Network of spies threatens Somalia

Carnage at the Hotel Muna has triggered a collective dread in the besieged capital that violence has crossed a dangerous threshold.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010; 8:35 PM

IN MOGADISHU, SOMALIA During the day, Mohamed Mahmoud counts the African Union peacekeepers in his neighborhood and notes their locations. At night, he gives the information to his handlers in the radical al-Shabab militia, undermining the U.S.-backed government that the peacekeepers support.

"We are everywhere," he said.

In the deadly contest for the capital, spies like Mahmoud work in the shadows of this failed state's civil war. The militants they assist have weakened the government and limited its ability to protect the population, tactics used by insurgents in Baghdad, Karachi and Kabul.

"We're fighting one war in the open, and another war below the surface," said Abdiraheem Addo, a military commander and close associate of Somalia's President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.

Conversations with spies and former spies in Mogadishu provide a rare look into how al-Shabab, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, operates in government-controlled areas. Its increasing role here helps explain how the government and 6,000 peacekeepers, supported by hundreds of millions of dollars from Washington and its allies, have been unable to quell a ragtag guerrilla force with little public support.

Mahmoud, 41, was approached through an intermediary and agreed to speak if his full name was not used. Somalis often use three or four surnames. Somali officials and defected Shabab commanders corroborated details that Mahmoud provided.

As he spoke, during an interview inside a building less than a quarter mile from Somalia's presidential palace, the sounds of artillery and gunfire reverberated. Somali soldiers and security officials patrolled the area outside. But Mahmoud did not seem concerned.

"I enter every place freely," he said, smiling.

Lured by common beliefs

Mahmoud lives in Hamarwane, a neighborhood near the port that is walking distance from key government ministries. A father of 10, he said al-Shabab pays him $100 a month and helps with his rent and food.

"I don't do this for money," said Mahmoud, who has a beard but no moustache and was wearing a traditional tan garment and brown sandals. "I believe in everything al-Shabab stands for."

Mahmoud first joined an armed wing of a moderate Islamist movement that rose up against Somalia's corrupt warlords in 2005. The following year, Ethiopia - backed by covert funds from the Bush administration - invaded the country. By 2007, Mahmoud was fighting on the front lines for al-Shabab, which had emerged as a radical force of its own.

After the Ethiopians pulled out of Somalia last year, al-Shabab consolidated its grip over large patches of southern and central Somalia. They have imposed Taliban-like decrees, banning soccer, music, even bras. This year, the militants publicly declared allegiance to al-Qaeda and intensified their push into the capital, where the government controls only a few miles.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company