In a move that further prevents residents of Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region from accessing news and information, al-Shabaab is intimidating people who use smartphones, saying the hi-tech mobile devices could be used for spying.
The militants began their intimidation campaign October 10th, shortly after US commandos stormed a beach house in Barawe, targeting al-Shabaab commander Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, who goes by the alias Ikrima.
Al-Shabaab operatives have since been asking residents gathered at public places and business establishments in the towns of Barawe, Bulo Burde and El Bur what kind of mobile phones they use. The militants interrogate anyone who possesses a smartphone, such as the iPhone, Samsung Galaxy and Blackberry devices, local residents told Sabahi.
Compared with regular mobile phones, smartphones allow users to surf the Internet, send and receive e-mails, and play videos.
Whenever they catch someone with a modern smartphone, al-Shabaab members will inspect the device, said Hassan Farah, a 35-year-old pharmacy owner in Barawe.
“About four young men came into my pharmacy and saw my Samsung Galaxy phone while it was charging,” Farah told Sabahi. “They ordered me to hand over the phone and immediately began searching my text messages, while asking me unnecessary questions about how I acquired the phone or if I send text messages abroad. I answered them with the answer they liked and told them I do not communicate with anyone outside the country.”
The militants instructed Farah to never to use his phone again, threatening severe punishment if he is caught with it.
“When I asked them why I was being ordered to stop using it, they told me that smartphones are used to spy on Muslim people,” he said. “I was really surprised.”
Now, instead of his Galaxy, Farah said he uses a cheap mobile phone to avoid the prospect of a harsh punishment for using his smartphone.
Al-Shabaab’s smartphone intimidation campaign preceded its ban on watching television in Barawe. Al-Shabaab ordered Barawe residents on October 28th to turn over their televisions and satellite dishes, justifying the ban by saying watching television undermines Islamic principles.
Anti-smartphone campaign shows al-Shabaab ‘ignorance’
Residents of Bulo Burde and El Bur, two other towns still under militant control, said they were frightened when they heard that al-Shabaab was targeting people who carry smartphones.
“When we found out that al-Shabaab views as a spy anyone with an expensive smartphone, such as the Blackberry phone I used, I decided to put it away in my clothing bag [at home],” said “Sahra”, a mother of six who requested a pseudonym because she was too afraid to publish her real name. “I now use a phone that I bought for $20 to avoid problems from al-Shabaab.”
“I am very scared and I cannot mention all the problems al-Shabaab is inflicting upon us,” she told Sabahi. “I always ask myself if they are listening to people’s phones because this group is trying to get everything through force and they want to know everything.”
Sahra said al-Shabaab’s anti-smartphone intimidation was “a nuisance and a way to disturb the public”.
“A person who wants to spy on al-Shabaab can use any other kind of phone, but I think it is their ignorance that has brought them to that conclusion,” she said.
Meanwhile, Mumin Gabow, a 60-year-old traditional elder from El Bur, said he was angry about al-Shabaab’s anti-smartphone campaign.
“First, I am an old man and I do not use these phones that al-Shabaab is allegedly banning people from using, claiming the phones are used for spying,” Gabow told Sabahi. “But I am very sad about it because it is good for a human being to use any kind of phone he desires. The most important reason to carry a phone is to speak on it, and in my opinion, I think al-Shabaab is using any kind of lie to destroy the progress people have made.”
Gabow called on the Somali government to rescue the people of El Bur from the problems inflicted on them by al-Shabaab.
“Speaking on behalf of the elders of El Bur, I am asking the government’s forces to come to El Bur as soon as possible and clear out the al-Shabaab terrorists who are causing immense harm to the people,” he said.