Somalia: Madobe, the Respectable Jihadist

The Somalian, Ahmed Mohamed Islam, known as ‘Madobe’, has long been one of the terrorists most wanted by the Americans in the Horn of Africa. After several years of ground combat, he announced his repentance in 2000. Elected president of the region, this ambiguous figure has become the key spokesperson in the country’s reconciliation process.

It is 5 May 2015, a beautiful sunny day. John Kerry emerges from a small plane and sets foot in Mogadishu. His stride is confident, his hair immaculately styled. But his gaze falters. A trace of concern lingers there. After all, it is the first time that a US Secretary of State has visited Somalia, considered for a quarter of a century to be one of the world’s most dangerous countries.

No risks are being taken with this historic visit. Kerry will not leave the ultra-secure airport complex. In a soulless white-tiled room, he meets with the Somalian heads of state – the president, ministers, regional leaders, all dressed up to the nines. 

One of them, however, looks incongruous: dark beard, colossal build, with a wary look, his midnight blue suit sitting uncomfortably tight. He is the only one not wearing a tie. Has he forgotten, or is it an act of defiance? 

Never in his wildest dreams would Ahmed Mohamed Islam, known as ‘Madobe’, have imagined he would ever be here. A former jihadist leader, founder of the al-Shabab group, affiliated with the nebulous Islamist organisation al-Qaeda, ten years earlier he was one of the most wanted terrorists in the Horn of Africa. But here is John Kerry, shaking his hand. Times have changed: greeting the mighty Madobe, the ‘liberator’ and head of the southern regions of Somalia and expected to be the country’s future president, is now obligatory for anyone who wants to visit Somalia.

Jubaland’s Strongman

He is already referred to as ‘president’ in ‘his’ region, Jubaland, in the extreme south of the country, bordering Kenya and Ethiopia. Surface area: 110,000 km2 – the equivalent of Cuba. Population: 1.3 million inhabitants – although in reality, nobody really knows. Kismayo, the State capital, a deep-water port, is the third largest city in Somalia. 

It is there, 300 miles from Mogadishu, that Madobe set up his ‘presidential palace’, which is in fact a fortified bunker surrounded by armoured vehicles, overlooking the dunes and the Bajuni islands. August 2017: this Wednesday is the day for grievances and complaints. On the scarlet carpet, the prince’s courtiers are crowded inside. Militia, cousins, clan leaders… They are there to ask for money, an escort, a favour or just a look.

With a smile on his face, a kofia on his head, pens tucked into his shirt pocket, the ‘Black’ (the translation of ‘Madobe’) indulges some, waves other away. He likes entertaining, particularly the prestigious guests: humanitarian workers, UN diplomats and generals of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom). 

Kismayo is Reborn

In 2013, Kismayo was reduced to rubble, torn apart by the civil war. In the ruins of the old city, the ancient port of the legendary Ajuran Sultanate, wandered the sick, the wounded, the hungry. This was before Madobe; before the ‘rebirth’ of Kismayo. Today, the buildings have been reconstructed, a tarmac road runs through the city. The stores are fully stocked again with goats, fish, soup, spaghetti, aspirin, batteries and, of course, khat: the euphoric chewing leaf, a national addiction. 

Kismayo even allows itself some touches of luxury: the ‘international’ airport has been newly painted; the renovated stadium has fresh turf. Above all, security has been restored. On every street corner, the regional police patrol, monitor the slightest comings and goings and effectively support the Amisom soldiers. The city has not experienced a major attack since 2015.

Kismayo has become a military-humanitarian hub, welcoming 80,000 to 100,000 displaced people in 150 camps, as well as several hundred Kenyan Amisom soldiers. Visitors are generous: the police centre was financed by the UN; the schools built by the European Union; the armoured vehicles offered by the Emiratis. The police are paid and armed by the Americans and the British. “We want to support Madobe!” says Veronique Lorenzo, former EU ambassador to Somalia. 

