African al-Qaeda

The murderous mission of the Somali rebel group al-Shabaab.

Din Hassan is standing by a petrol station in a densely packed Somali suburb of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. Since the suicide bombers attacked football fans while they were watching a World Cup match in bars just a few miles away, the residents of Kisenyi have been keeping their heads down. But Hassan smiles widely when he sees me and beckons me over. He is tall, with a round, bearded face and a belly that tests the limits of his grey safari suit. We cross the road and walk down an alley to his modest house.

Hassan was born here 64 years ago - "I am a Ugandan!" he says - but his grandfather grew up in what was then British Somaliland. Drafted into the army in 1909, the old man fought for George V against the Germans in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) before coming to Uganda as one of the original Somali settlers.

For most of the past 25 years, Hassan has been chairman of the Ugandan Somali community. His term coincided with Somalia's descent into chaos, which has swelled Uganda's immigrant population to about 40,000. "Ugandans have always been very friendly to Somalis," he tells me. "They know the people there are suffering."

By the time Hassan handed over to a younger chairman 18 months ago, relations between the two countries had become closely intertwined. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda sent thousands of troops to Mogadishu in 2007 to help protect the fragile Somali government from the Islamist rebel group known as al-Shabaab. Many Ugandans wondered why they were getting involved in a country where there was no strategic interest. Hassan saw the move as honourable. "Museveni was just trying to help make Somalia like a normal country."

Al-Shabaab has a different idea of normality. Hassan first heard of the Kampala attacks when he arrived at a mosque early on the morning of Monday 12 July. He went straight home and stayed there. The death toll rose to 74. As families of the victims crowded around a tree outside the main hospital in Kampala, where a list of dead and injured had been pasted, al-Shabaab was holding a triumphant press conference in Mogadishu. A spokesman thanked "the mujahedins that carried out the attack", which he said was punishment for Uganda's role in the peacekeeping mission.

There was fear among the local Somalis: would Ugandans blame them for the bombings? Hassan's mobile rang constantly. "People were saying to me: 'You were our chairman for a long time. You must be the one to explain our position on this to the press,'" Hassan says. His expression hardens. "The people who did this are criminal killers. They have destroyed Somalia, and now they want to do something very bad to us here."

Something very bad - indeed, the most deadly terror attack in East Africa since the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which put al-Qaeda on the world map - could have been even worse. At the government media centre, a flimsy black canvas bag that was found in a disco sits on a table at the front of the room. Beside the bag are its contents: a piece of thin khaki material with orange trim and swatches of Velcro - a suicide vest. Next to it are two packets containing brownish slabs of explosive, roughly the size of a paperback, with blue electrical cord.

Some ball bearings have shaken loose from the explosive casing. When the bomb detonates, the ball bearings act like so many bullets; similar evidence has been recovered at the bars where many of last month's dead were torn to pieces. The device was probably meant to strike the disco at the same time, the police chief says.

Alien values

Who are al-Shabaab? So far, the militants have brought order to the areas they control in southern and central Somalia. Some aid agencies there have complimented them on their administrative capacity. But most of al-Shabaab's professed values are deeply alien to Somali culture - and to Islamic norms in most parts of the world. Western songs, films and ringtones are banned. Men used to strolling around in sandals and sarongs as they chew the narcotic khat leaf are expected to grow beards and attend mosque five times a day, or face beatings.

Women who previously covered only their hair must now wear full face veils. Alleged criminals have limbs hacked off while local residents are forced to watch. Whatever the Somali government's faults - and the list is long - it is for fear of al-Shabaab that people risk their lives to reach countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Yemen.

A short walk up the hill from Hassan's house is a modest hotel. In the restaurant, a few dozen Somali men are having lunch: rice mixed with potatoes, cabbage, raisins and large chunks of goat meat. The television is tuned to al-Jazeera.

I order some food and sit down. Eventually I strike up a conversation with the restaurant manager, Abdi Mohamed. He arrived in Uganda from Somalia in 2009. He says his reaction to the bomb attack was "like any Ugandan . . . scared. I was expecting to find peace when I arrived here." Mohamed knows all about al-Shabaab. His family lived in Kismayo, a port city in southern Somalia that is under the Islamists' strict control.

“If you are not one of them, it is very difficult," he says. "They are doing in Somalia what they have done here. Only 100 times more."

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood