Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab phone Mary Harper day and night. They follow her. They email her. She tells Louise Carpenter what it’s like to be on the speed-dial of one of the world’s most feared terrorist organisations
When Mary Harper’s mobile phone regularly lights up with four or five particular numbers, her heart sinks. She feels physically sick, because she can predict what is coming.
Often she is busy when her phone rings: driving, for example, enjoying normal life with her family or shopping in Covent Garden. Sometimes, she is just not ready to speak to the person on the end of the line. And then, after emails have also landed in her inbox, the persistent ringing will begin: 17 attempts in a single hour, 14 on another day, 10 or 15 tries at other times. It is the Islamic extremist terrorist group al-Shabaab, which emerged in Somalia in the mid-Noughties, and it wants to contact her to claim responsibility for the latest bloodshed in the country – a bomb attack on a government-associated building, say, often barricaded hotels in which civilians also work, attacks that leave body parts and twisted metal strewn across the pavements of Mogadishu.
One time when she picked up, the caller told her, “Our fighters are having such great fun in the hotel, Mary. They are killing really well. They have been there for hours, and they will not stop until they die; they are very much looking forward to it as they will become blessed martyrs.”
Mary Harper is the BBC World Service’s Africa editor. In such attacks, the 53-year-old journalist can often lose Somali friends and contacts. One, on a “danger” list, returned to the hotel room where he was living to find it gone, blown up in an al-Shabaab assault, the desk where he worked reduced to a pile of ashes and burnt wood. Another, a Somali journalist, sent her a photo of his car with its windows shattered from the force of an explosion. On its roof lay a severed arm and part of an upper torso.
That same journalist, in yet another attack on a beachside hotel in which militants went from room to room shooting as many occupants as possible, once pretended to be dead on the floor as the fighters went around kicking corpses to see if any moved. Mary Harper’s phone, as usual, lit up with an al-Shabaab number about the attack and the involvement of her friend: “We know this journalist and we respect him. But we have warned him to stay away from places frequented by apostates … We have no regrets about what happened to him. We do not feel guilty. It is his fault for ignoring our advice.” It was one of the very rare times she lost her temper with a terrorist contact, shouting at this shadowy, unknown man down the line. “Cool down, Mary,” he told her.
The same men who relay such news of mass murder often appear to show human concern for her. On November 9 last year, for example, an al-Shabaab contact rang to tell her that fighters had driven into another hotel, the Sahafi, with two or three car bombs, then stormed in on foot. “Oh, and by the way, we were lucky enough to kill the new owner of the Sahafi. I think you know him?” She was driving with her phone on hands-free. “Pull over, Mary,” he continued, thinking she was holding her phone. “The traffic cops.” At the end of the call, the man said. “Please take care, Mary, especially when driving. Bye bye. Have a lovely weekend.”
“It is one of the most sinister things about it,” Harper says when we meet ahead of the publication of her book Everything You Have Told Me Is True: the Many Faces of Al Shabaab. “That somebody who is ringing to tell me the latest catalogue of horrors that they’ve inflicted on people can also be, at the same time, someone who shows a personal concern for me. I find it chilling.”
The weird, passive-aggressive displays of “personal concern” are not just that, however. Over the past two years, al-Shabaab has let Harper know that it has been monitoring her movements in Somalia – all the more distressing because she is supposedly in safe areas. As far as she knows, she is not being tracked in London. But as she herself says, al-Shabaab is everywhere and nowhere. Nobody knows who they are. Journalists, shopkeepers, cleaners, maids – anyone could be an informant. The result is that apart from a collection of trusted friends built up over the years – the most important being her Somali driver and bodyguards – she can trust very few people.