“On a small scale, he showed that solutions could be found, that it was possible to break the cycle of hopelessness and attacks, to rebuild a state. For us, he’s a real source of hope.”

At the end of December 2017, Kismayo was brimming with hope and joy. The entire city took to the streets to celebrate the victory of the Jubaland team in the country’s inter-state football tournament. This was a spontaneous occurrence led by the people: something that never happens in Somalia. That day, the ‘King of Juba’, Madobe, paraded amidst his jubilant ‘subjects’, holding the trophy high above his head. As if he were already celebrating his own coronation.

A Jihadi Childhood

Madobe has come a long way, however. For a long time, he was more familiar with the Kalashnikov than the pen. He was more accustomed to wearing combat gear, a keffiyeh, and his beard dyed with henna, than he was to wearing a two-piece suit. That was another life, one of jihad, and one of which he still bears the subtle scars: a slightly stiff gait, a limp in his leg. And a body perforated by a dozen bullets or more. 

Madobe fell into jihad when he was small. “My father was a conservative sheikh who preached very traditional teachings,” says the Jubaland leader in his office with views over the Indian Ocean. “My brother-in-law is Hassan Al-Turki…” he adds, awkwardly. ‘The Turk’ (real name Hassan Abdullah Hersi) who died in 2015, was one of the fathers of Somali jihadism. 

Ahmed Mohamed Islam was born in around 1960, in a newly independent Somalia. The country at that time was a young, enthusiastic democracy. More than sixty political parties competed in the elections. The first president, Aden Abdullah Osman (1960-1967) was defeated in the polls and ceded power without violence – an unprecedented act in Africa. Mogadishu, impoverished but hip, was buzzing with cinemas, and nightclubs playing funk and disco, where flares and afros were all the rage. 

Call to Arms

The Madobe family detested this Westernised Somalia, and even more so the dictatorship of the President-General Siad Barré, who came to power in 1969 by a coup. ‘Comrade Siad’ sided with the Soviets, tracked down and tortured opponents to the regime, nationalised the economy, standardised the Somali language. The regime attacked the clans, nomadism and traditional customs. In 1975, men and women achieved equality in the eyes of the law, much to the chagrin of the sheikhs.

Dozens of religious leaders who were opposed to these reforms were executed or imprisoned. “That was when we decided to take up arms to drive out the dictator and enforce Sharia [Islamic law] in Somalia!” Madobe recalls. In the mid-1980s, he joined a new organisation: al-Ittihad al-Islamiya (AIAI), the first real armed religious group in the country. Its appearance marked the beginning of Somali jihadism.

At the head of the movement, the religious sheikh Ali Warsame surrounded himself with young, charismatic lieutenants, former army officers with a wide experience of military affairs and at odds with society. Among them, the ex-colonel Hassan Dahir Aweys headed up the military operations; Hassan Al-Turki, Madobe’s brother-in-law, led one of the main factions of al-Ittihad. Taking advantage of the chaos following the fall of Siad Barré in 1991, the failure of the US military-humanitarian operation ‘Restore Hope’, and finally the departure of the UN forces, al-Ittihad recruited hundreds of fighters and founded two successive ‘emirates’ in Bossasso (North) and Luuq (South-West). The group received logistical support from a young Saudi heir who was based in neighbouring Sudan: Osama bin Laden. 


Madobe earned his stripes. With Al-Turki, he established a training camp near the small port of Ras Kamboni, on the Kenyan border. “There were hundreds of us. I was in charge of the military training, helped by people from al-Qaeda,” Madobe boasts. ”There were Egyptians, Jordanians, Sudanese, Tunisians… a lot of languages were spoken, even French!” The Ras Kamboni Brigade was rapidly becoming one of the most hardened armed groups in Somalia. It participated in AIAI attacks carried out in Christian Ethiopia, and above all, gained the trust of al-Qaeda leaders. 

