As a major conference on Somalia opens in London, reporter Jamal Osman went to Somalia to speak to the Islamist group that will not be attending the summit, despite controlling most of the country.
Senior representatives from over 40 governments and several international bodies, including the UN, have agreed measures aimed at strengthening civilian government in Somalia while cracking down on corruption. With an eye to criticisms that the international community is taking it upon itself to decide Somalia‘s future, the communique from the London conference stressed the importance of self-determination for Somalis.
Speaking at a press conference David Cameron pledged a crackdown on piracy in the region, with a particular emphasis on also prosecuting the “kingpins” who finance pirates.
With Britain taking a lead role, the gathering was always aimed at delivering a new international approach to Somalia, particularly how the international community “can step up its efforts” to tackle both the root causes and effects of the problems in the country.
However, the Islamist al-Shabaab, who control most of the country, are not invited. I travelled to Somalia to talk to them to find out what they think about the British government’s mission.
If you do not let us live in peace, you will not enjoy peace either. Sheikh Ali Dhere, al-Shabaab
To al-Shabaab, the whole London conference is deeply offensive. It says for decades Britain has been causing problems in Somalia, which go back to the colonial era. The Brits colonised parts of the country, helping its arch-rivals, Ethiopia and Kenya, to occupy regions which Somalis consider part of the greater Somalia.
The militants’ spokesman, Sheikh Ali Dhere, told me that they would never participate in the conference. And he warned Europe and America to stay out. “Your peace depends upon us being left alone,” said Mr Dhere. “If you do not let us live in peace, you will not enjoy peace either.”
It was always going to be difficult for the west to accept the militants as part of the country’s future. Now it seems impossible. On arrival in the al-Shabaab controlled areas of Somalia, I was invited to film an event in which thousands of people were celebrating al-Shabaab’s new alliance with al-Qaeda. The group announced that it was merging with the international terror group.
“We welcome the pledge between our mujahidin and the international mujaheddin, al-Qaeda,” said Sheikh Abdulqadir Mumin. “Our unity means we can fight our enemies – the infidels – wherever they are.”
Mr Mumin was based in the UK until recently and was accused of recruiting British youths for al-Shabaab. It is believed that he influenced some of the dozens or so of young men from Britain who are now fighting alongside the Islamists.
And the merger with al-Qaeda means Somalia could now be the main threat to the west. I asked the spokesman if the west was right to be afraid that al-Qaeda will now use Somalia as a base.
He said: “Those who commit injustice have a lot to be afraid of. The non-Muslim west has done many injustices to the Muslim people. Their worries and concerns reflect the guilt of their actions. All that we are asking is peace and security within our countries.”
Despite being unpopular in the west, for most people in the al-Shabaab territories, they are respected for bringing security after 20 years of civil war, minimising clan influence and fighting corruption.
However, al-Shabaab is under attack from all sides; from Kenyan, Ethiopian and African Union troops. Drone and missile attacks by the west are also killing Islamist leaders.
I went to town to see what Somalis, living under al-Shabaab rule, thought about its merger with al-Qaeda. “It’s good – very good,” a young man told me. “The infidels unite against us, so the Muslims should unite. I support it.”
A local trader said: “It’s a huge victory for Muslims and a huge victory for Somalis – if Somalis don’t support it, they’ll regret it.”
Jamal Osman was the winner of the Independent award for the best original journalism by an independent producer or freelancer at the 2012 Royal Television Society Awards.