goods are shipped to Somalia and sold in the country. The money from these sales goes to al-Shabab. It’s a complex system, for which the group has established a separate office.
Is it true that the organization subjects new members to brainwashing?
Yes, I had to go through that as well. It’s not only about hatred towards people of a different religion. They also incite hatred toward all Somalis who don’t support al-Shabab. They say it’s legitimate to kill anyone who’s against the group. There is a separate office that deals with propaganda issues of this kind. They actually have professional teams, who know exactly what messages they must bring across. They show you films from Iraq, Afghanistan and so on and have jihadis who later sacrificed themselves pass on their message. Young people with no other values can easily be impressed by this sort of thing.
Experts say al-Shabab is not as strong as it used to be. Is that true?
They still pose a threat, but they’re not as powerful as they once were. Many high-ranking members are now nothing more than ordinary criminals. They don’t believe in the ideology. The group can still carry out suicide attacks, but it can no longer take over entire regions.
Do you regret what you did as a member of al-Shabab?
I regret having collected money and having managed it. I soon realized that the money was being used to plan and carry out attacks. Psychologically, too, I still have many problems that go back to that time. When you’re armed with a Kalashnikov and sent into a futile battle against tanks, it’s traumatizing. I have fewer problems physically. Only that I was once hit in the back by a bullet.
Can al-Shabab be defeated?
First and foremost one has to try to prevent them from also influencing young people with their ideology of hatred. One day those young people will be caught up in all the hatred, with hardly a way out. Respected religious leaders have to clearly position themselves against the ideology, or there will be no end to this.
Hassan Ali is a former member of the al-Shabab militant group in Somalia.
Interviewer: Jan-Philipp Scholz and Adrian Kriesch.
The militant group al-Shabab originated in Somalia, but the Islamists are now terrorizing much of East Africa. Kenya has been hit particularly hard for its participation in the African Union military mission in Somalia.