In 1996, Bin Laden was expelled from Sudan and returned to the Afghan mountains. The same year, al-Ittihad was decimated during a surprise offensive by Ethiopia, which annihilated the ‘Luuq Emirate’. However, the Ras Kamboni Brigade remained active. In 1997 or 1998, twenty or so foreigners fighting for al-Qaeda, ‘linked to Al-Turki’ according the UN, who presumably passed through or were trained or armed at Ras Kamboni, crossed the Kenyan border. On 7 August 1998, they attacked the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with truck bombs. 224 were killed and more than 5,000 injured. Madobe and ‘The Turk’ celebrated. They had put Africa on the map of international jihad, three years before 9/11.

The Birth of Al-Shabab

No doubt fearing US retaliation, the Ras Kamboni vanished into the wild. They reappeared in 2006, when the Union of Islamic Courts (semi-political, semi-judicial organizations composed of religious leaders, businessmen and military) seized Mogadishu and most of the country, offering a semblance of order and rule of law to an exhausted population. “All Somalians see this period as a time of peacefulness and renewed trust,” says Madobe. However, at that time Mogadishu attracted unsavoury characters. From Somalia came Mohamed Kuno, the brains behind the future attack on the University of Garissa (148 victims in 2015), in Kenya. Or from the Comoros, Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, and from Sudan, Abu Taha Al-Sudan, involved in the attacks on the embassies of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. 

“Under these courts, a new generation of fighters was born,” explains Matt Bryden, director of the Sahan Research think-tank and specialist in the Horn of Africa. “The elder of al-Ittihad, who were more ideological, were replaced by young, experienced military commanders who were much more radical –Madobe being one example. In 2006, they founded their own armed organisation,” named Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen: ‘The Movement of Striving Youth’. Or al-Shabab, for short.

The group rapidly became the strictest, most brutal militia, but also the one with the most sway in the courts. Aden Hashi Farah, known as ‘Ayro’, a Somalian recently returned from Afghan jihad, was appointed the emir of the group. “I was named vice-president, and then, military leader of southern Somalia,” says Madobe proudly. He was 45 years old at the time. For him, it was his finest hour, the culmination of his years of combat.

However, a few years later, on 23 January 2007, Madobe was left for dead, or almost. Chased down by an American AC-130 bomber, he lay on the ground, somewhere near the Kenyan border, his body ripped apart by bullets. “Around me were the corpses of eight or nine of my comrades, killed on the spot,” recalls Madobe. The Islamic Courts were in utter disarray, chased out of power by the Ethiopian army that had invaded Somalia the previous month. Mogadishu and Kismayo fell in less than a week. 

VIP in Ethiopia

Madobe appeared to be doomed, but once recovered by the Americans, he was handed over to Ethiopia and survived his injuries. The Ethiopians “understood how useful he could be to them,” says a diplomatic source close to Addis Ababa. “He was cared for, treated with respect, like a VIP, given accommodation in a comfortable villa, debriefed by the army’s most senior-ranking officers. For this, he remains deeply grateful to the Ethiopians, to whom he will stay loyal.”

In his golden exile, Madobe reflected. He replayed the film of his life. He repented. In early 2009, the ex-terrorist received an unexpected visit: from Mohamed Abdi Mohamed, known as ‘Professor Gandhi’ on account of his PhDs and his tireless quest for peace. This French-Somalian, neat and courteous, divided his time between Besançon where he taught geology at the University of Franche-Comté, and Mogadishu, where he was appointed Minister of Defence by President Sharif Sheikh Mohamed. 

Times were tough. The Ethiopians retreated. Al-Shabab, who had gone from a mere militia to a structured military organisation, controlled central and southern Somalia. At their head, a new leader replaced Ayro, shot in 2008: Ahmed Abdi ‘Godane’, twenty years younger than Madobe, and even more radical. Under his influence, in a video released in 2009 entitled ‘At Your Service, Osama’, al-Shabab militants officially swore allegiance to al-Qaeda. 

‘Sincere in his repentance’

“A new front urgently needed to be opened up in the south,” recalls Professor Gandhi. “The Kenyan army was prepared to help us. I was in charge of raising Somali troops. We needed a leader, one with extensive military experience and good knowledge of the enemy. I immediately thought of Madobe, as he seemed sincere in his repentance.” Surprisingly, the two men hit it off. Madobe was freed.