This tracking of her movements when abroad is a new development. Recently, when she returned to England after visiting Somalia, her phone lit up again. The trips to Mogadishu are never more than a week long, for security reasons; but other areas can be longer. One particular trip – unannounced, as low-key as possible – was to a “secure” zone of the innermost part of Baidoa, a city in southern Somalia protected by local forces including a militia known as Darwish, its outskirts guarded by Ethiopian troops for the African Union intervention force, AMISOM. There is no way that al-Shabaab could have known her plans. She thinks maybe that there were terrorist spies in the airport, or working in plain sight in the sites that she visited. “You went into a shop on the ground floor of a multistorey building,” an al-Shabaab contact told her. “When you came out, you were holding a tube of Pringles potato crisps. Then you walked to the bank next door, but it was shut. You knocked on the doors and tried to open them. You took some photos. Your bodyguards are not at all professional. They were wandering about, chatting amongst themselves with their guns slung around their shoulders, instead of keeping watch over you.”
“Everything you have told me is true,” Harper told the voice. “But how do you know all this?”
Her initial response is the book’s title, and opens up an exploration of the nature of truth and the need to question personal testimony – particularly that of al-Shabaab contacts. Whom can we trust? Who is telling the truth? Who is the victim? Who is the perpetrator? Who is the good guy, who the bad? This is Mary Harper’s world, all day, every day when she is in Somalia. The Somali political problem is not black and white. Harper calls al-Shabaab “highly nimble, adaptable and resilient, in some cases providing services such as functioning courts and jobs to the Somali population, 70 per cent of whom are under 30. Many young men join for money.”
Over the years, al-Shabaab has evolved from a tiny insurgent group to a draconian Islamic movement that, for a time, controlled much of Somalia, including (from 2010-2011) large parts of Mogadishu, as well as many other major towns and cities, especially in the southern and central regions. Who are al-Shabaab? Its precise make-up, structure and leadership are all unclear.
“We have been monitoring you wherever you go,” Harper was told. “We have people in the government, the security forces, NGOs, businesses and the media who tell us everything. They are our friends and they have been keeping their eyes on you.”
When Harper returns to London after a trip, “I almost invariably receive a call from a member of the group as I’m collecting my luggage or am in the cab back home. I am asked about my trip, what the weather is like in the UK, and given a blow-by-blow account of what I got up to, with a dose of Islamist propaganda thrown in along the way. The group usually beats my family and close friends when it comes to phoning to check if I have arrived home safely.”
Today, Mary Harper is possibly the calmest, most gently spoken person I have ever met. “Yes, I do get told that I am calm in a crisis. Being in these dangerous situations, it is very good to be calm, because you are not goingto aggravate people into behaving in a certain way towards you.”
We are not in Harper’s home, for security reasons, but a London flat belonging to her mother. In November, she began receiving death threats, although not from al-Shabaab. While al-Shabaab still maims and kills and abducts (though it has denied kidnapping people to make them soldiers), Harper operates in a world in which politics are nuanced. The government, army and AMISOM forces are not blameless. Politicians and businessmen with their own agendas are forces to be reckoned with. Her worst experience didn’t involve al-Shabaab, but came during a period of intense intimidation from a Somali politician who claimed Harper’s journalism had ruined his career. They have now, she says, “made up”. “But he’s the person I’ve been more frightened of than anyone else.
“That shows how dangerous Somalia is,” she says. “Because people always think, ‘Oh, al-Shabaab is the only group that is going to threaten your life.’ But there are politicians, kidnappers, criminals – anyone who takes exception to you … There are just so many people who can be architects of violence there.”
he second time she was genuinely terrified was more recent and involved some intense trolling on Twitter. This latest threat to her life in November – at what she calls, with characteristic lack of hysteria, “not a good time” – did come by phone but was not from al-Shabaab: “People ring to let you know,” she explains.
It meant that she had to be moved out of her London home and relocated. Her children were mercifully not directly involved, since her 22-year-old daughter is at university and her 28-year-old son lives elsewhere. Her marriage ended years ago. Beyond confirming that it was not to a Somali, she will say no more.
Her silences about the deeper emotional elements of her life are as revealing as words. They make Harper as mysterious as the unknown voices and presences she has to deal with. Twenty-five years of living in and out of Somalia must take its toll – a need for caution, control, in all aspects of life, and for steely calm.
During the threat to her own life, she explains, “My family helped me, and my Somali friends, because they know what to do in these occasions.” I might be wrong, but I’d lay a bet that Harper internalises her fear.
