Here in Somalia, being in the police force must be one of the hardest jobs given the very complex environment in which they must operate. In Mogadishu, at any time there could be an attack—not just from al-Shabaab, but from other militia groups in the city. To top that off, you don’t know who’s an al-Shabaab militant or who their spies/informants are. If that is not enough to put you off, maybe not getting paid or not having enough food would. Even your fellow police officers might sell you out because al-Shabaab pays more.
Why they still man the streets is beyond me. I really feel for these guys. They are the first line of defense here in Mogadishu and usually the first to die here, too. Think of them as you like, but I respect them. Even though many would kidnap me or sell me out in a heartbeat, I still have to take my hat off to them. They are battling every day with al-Shabaab, plus other groups, and any day could be their last. And for what? To go home and not have enough money to put food on the table for your family?
The following is an interview I conducted with a high-ranking police officer who has been in Somalia’s police force since 2007.
SOFREP: Can you tell me what was it like for the police here in Mogadishu in 2007?
Back in 2007, when I joined the police here in Somalia, there were only 500 police officers trained. We worked in groups of 20, covering different parts of the city. It was a very active place in 2007. Al-Shabaab was everywhere in the city. There were gunfights every day, all day and night. They often surrounded us and outnumbered us. They would push us back one day and lose ground the next.
What operations did the police carry out back then?
In 2007, we were on the front line, so normal police duties did not matter. We were like an army, acting as front-line troops fighting al-Shabaab. We were trying to push them out of the city, but the front line changed every day. They had numbers and firepower on their side and we did not. They built tunnels around the city to move through, which made it hard for us to track them. We would be sent in to clear these areas and tunnels, which was a stressful job.
What sort of training did you receive and from whom?
At first we were trained in Somalia by Somali guys, but then we got sent to Ethiopia where we did two courses: One was urban warfare, the other was a close-protection course involving firearms drills and movement drills. After that, we were sent to Kenya. There they taught us how to interact with the local population to gain trust and get information. That included counterinsurgency tactics, too.
What was the relationship like between you guys and the Kenyan training team?
They were tough on us at times, but in general we get along. They were nice to us and wished us all good luck at the end.
Did the police ever capture any al-Shabaab members back then?
No, it was a fight to the death back then. All I would see were bodies of dead al-Shabaab members. If they wanted to surrender, they would do so through a family member who would arrange a deal for them.
What future do you see for the Somali police?
I don’t see one right now with the government that’s in power. They could be better, but they need training and to be paid their wages.
Is AMISOM (African Union Mission to Somalia) making a difference?
They did in the early days, and they keep al-Shabaab at bay for now, but they have not made a significant difference here in Somalia. They are scared and don’t know bad guys from good guys.
What is needed to fix the problems faced by the police?
Different leadership is a start, as well as providing money and some good training to the police officers.
Is al-Shabaab still active in Mogadishu?
Yes, of course. They never left (laughs). They dress as normal people and work in normal jobs. Meanwhile, they collect intel for al-Shabaab. When al-Shabaab wants to launch an attack, they bring in support from the outskirts of the city.
Do you think al-Shabaab will give up?
No, not anytime soon. But we can win a long time from now.
Where in Mogadishu do they operate?
They are all over—in cabs, walking the streets—but they have strongholds on the edge of town and in the city near the market.
What are the police doing about this?
There is not much we can do; we are outnumbered. Every now and then they send officers into these areas to collect intel on them.
What needs to be done about this?
We need more guys and a better-trained unit to take on these areas. We need about 100-150 additional guys to make up a separate unit to deal with the issue.
Can the outside community do anything to help?
They can, of course, but why would they? The government is corrupt and it would be a waste of money. What we need is money to pay the army and police, and then training so we can learn to stand on our own feet.
Have you ever worked with any former al-Shabaab members?
Personally, no, but I have heard of them working in the police and army. We all have friends and family on the other side.