It would be two years before Nairobi launched the operation ‘Linda Nchi’ to try and take back southern Somalia. In the meantime, no doubt impatient, Madobe made a detour via Kismayo, controlled at the time by al-Shabab. He led a rebellious group, Hizbul Islam (‘Party of Islam’), bringing together marginalised fighters – including the remaining Ras Kamboni – and declared war on al-Shabab. The gamble did not pay off: Madobe was beaten, and expelled from the city… and turned back to Gandhi who magnanimously welcomed him back into his ranks. In September 2012, leading a vanguard of 600 fighters, Madobe finally entered Kismayo. An unprecedented scene: the former jihadist, perched atop the armoured vehicles of a Christian and pro-Western country – Kenya – took possession of ‘his’ city once again. He would never let it go. 

He had his work cut out, because the throne of Jubaland has a rapid rotation. In two decades, power changed hands more than ten times in Kismayo. The region is highly coveted. It is fertile, irrigated by the great Juba river, conducive to rearing cattle and is the place where the legendary Somalian banana grows (before the war, the country was the main African producer). Jubaland is also blessed with over 200 miles of reef-protected coastline, beneath which lie untapped reserves of oil and gas.

Tact and Patience

Madobe established himself as leader by using cunning and force. In 2013, after defeating the last of the warlords, he inaugurated a great cycle of reconciliation conferences, bringing together delegates from most of the clans – the region has nearly fifty of them, dominated by the Darod (one of the four ‘noble’ clans in Somalia, along with the Hawiyé, Isaak and Dir), the most significant sub-clan of which are the Marehan, who are powerful in Kismayo, and the Ogaden, who are the majority in rural areas.

Madobe is an Ogaden; more precisely, he is from the tiny sub-clan of ‘Mohamed Zubers’. The leader of Kismayo was therefore obliged to demonstrate tact and patience when dealing with land and clan grievances, at an ultra-local level.

“Madobe perfectly masters local dynamics,” says Jabril Abdulle, former head of an NGO, turned politician. “He is close to the people, speaks a language that everyone understands. He is the only Somali politician to have fought, gun in hand. In the field, he has this natural authority about him.” Miraculously, the ‘Jubaland Initiative’ triumphed and brought peace to Kismayo. It culminated in the formation of an interim regional administration, the IJA, and a 75-member parliament, which elected Madobe as president of Jubaland in August 2015 with over 90% of the votes.

The ‘Madobe Method’

The Madobe method commands admiration, as it appears to succeed where so many military offensives and huge international conferences, organised at great expense over decades, have failed. “Madobe proved that he was reliable and pragmatic – a true statesman. If there were a major national reconciliation process that needed carrying out, I wouldn’t hesitate to entrust the negotiations to him!” raves a Western diplomat, who dreams of seeing the ‘King of Juba’ move into Villa Somalia – Mogadishu’s presidential palace – when the 2020 elections are held.

For the moment, said villa is occupied by Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as ‘Farmajo’. Much to everyone’s surprise, the former New York State official, having spent half of his life in the United States, was elected president in February 2017 by the country’s members of parliament. A figurehrad of the fight against corruption, he had strong popular support at the time. But his aura has now somewhat faded.

Half of the 12 million Somalis still depend on humanitarian aid. The state only governs a few districts of the capital and the national army is an empty shell, incapable of taking the reins from Amisom, after ten years of presence on the ground. The 22,000-strong African mission is proving costly (over 750 million euros per year); it has been delegitimised by abuses against civilians and undermined by infighting, particularly between Nairobi and Addis Ababa. 