After a terrorist attack in the country, body parts are swept up and collected by foreign security operatives in khaki and dark glasses, and blood is hosed away from the pavements by Somali women in bright clothes and white face masks. Then, the repair men arrive “and do their best to make it look like nothing ever happened”. It is how Somalia functions. Its people move on, almost as an act of defiance.
It is very feasible that, on the publication of the book next week, Harper could become a target for al-Shabaab. She explores the many facets of the organisation, giving a voice to her articulate, highly educated al-Shabaab contacts but also to the countless anonymised victims who have lived to tell the tale of being coerced, intimidated, abducted or bereaved by the terrorists. There are stories of children being taken, of women being forced to flee to tented refugee camps out of fear, guilty of serving tea in a café frequented by the army “enemy”.
But 25 years of adhering to the BBC’s notion of balance mean that Harper’s tone is never inflammatory, never overtly condemnatory. And yet, while she wanted to shine a light on al-Shabaab in a way that her BBC work makes difficult (she will not subscribe to their propaganda machine by giving them undue airtime), she admits that, if we come away from the book thinking she is an apologist for the organisation, it would be “a travesty”.
“I am sure al-Shabaab will take exception to parts of it, the way I have allowed other people to have voices in the book that [either] totally contradict what they say or talk about their extreme acts of violence.
“If there is something in the book that they really, really didn’t like, then they would target me. They have told me that [at the moment] I am not one of their targets; [if I were] that would affect the way I do my work and go to Somalia. I have decided to take that risk.
“I don’t think about keeping them onside, because that is not my job, to think like that. I feel that I’m there to receive the information that they give to me, but not to try to do things to ensure they are going to keep calling me.”
But the recent spying? How is that part of the journalist/contact professional bargain?
“It is intimidation. Even though they say to me, ‘No, no, Mary, you are not somebody who is worth our while targeting,’ the fact that they let me know everywhere I have been …
“It is an uncanny feeling that they are monitoring me. They did tell me that they monitor my radio reports and my work, and they talk to me about my work.”
One al-Shabaab contact told her, “One reason my accent is so good and my vocabulary so wide is that for years I have paid close attention to the BBC. That is why I feel I almost know you, Mary. I have been listening to your BBC reports for years.”
“I suppose if [the book] has consequences for me, they will let me know. That is the Somali way. They’re very communicative and they’re openly critical. They won’t keep [the threat] quiet. They’ll let me know. I’ll deal with that when it comes. But I feel comfortable with what I’ve written and I think I’ve been honest and, I hope, fair.”
If the threat comes, it will be by phone. She will be in a new category of personal risk. In other words, there will be a plan to kill her.
“It’s very difficult to know if they will be OK with the book. I think they’ll be very cross that I’ve got all these voices that have been so critical of them. So, no, they probably won’t like that, but that’s fine. Also, when I talk to them, I ask lots of questions about how on earth they can justify killing civilians and they have an answer, this twisted logic about how they think it’s fine. They get angry on the phone, irritated with me, but they do still talk to me.”
Mary Harper’s early life was built on stability. She had an idyllic childhood, loving, safe and interesting. She is the eldest of four and spent her formative years in Kenya, just outside Nairobi, and then at the progressive boarding school Bedales. Then came Cambridge and a master’s at SOAS University of London. After a spell in aid work, she fell into journalism. She initially had no interest in radio or television but somehow got a job on the BBC World Service’s Focus on Africa. She spent months terrified of the microphone – a beautiful irony given what she has gone on to face.
Her father, now 83, was an economics professor in Africa and then in the UK. Her mother, now 77, was a fine artist and a nurse. A desire to be guided by intellectualism and empathy seems to have shaped every member of the family. Her siblings are in medicine, prison work and mental health. Her father’s economics specialty was empowering local communities, rather than outsiders arriving in trucks with well-funded but futile schemes to “help” African countries. Her mother retrained as a nurse late in life. “She cared for everybody,” says Harper. “She is still caring.”
