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Book Review: Everything You Have Told Me is True

The adage “bad news travels fast” does not apply to Somalia’s thirty-year civil war, where daily incidents of terrorism sometimes do not even meet the local press. One could add “truth does not travel fast” either, as the Islamist insurgent group, al-Shabaab, has penetrated Somali society and blurred the lines of who is in control, where they control, what institutions they influence, and with what levels of legitimacy. Everything You Have Told Me is True, by Mary Harper, attempts to elucidate al-Shabaab’s shadowy role in Somalia. Harper, a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Africa reporter for 25 years, does so by focusing on interactions with members of al-Shabaab, Somali women and children, local journalists, refugees, government workers, expats, and everyday Somalis.

A group of Somali women stand near a water point at the Dayniile IDP camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia, on March 6, 2017. UN Photo/Tobin Jones

Everything You Have Told Me is True conveys the complexities of al-Shabaab by drawing on field reporting which explores the group’s Islamist ideology, insurgency strategy, and economics. Harper lends an authentic voice, direct descriptive style, and unparalleled access and in-country experience for a writer. The bookalso stands out for Harper’s theme of presenting multiple sides of the story to the reader, which contributes to what Harper calls the “Grey Zone” of al-Shabaab’s role in the country. In the vivid personal accounts provided, al-Shabaab’s shadow government permeates and transverses the motivations, hopes, and dreams of the downtrodden Somali people, amid fledgling attempts at building a functional society.

Harper’s style gives the “Grey Zone” of al-Shabaab a conceivable architecture. In approach, Everything You Have Told Me is True is a qualitative fieldwork, but in execution, a descriptive narrative of vignettes that shows how the researcher, Harper, enters the story. She does this by making every effort to include the reader in her electronic communications with actual members of al-Shabaab. These communications are weaved throughout, allowing for a “being there” perspective not common in news or academic quoting. Al-Shabaab sends Harper texts, Whatsapp messages with photos, emails, and calls her cell phone. The relationship is sometimes absurd. After describing their latest mass casualty attacks, an al-Shabaab member pauses on the phone-line to warn Harper that she shouldn’t be driving (while in London) while using her mobile: “You must not phone while driving. You will have an accident.” Harper plants several of these humorous instances as a reminder of the humanity of terrorists.

Harper’s experiences allow a better vantage point to imagine the civil war country, one block at a time in Mogadishu, and one voice at a time with her subjects. As a fiction writer uses ‘world-building’ to establish the rules and invisible norms of distant places, Harper uses her real-life personal anecdotes, (which are typically peppered with empirical asides) and the voices of the high and low of Somali’s clan-based culture. A system emerges from the chaos whereby al-Shabaab’s governance becomes an entity beyond a religious project, and more akin to an economic and political vehicle for local power. The group exploits the country’s rigid clan structure, dire economic circumstances, and institutional vacuum, rather than just serving as an ideological faction of Al-Qaeda. 

Harper’s research efforts also come at a time when similar endeavors are lacking. Research, scholarship, and media have been realigned towards a global Islamic terror threat that surpasses the local warlordism of Mogadishu known to wider audiences primarily through US interventions in 1993. If you ask a non-Somali what they know of the country, it may be “pirates”, or “war”.

Ultimately, there are some limits to Everything You Have Told Me is True, both structural and due to the instability of the environment. Key historical elements are not fully explained, like the full story of Siad Barre’s government’s fall, the civil war of the 1990s and 2000s and the Islamic Courts Union. The reader is left without full details of the atrocities that lead to the appeal of al-Shabaab.

Additionally, the unfeasibility of living among al-Shabaab leaves the reader with second-hand tales even though they come from inside al-Shabaab territory. In one sense, it ironically leaves al-Shabaab with the same air of mystery as at the outset of the book. Although, Harper’s openness regarding her decision to not tread within al-Shabaab territory (despite having the opportunity) adds to her overall authenticity. In addition, perhaps her outsourced stories are close enough to the reality inside. Again, we are circled back to the nature of truth in conflict settings, cementing the particular blurriness of Somalia.  

Two questions arise at the end: what will it take to make Somalia functional as a state? Moreover, can al-Shabaab be a part of this state, as a viable vision of an alternative mode of governance in some areas? Despite an incompatibility with a planet dominated by the neoliberal democratic order, al-Shabaab prevails similar to the now destroyed Islamic State, but also similar to the forty-year old Islamic Republic of Iran. According to Harper the complexities of Somalia and al-Shabaab’s reign demand a ‘beyond aid’ and ‘beyond security’ perspective. Her final thoughts hone in on a truth that the international community and its local allies in Mogadishu are unwilling to confront: al-Shabaab may be here to stay, and that may mean making peace with a political system non grata.

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Cameron Evers

Cameron Evers is YPFP's 2019 Africa Fellow and a Senior Intelligence Analyst at WorldAware, Inc., a global risk firm, where he advises a Fortune 500 financial company on geopolitical risk. He has given talks on African politics within the U.S. government and universities.

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