The World’s Most Dangerous Place, Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia by James Fergusson, DaCapo Press, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-0306821172, 432 pp., Hardcover $19.47, Kindle $12.99.
James Fergusson’s book on Somalia could hardly have come at a time when the world was paying more attention to this failed, poverty stricken state located on the Horn of Africa. From Tom Hanks in theaters playing Captain Phillips as the Maersk Alabama taken by Somali pirates in April 2009 to the recent massacre at Nairobi’s Westgate mall by Somalia’s terrorist group, the Shabaab, Somalia has been thrust onto the world’s consciousness. Then we learned of the failed raid on the Shabaab by American Special Forces. It ended in a propaganda coup for the terrorists when they posted shots of abandoned American equipment and bragged they had defeated the same Navy SEALs that got Osama bin Laden. The United States responded that it had to abort the mission because there were too many civilians, including women and children, to continue. This incident and the Kenya attack show that, while the militants have lost ground and troops, they continue to pose a formidable threat not only to Somalia but also to neighboring Kenya and Uganda.
Fergusson’s book is a must read for those who want to understand Somalia today. An accomplished journalist, the author spent years on the ground and, despite the difficulty of moving around this dangerous country, he managed to interview many Somalis with differing views both in Somalia and in the diaspora. Fergusson’s time with the African Union’s forces helps explain how these troops finally drove the Shabaab out of most of Somalia. The reader ends up with a greater comprehension of why Somalia lives up to Fergusson’s description of it as the world’s most dangerous place. It is a chilling look at a failed state crippled by famine, clan politics, pirates, feral youth, violence, and corruption.
The country ranks dead last in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index, beating out even Afghanistan. In July 2012, the UN Monitoring Group reported that seven of every ten dollars of international aid received from 2009 to ’10 never made it into the government’s coffers.
Highlights from the book include Fergusson’s assertion that the Black Hawk Down incident of October 3, 1993 not only caused President Clinton to withdraw from Somalia, but the murder of 18 US servicemen, some dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, continues to color American and Western perceptions of the country and shape policies in the Horn of Africa. While the US has no desire to Americanize the conflict in Somalia, in fact the American taxpayer subsidized the African Union’s operations.
While visiting an African Union-run hospital, Fergusson comes across an elderly man, hit by a stay bullet. The injured man describes a country of rudderless young men, “exploited by foreigners and misled by extremists… slowly destroying Somalia.” Appropriately, “young men” is a literal translation of the imported Arabic word, Shabaab. With the collapse of a central government in 1991 and the breakdown of the clan system, but not its politics, Somali society disintegrated into a constellation of gangs. A French criminologist working in Puntland for the UN observed, “Everything here is about gangs…Pirates operate in gangs…Al-Shabaab is a super-gang, a collection of small clans ganging up on the big clans. And they are all just kids.”
No discussion of Somalia can fail to include the pirates. Fergusson devotes a good part of the book to this topic. The state of Puntland, notorious for piracy, incorporates the whole tip of the Horn of Africa, which 21,000 ships pass each year on their way to the Suez Canal. They carry, among other things, a tenth of the world’s petroleum.
The pirates began as aggrieved fishermen. At the height of the fishing boom, the industry employed as many as 60,000 people. Even before the collapse of the central government, the industry was in decline, but without a government, unlicensed foreign fishing fleets devastated local stocks of lobster and fish. The first pirates called themselves “coastguards”.
EUNAVFOR, the naval force in charge of the EU’s counter-piracy mission in the Indian Ocean, polices an area the size of Western Europe with 25 warships. It has gradually reduced the pirates’ success rates. Also, the merchant ships are much better equipped to defend themselves. It’s not just ransoms that cost money; increased insurance premiums, additional security precautions and fuel needed to re-route cargo ships cost the world $6.9 billion in 2011 alone.
The Western reader will probably find Fergusson’s chapters on the Somali diaspora disturbing. He starts in London, where no one knows how many Somalis call Britain home. While the Office of National Statistics estimated 108,000 Somali-born immigrants in 2010, others think the number is closer to 250,000-300,000. A British diplomat told Fergusson that he viewed the Somali diaspora as a “diffuse, global entity…that is not physically containable.”
Fergusson, on the look for potential diaspora recruits, found that the majority of Somali youth were in or had been through the criminal justice system, with two-thirds of them in gangs or involved with drugs or other crimes. Unemployment among Somali men was a staggering 40%, the highest of any immigrant community. As in Somalia, the gangs’ viciousness was breathtaking. Police officers attributed their level of violence to what they had experienced while in Somalia and the alienation Somali communities feel in the UK.
But, the news is not all bad. Despite living under the threat of terrorism and the fear of a spectacular attack, only 56 people have actually been killed by Muslim extremists on British soil since 9/11. They all died in the July 7 bombings of 2005. Fergusson contrasts this number to London’s one-year total of 92 gang-related murders. Still, the Royal United Services Institute estimated that a quarter of the Shabaab’s 200 hard-core foreign fighters were British.
Fergusson moves on to the Twin Cities. In proportion to its size, the area had exported far more Somali jihadi than anywhere else in the Western World. Between 75,000 and 100,000 Somalis live in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the largest concentration in the US. The first wave of Minnesotans left for Somalia in December 2007, including Shirwa Ahmed who at 26 became the first American suicide bomber. An FBI agent who studied Somalis in the Twin Cities said he knew of 10 still fighting with the Shabaab. The FBI had concluded that no local “mastermind” had recruited these young men, rather they had just talked each other into going to Somalia.
The most famous of the American recruits was Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki. Born Omar Shafik Hammami, son of a Syrian father and American mother in Mississippi, he rose through the ranks to become one of the best-known commanders. His rap lyrics, directed to all American Muslims, became a popular recruiting tool. After this book came out, Al-Amriki was believed to have been assassinated by his former extremist allies in an internecine split, according to September news reports and Islamist Web sites.
Fergusson’s book is worthwhile not just for what we learn about Somalia, once a promising country that has descended into chaos and unspeakable violence, but in a larger context, it could possibly serve as a warning about the dangers of failed states. The region is not lacking for additional candidates.