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Vol 62 No 19

Published 23rd September 2021


Why the killing of a spy is shaking the state

Farmajo's intelligence chief has been sacked over the cover-up of a secret agent's murder and a programme to send Somalis to fight in Tigray

President Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed 'Farmajo' now appears to have accepted that his right-hand man, Fahad Yasin, the Salafist former Al Jazeera journalist who became Qatar's unofficial representative in Mogadishu, will not now be restored as director of the apex security body, the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), after Premier Mohamed Hussein Roble sacked him on 6 September (AC Vol 61 No 25, Testing time for elections). Farmajo has tried to maintain Yasin's influence in the security system by naming him National Security Advisor.

This blow to Farmajo's status centres on the murder of NISA agent Ikran Tahlil Farah, the repercussions of which are still shaking the state. 

Ikran Tahlil, a junior intelligence officer in her 20s, was abducted near her home, close to NISA headquarters in Mogadishu on 26 June. On 2 September, after pressure from her family, which has been tirelessly campaigning to clear her name, NISA claimed she had been assassinated by Al Shabaab as part of its offensive against state security operatives. 

Yasin had requested Al Shabaab claim responsibility for her death through his secret channels to militant commanders operating in the Mogadishu area, according to Africa Confidential's sources. They did so, but soon a leading Al Shabaab operative from Ikran Tahlil 's Galje'el clan persuaded Al Shabaab's leadership to issue a statement in Somali, English and Swahili disclaiming responsibility for the killing. 

NISA now stood accused of killing Ikran Tahlil itself and trying to enlist Al Shabaab in a cover-up. Roble demanded answers following strong public pressure and when they did not come he dismissed Yasin. 

Ikran had incurred the wrath of her superiors because they believed she had leaked details of an extremely sensitive programme. Farmajo's government has been sending hundreds of Somalis for military training in Eritrea, after which the Asmara government secretly sends them into the front line of the
war in Tigray.

Somali families who had contact with relatives in the top-secret programme denounced it, and opposition politicians feared that Farmajo was using the training programme to build up a Praetorian guard with which he could hold on to the presidency. Killing Ikran Tahlil was supposed to plug the leak. 

She was also suspected, we hear, of having information that could embarrass Farmajo on the death of Mogadishu mayor Abdirahman Omar Osman (aka 'Engineer Yarisow'), in a suicide bombing that nearly killed UN special representative Jim Swan in July 2019 (AC Vol 60 No 18, Jubaland row heats up oil tiff).

The fact that Al Shabaab initially acceded to a request from Yasin seemed to prove long-held suspicions of a relationship between the two. Qatar has historically supported Yasin precisely because of his good contacts with Al Shabaab which could act as a conduit in peace negotiations. If it had not been for clan solidarity and loyalty, the cover-up of Ikran Tahlil's death might have held. 

Initially, Farmajo demanded Yasin's reinstatement, claiming he is vital to his national mission. But the row between President and Prime Minister also owes much to Roble's growing political profile, and is also a product of increasing politicisation and clan conflict in the security forces, which many lay at Yasin's door (see Box, Farmajo's personal Machiavelli).

Clashing appointments
Farmajo has tried to hang on to influence over NISA regardless. When Roble appointed a new NISA boss, Farmajo intervened and replaced him with Yasin Abdullahi Farey (Abgaal/Wa'isley), despite his lack of experience. Farey benefited from rapid promotion under Yasin, becoming a full colonel and head of the Banadir intelligence unit charged with the supervision of special jails for interrogating captured Al Shabaab members.

These include Godka Jili'ow ('Jili'ow hole'), a centre notorious for torture since the days of President Mohamed Siad Barre in the 1970s, where Ikran Tahlil was reportedly held for weeks after her abduction. Her family protested loudly that Farey was no less involved in Ikran Tahlil's detention and murder than Yasin and Farmajo eventually had to give him up. 

Other Farmajo allies in the security apparatus have fallen, including Hassan Hundubey Jimale at the Ministry of Internal Security, which is nominally responsible for NISA. Hundubey worked with Yasin for Al Jazeera in the 2000s and is also close to Doha. This further weakens Farmajo's hold on the security state.

Zero-sum game
The dispute between Farmajo and Roble is taking place in the arena of state institutions and parliament, where the two are locked in battle over selections for the Upper House (AC Vol 62 No 18, First steps on the elections roadmap). Theirs is a zero-sum game for the state. 

A gain for one is a loss for the other. Roble currently controls the state media, the treasury and the cabinet. The security forces, including the army, the police, and NISA are already deeply divided by the dispute and pundits expect the military courts and the judicial system to be drawn in too, leading to serious worries about whether there will even be a state apparatus for the next president to inherit.

Farmajo's personal Machiavelli

Before the election of President Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed 'Farmajo' in February 2017, few inside or outside of Somalia had heard of Fahad Yasin, even though he was a key political operator ever since the brief rule in 2006 of the Islamic Courts Union. Back then he was reporting for Al Jazeera on the ICU and its defeat by the subsequent, Western-backed Ethiopian invasion (AC Vol 48 No 2, Peace but no keepers).

Yasin is an admitted Salafist with strong link to jihadists, including to the once-influential Islamist leader Hassan Dahir Aweys (AC Vol 54 No 14, Sheikh Hassan Dahir 'Aweys' breaks with Al Shabaab). In 2012 he helped Hassan Sheikh Mohamud get elected president by providing funds from Qatar.

Yasin then fell out with Mohamud and remained in Doha until 2016, when he became one of the main campaigners for Farmajo and was made his chief of staff in April 2017. Closeness to Qatar exposed him to attacks from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates's allies, and he was removed from Villa Somalia and made deputy-director of the National intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) before becoming its director.

At first, observers thought that Yasin would use his new position to open negotiating channels with Al Shabaab, but they were disappointed.

Yasin presided over the politicisation of the Somali security apparatus. He promoted clan-based divide-and-rule tactics designed to favour Farmajo. NISA had been on the way to becoming a genuinely 'national' institution with potential to rise above clan rivalries until then, intelligence sources said
(AC Vol 62 No 10, Edging Farmajo towards the exit).

Yasin, however, escalated repressive measures against Farmajo opponents, such as Abdirahman Abdi Shakur, several of whose bodyguards were killed in an attempt to arrest him. He also clamped down on freedom of speech and arrested journalists. There was also rapid, even reckless, promotion within NISA's ranks of defectors from Al Shabaab whose loyalty was uncertain. This made the United States intelligence and military community so anxious it cut relations with NISA three years ago. Stories of operations compromised to Al Shabaab have been legion.

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