Nairobi — During my first trip to Mogadishu, Somalia, on my last night in town, as I was packing up my things, someone unexpectedly knocked on my door.
It was the hotel manager, and at first I thought he had come to settle the bill, but he remained silent in the doorway in a way that caught me off guard. I looked up from my mess of computer cords and chargers and sweaty clothes scattered across the floor.
“Abu Mansoor’s looking for you,” he said.
“Abu Mansoor?” I gulped.
In this town, you didn’t want Mukhtar Robow, known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mansoor, looking for you.
He was a leader of al-Shabaab; people spoke of him in hushed tones that conveyed reverence and fear. It would be much better if Abu Mansoor didn’t know who you were. Or where you were staying.
I followed the manager downstairs, eyes locked on his back. As soon as we walked into the reception room, the manager turned around and disappeared. Abu Mansoor stood waiting for me, flanked by two boy soldiers. He had a prayer bruise on his forehead, something you get only by banging your head against a prayer mat thousands of times. He wore a long shirt and short pants that stopped above the ankle — like capri pants, a Salafist interpretation of a cryptic clause from one of the Hadiths that says, “Whoever trails his garment on the ground out of pride, Allah will not look at him on Judgment Day.” With bright eyes, he motioned toward a table where two bottles of orange Fanta sat, one for him and one for me. The boy soldiers watched me closely.
“Please,” Abu Mansoor said.
I sat down and took a quick, nervous sip, the soda tasting sweeter because of the circumstances. I’ll admit it: I derived a slight thrill from sharing a Fanta with a real militant. “I heard you were asking a lot of questions about the Islamists,” Abu Mansoor said.
Before I could answer, he reached down under the table. The spit in my mouth dried up. I was sure he was going to pull out a gun.
THIS WAS THE FALL of 2006, just months before a failed American-backed effort to crush Islamist “aggression,” when there was a rapidly shrinking sliver of an opportunity to bring peace to Somalia. Somalia. I know what Americans see when they hear that word, because I, too, saw it before I ever actually set foot here: pirates and starving people, shot-up buildings and lifeless sand landscapes, AK-47s and battered jeeps, anarchy and ruin. Somalia seems to represent angry Islam and all that is wrong with the world and a threat to us.
But what I saw on that first trip stunned me, and this is one of the unsung thrills of journalism and maybe life itself, developing a hypothesis of how the world works and having that hypothesis shattered. An alliance of Islamist clerics had just seized Mogadishu. With grass-roots support, they had driven out a cadre of clan warlords who had been covertly supported by the C.I.A. It’s hard to keep a secret in Somalia, a country with an intense oral tradition and a mobile phone network that is amazing given Somalia’s history as a failed state. And so the C.I.A. effort was uncovered quickly and failed. Western diplomats started calling the Islamists the “African Taliban.”
Of course, very few of these diplomats had ever been to Somalia, but I was new and impressionable and eagerly jotted down their comments as if they were facts. So I was surprised when I started exploring Mogadishu to find boys — and girls — in school. One of the first things the Taliban had done when they seized power in Afghanistan was to close girls’ schools, believing that half of humanity deserves to be shuttered in ignorance. But in Mogadishu I saw young couples strolling by the seaside, and men and women working together to lift garbage from the streets. It didn’t seem like window dressing. There were no other foreign journalists in town. This was just normal Somali life, finally resuming.
The peace was secured by young men with struggling beards and green prayer caps. They talked little but carried enormous guns. They succeeded at something no one else had managed to accomplish, including 25,000 American soldiers sent to Somalia in the early 1990s by the first President Bush in a humanitarian operation that ended in ignominy. For the first time in 15 years — and sadly the only time since then — Mogadishu wasn’t an abattoir. The killing had stopped, and the populace seemed indebted to the young men who had stopped it. They simply called them the Youth, but they used the Arabic word, al-Shabaab.
The point of all this isn’t to airbrush the Shabaab and the later horrible things they did. I’ve covered those, too — attacks in Kenya that maimed friends and suicide bombings that smeared children across walls. Even from those earliest days, known Qaeda terrorists were hiding within the Islamist ranks, and I’m not saying it would have been easy sifting out the moderates from the messianic killers. But the American government didn’t even try.
In December that same year, the Pentagon helped the army of Ethiopia, Somalia’s historic enemy, invade. That decision set off a chain reaction that continues to plague us: The Islamists were pushed underground; the Shabaab became an insurgency, then a terrorist group; pirates hit the high seas; famines broke out across the land. The American government keeps getting sucked deeper in, and just this month, a Navy SEAL was killed near Mogadishu, the first known American combat casualty in Somalia in more than 20 years. I can’t help wondering whether his death could have been avoided.
I WAS RELIEVED that evening when Abu Mansoor came up not with a pistol but with a black plastic bag.
“I got this for you in the Bakara market.”
I reached in and pulled out something relatively slender but as heavy as a brick.
“It’s in English,” he said. “Will you read it?”
I didn’t know what to say. It was the most beautiful Quran I had ever seen. He leaned toward me and grabbed my hand.
“We don’t have a problem with Americans,” he said. “Look at you, you’re here, we’ve been protecting you all week — maybe you didn’t even know it. We want peace, we crave it more than you could ever understand, to get out of this darkness, to stop killing each other, to stop being the laughingstock of the world.”
He looked me squarely in the eyes, as had many of the other Islamists I’d met that week.
“Ever since I was 15, I’ve been dreaming of Shariah. And now ….” He was so choked up, he couldn’t even finish his sentence.
What we often see as a nightmare, Shariah, traditional Islamic law, is another man’s dream. Abu Mansoor and his colleagues were true believers in their religion’s dogmas, but at the same time, they were turning to Islam for a very logical reason. Somalia’s civil wars and chaos had been caused by clan rivalries; Islam was a way to unite a violently divided people. If we don’t try to at least understand what is driving people to embrace the things most Westerners oppose — like Shariah — then we are doomed.
Abu Mansoor took one last swig of Fanta, killing it, and stood up. His last words to me were, “See you soon, inshallah.”
Jeffrey Gettleman is the Nairobi bureau chief for The New York Times and the author of the forthcoming memoir “Love, Africa,” from which this essay is adapted.