It was only with the help of this extended family that Harper managed to combine such a demanding job with having a family. She first went to Somalia in 1994, when she was 28 and her son was 3. Since her divorce she has, for the most part, been a single mother. She was more deskbound in the early years of her children’s life, but when she travelled her family stepped in. Often her mother moved into her home during her absences.
“I keep the two lives as separate as I can,” she says. “I slightly compartmentalise what I do. I am sure [what I have seen] has affected me. Of course it has, because when you lose lots of friends, it has an effect on you. But I am comfortable with the choices I have made in terms of what I do. My work in Somalia is often very tough, but unlike many other journalists who like to move on from an area, Africa is totally embedded in me.”
Harper draws a distinction between what she does – more analysis than frontline reporting, although not exclusively so – and the high-octane frontline work of war correspondents. “But it is really, really tough. And I think you kind of have to make a choice. I have my children and they are definitely my priority. And maybe that is why I’ve done a slightly more low-key kind of journalism.”
There are still sacrifices, though. “I do go into another zone [in Somalia]. I mean, I communicate with my children; it’s not like I completely go off the radar. But I have two lives: the life I have here in the UK and the one I have there. And they are quite distinct.”
When in Somalia, she travels in convoy and with armed guards. She has been invited into al-Shabaab-controlled areas by her contacts but has refused. “It’s not safe,” she says.
Risk is everywhere – and beyond Somalia, too. In January 2019, al-Shabaab hit a luxury hotel complex in Nairobi which left more than 20 dead. Harper has often been close to the attacks, witnessing the chaos and carnage before her phone lights up with verification. Five years ago, for example, on New Year’s Day 2014, she was eating lobster and drinking melon juice with Somali friends when a blast thundered through the air. A few doors down, the Jazeera Palace Hotel had been hit, despite its watchtowers and high perimeter walls. From the roof of where she was, she watched flames erupt from the hotel, ambulances and military vehicles racing along the road below and the charred remains of the suicide vehicle that had rammed into the wall. Often in such an attack, a second suicide bomber is waiting to take the lives of emergency services personnel, and then a third wave of foot soldiers with guns besiege the building and gun down its surviving occupants.
Harper, behind lines of armed guards, rushed, to shouts of “Go, go, go!”, to a pick-up truck with a Somali friend from the hotel and another mutual Somali friend, and thence to the beach, “one of the only places in Mogadishu where I can be outside without armed protection”.
In one call from her al-Shabaab contact (the one who knows so much about her life), she is told, “You might think you have a lot of Somali friends, but they are not your real friends. Your true friends would save you from any problem, including that of hellfire, which is definitely where you will end up if you do not convert to Islam. I am very disappointed in your so-called Somali friends because they are not thinking about your life in the hereafter, when you will be sent directly to that fiery place … Have you been thinking about your religion, Mary? Have you been thinking about my suggestion [to join the Muslim faith]?”
What if you had decided not to take his call?
“Then it would mean that that part of the jigsaw of what’s happening wouldn’t be there. I have been reporting for 25 years now and I really believe there is a value in not making those kinds of judgments. I think it is for the audience to hear it or to see it or to read all of that, and then they can make a decision. That’s what I feel strongly and I hope that comes across.”
Of course, al-Shabaab are just one of the many voices – from the Somali authorities and AMISOM personnel to eye witnesses and others – in Harper’s reports.
“So how does it make me feel listening to those cold-blooded accounts [from my contacts]? It astonishes me that something like that can happen to a human being. Somebody who, on one side, can act like a totally normal, rational person, and can switch from talking to me like that to then speaking in a very different tone of voice about the latest horror that they’ve inflicted on the population. It makes me feel confused. It makes me feel very uncomfortable and it also makes me feel incredibly sad that this human being, who was born just like me or you, can turn into something like that.
“But it fascinates me. And I want to understand how that can happen to people, how they can think that violence is fine and justify it and have a logic to it that doesn’t make any sense, but makes sense to them. And I try to understand it – and maybe that’s one reason why I wrote the book. But I don’t feel much closer to understanding it now than I did when I started.”
Everything You Have Told Me Is True: the Many Faces of Al Shabaab by Mary Harper is published by Hurst on April 25, priced £20
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