To make matters worse, Farmajo is openly at war with almost all regional leaders. At the heart of the dispute is the quarrel between the United Arab Emirates (UAE and Qatar: Abu Dhabi is the main financial supporter of the six federal member states of Somalia (Jubaland, South West State, Galmudug, Hirshabelle, but also the autonomous Puntland, and Somaliland, self-proclaimed since 1991). For its part, Doha has sided with the central government. Other powers attempting to gain influence – such as Turkey, Egypt or Saudi Arabia – weave their own networks, adding to the confusion, and raising concerns about a return to chaos.

President Out Of His Depth

Al-Shabab do not have these problems. Their 10,000 or so fighters are on the offensive, controlling a good third of the territory. The group have incomes higher than those in government, an unparalleled informant network (Amniyat) and an effective media branch (al-Kataib) that produces propaganda videos in Somali, Arabic, English or Swahili. The death of al-Shabab’s leader, Godane, who was killed in 2014, did not weaken the organisation, which quickly chose a new emir, the discreet Ahmad Omar. In 2016, al-Shabab became the deadliest jihadist group in Africa, responsible for the deaths of over 4,200 individuals. The attack on 14 October 2017 in Mogadishu (512 dead) remains the bloodiest ever carried out on the continent. 

Faced with these challenges, the ‘cheese president’ (a translation of Farmajo, a nickname referring to his reported love of dairy products) seems out of his depth. And the contrast with Madobe, who is clearly on the rise, is all the more striking. The latter “has his finger on the pulse of all the issues,” says Matt Bryden. And remember, the master of Jubaland is also the main pillar of the Somali National Leadership Forum (NFL), an informal cabinet bringing together the president, regional and assembly leaders, and he is the one who actually leads what remains of the central government. “If he left,” says Bryden, “there’s a risk that the entire institutional structure could collapse.”

However, Madobe’s record is less rosy than it appears. “Madobe did not really liberate Jubaland,” says Roland Marchal, a researcher at the Sciences Po International Research Centre. “Apart from Kismayo and a few villages, the region belongs to al-Shabab or local clans.” In 2016, Madobe was unable – or unwilling – to prevent the al-Shabab attack on the El Adde Kenyan military camp in the out-of-the-way Gedo region, which killed between 150 and 200 people. On 8 June 2018, a US Special Forces soldier was killed in a similar attack, less than 30 miles from Kismayo. “The so-called ‘Madobe model’ is an illusion,” concludes Marchal.

Controversial Character

In the capital of Jubaland, ‘sheikh’ Madobe behaves more like a mafia godfather or a warlord than a true ‘statesman’. The henchmen of the ‘president’ – all former Ras Kamboni – rig the elections and hound opponents and members of civil society. “[Here], if you tell the truth, you’re dead,” confided a journalist from the city in 2016, to the NGO Human Rights Watch. Methods that al-Shabab would not have denied.

“Madobe is hard to decipher: the entire history and twists and turns of modern Somalia pass through him,” admits Professor Gandhi, who is still trying to understand his ‘black’ ally. In front of his Western allies, Madobe endlessly reiterates his separation from al-Shabab, portrayed as ‘brutes’ and ‘murderers’ who have tried several times to assassinate him. “They don’t recognise the existence of a Somali nation. I, on the other hand, want a peaceful and independent Somalia. There can be no dialogue between us,” states the Juba leader.

However, Madobe has not burned all his bridges with his former brothers in arms. In Kismayo, he does business on good terms with the jihadists. The city’s port has become the regional hub for the illegal trade in drugs, firearms and most importantly, charcoal – trafficking that brings in at least 10 million US dollars a year to terrorists, according to the UN. These are activities on which the local administration levies generous ‘customs duties’. For the moment, uncertain, and lacking an alternative leader, the West turns a blind eye. 

So, why not “Madobe for president”? “No chance!” replied the man in question. He is well and truly preparing himself, increasing meetings in Somalia and abroad, but the road to Villa Somalia is long and dangerous. Relations with Farmajo have worsened, bordering on atrocious. “Madobe has a lot of support, but also a lot of enemies, among al-Shabab and within government,” says an expert on the region. According to him, it’s clear that Madobe will either end up being president, or being “shot down”.  

Translation: Charlotte Coombe