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Inside Al Shabaab: A Review of ‘Everything You Have Told Me Is True’ by Mary Harper

“Please take care, Mary, especially while driving. Bye bye. Have a lovely weekend.”

This is not the way one would expect a member of the violent Islamist group, Al Shabaab, to speak: caring, polite, even somewhat paternal. As Mary Harper describes, her contact from Al Shabaab is intelligent, courteous and speaks in perfect English. He reaches out to her consistently to inform her of the group’s recent attacks, or else correct any fallacies in news reports relating to Al Shabaab. As the BBC Africa Editor with a specialised focus on Somalia, Mary Harper is a key figure in the media, warranting the group’s attention. These types of calls have hence been a regular occurrence for Harper throughout her career.

Photo by: @vitalwritersblog

Because of these chilling phone calls, as well as countless other interviews and personal encounters with ex-members, current members and victims of Al Shabaab, Harper has built up a network of contacts who have granted her fascinating insight into the organisation. Her new book Everything You Have Told Me Is True pieces together this information, providing a deeper understanding of the group’s inner structure, tactics, motivations, finances and propaganda methods.

Through her incredible journalistic work and obvious sensitivity, intuition and compassion, Harper manages to paint a picture of Al Shabaab that has never quite been illustrated before. Too often, the British public lack any real understanding of jihadist groups. Once an organisation has been labelled ‘extremists’ or ‘terrorists’, they are buried in headlines either sensationalising their defeat in certain areas, or condemning their violent actions. These Islamist groups are ‘Othered’ and, consequently, not much is done to actually understand their incentives and the nature of their formation.

In contrast, Harper humanises the members of Al Shabaab. This is not to say that she sympathises with the organisation or its aims – far from it. Rather, Harper simply shows that for the Somalian population, Al Shabaab is not simply a group of radical monsters; it is made up of neighbours and family members who have joined or been forced to join for a variety of reasons. Harper does not shy away from delving into the complexities of Al Shabaab’s relationships, explaining all sides of the situation in war-torn Somalia. As a result, Harper opens up a line of communication with Al Shabaab, enabling a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of the group. This tactic will naturally be more helpful for government bodies wishing to gain knowledge and prevent any more violent attacks from jihadist movements.

In summary, Everything You Have Told Me Is True provides an invaluable, unique perspective, making it a critical read. For those interested in hearing more about Mary Harper’s work in Somalia, you are in luck. Harper will be speaking about this book at a panel for the 2019 Africa Writes literature festival on Sunday the 7th of July. Tickets are available: here.

Africa Writes 2019 Programme Brochure

Africa Writes 2019 Programme Brochure

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