What does a terrorist look like? No such archetype exists of course, but you certainly wouldn’t figure somebody like Mohammed Abdi*.
Yet the slight, middle-aged man with a neatly trimmed beard was until 18 months ago a member of the Somali jihadist group al-Shabab – albeit in its finance department.
He joined willingly. The former shopkeeper heard a sermon in the mosque in his hometown, 50 kilometres northwest of the central city of Bosaso, urging people to stand up to defend Islam, and was convinced.
He handed the keys of his shop to his aunt, and despite the objections of his family, joined the insurgency fighting what he regarded as an illegitimate government backed by Western interests. “I was very excited and very happy as I was serving the religion,” said Abdi.
His job was to collect the money raised from al-Shabab checkpoints and the taxes levied once a year on households. When al-Shabab controlled much of the countryside before an offensive last year by the African Union’s intervention force, known as AMISOM, they raised “a lot of money”, he said.
It was enough to keep men like Mohammed Farah* armed, fed and fighting. The stocky, gravelly-voiced former al-Shabab soldier had been with the militants from the early days, but now, like Abdi, he has defected.