Why Somalia Matters

A new book is a powerful antidote to the view of Somalia as the locus of cartoonish violence and exotic pirates.


The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia, by James Fergusson, Da Capo Press, 432pp, $27.50.

At one point in The World's Most Dangerous Place, his exhaustively reported chronicle of the Somali nation, Scottish journalist James Fergusson interviews a Somali restaurant owner in Minneapolis about the upcoming Tom Hanks "pirate" film, Captain Phillips. "I can tell you what this movie is going to be already," Abdi Ahmed tells Fergusson. "They will have a bunch of American people kidnapped, and Tom Hanks will save them, and a bunch of skinny black guys will get killed."

In other words, why bother to pay attention to any of it? Indeed, that's how many people—even I, who spent many years reporting from Somalia—have regarded the place of late. With alarming consistency, the country has cycled through peace conferences, changes of leadership, famines, and fighting. The names change; a new set of colorful characters takes the stage and assume the title of "president" while commanding armies that are indistinguishable from the clan militias that roam the countryside looting, raping, and killing. The babies I saw crying at United Nations feeding centers in 1993 are now carrying AK-47s, killing on behalf of clan militias or the bloodthirsty Al Qaeda–linked al-Shabaab. They are perpetuating the new climate of fear, creating the new famines that will disenfranchise a new generation of Somalis to accelerate the cycle of violence.

Fergusson first arrived in Somalia in 2008 after covering Afghanistan and areas more central to the West's focus on militant Islam. But with the rise of al-Shabaab his curiosity was piqued: "An African Taliban, at war in a country more corrupt than Afghanistan! That was a place I was very curious to see." Fergusson's curiosity never wanes, and it propels this book, carrying the reader through the tangled maze of international acronyms and complicated clan lineages that play such a large role in the country's structure. Understanding a particular gun battle, for example, requires you to see the distinction between the Hawiye, Habr Gedir, Suleiman subclan and the Hawiye, Habr Gedir, Sacad sublcan (and to understand this hundreds of times over for other clans and subclans). With that knowledge comes the understanding that relationships between and among factions in Somalia cannot be taken at face value. Payments from costal pirates to al-Shabaab, for example, are a simple business arrangement, but U.S. officials have a history of mistaking it for a military alliance.

The subtleties of clan rivalry—as complex as any family relationships—were lost on many when the world intervened during the famine of the early 1990s. These details, the root causes of gun battles and alliances that tore the country apart, were usually cut from news reporting by editors who thought it too arcane to keep readers engaged. Fergusson doesn't shy away from those data, but he also avoids getting all wonky about his newly gained knowledge as well. First and foremost, he is an engaging storyteller with a fine eye for a telling detail. We see through his narrative how these clan divisions might explain the political fracturing of the nation over the past two decades as well as the breakdown of clan authority that has led to the rise of sharia courts and then the dangerous al-Shabaab.

Unfortunately, and through no fault of his own, Fergusson's access in Somalia, particularly in Mogadishu, was extremely limited. He was not free to stroll the alleyways of Mogadishu's Bakara Market chatting with money changers and arms dealers. He did not roam the countryside to Baidoa and areas where al-Shabaab found most of its support. Had he done that, it's likely he wouldn't have survived to tell the story. Much of his reporting from that city came from behind the barbed-wire fences of what is called the Bancroft Hotel, named after the American contractors who built it, and with the protection of Ugandan soldiers who are part of AMISOM (African Mission in Somalia). He does find refugees from Baidoa, and devotes a chapter to the travails of a young man Aden Ibrahim, who had found refuge behind the sandbags of the military compound. "He was a walking epitome of the Somali catastrophe," Fergusson writes. Indeed, Aden's story is the most compelling chapter in the book.

I also wish that Fergusson had focused some on the ongoing U.S. intervention in Somalia. There have been numerous reports of a "secret CIA prison" in the country, for example, and the level of U.S. involvement with Ethiopia's battle against al-Shabaab is not entirely clear. What is certain is that much of al-Shabaab's credibility as a nationalist organization came from its opposition to these foreign invaders. It may be too early to tell that story, or perhaps it's not one that interested Fergusson, but when it is told there will be valuable lessons the next time westerners want to intervene against the fundamentalist threat.

Some of the other insightful material in the book comes from his interviews with the youth of the Somali diaspora London and Minneapolis. Both cities have become recruiting grounds for militants, and Fergusson's interviews bring us close to the kids who might indeed become the next generation of terrorists and the Somali community leaders who are trying hard to make sure that doesn't happen. In London, for example, imams host a phone-in radio show to give kids advice on how to live like a good Muslim in the West.

What Fergusson makes clear in all this reporting is that Somalia matters. It matters for humanitarian reasons; his descriptions of famine and suffering are moving, as these things tend to be. And it matters because ultimately what happens in the empty wastes of Somalia will find their way to our shores one way or the other. At a time when most American news organizations have closed or cut back their bureaus in Africa, and when covering Somalia more often than not means flying in for a day or two to interview foreign officials, Fergusson has produced an extraordinary chronicle that reminds us why we once regarded this as an important place.

The book is a powerful antidote to the current American view of Somalia as the locus of cartoonish violence and exotic pirates, fodder for late-night jokes and action-movie heroes. The introduction to The Worlds's Most Dangerous Place, written just before the book went to press, strikes an optimistic note. Al-Shabaab is on the run, and perhaps the title of his book may be overstated at this time. And when you meet the Somali characters Fergusson portrays, you may feel his very very cautious optimism. Yet it's very hard to not feel like we know the end of the next chapter in this story, a bunch of skinny black guys getting killed.