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Al-Shabab's governor - one man and his iPad

Gadgets are becoming as ubiquitous as AK-47s among leaders of armed group in Somalia.
Last modified: 26 Feb 2014 14:00
Abu Abdullah types on his iPad as group's spokesman Sheikh Ali Dheere[R] looks on.

On a hot dry Saturday afternoon, as I waited for clearance to visit an al-Shabab area in Bulo Mareer in Somalia, my phone rang. It was a contact saying there was a gathering I would want to attend.

And so I did. Sitting under the shade of mango trees were clan elders and the who's who of al-Shabab, the hardline rebel group fighting Somalia's UN-backed government.

This was an opportunity not many get, so I began taking photos. The mood in the meeting was tense, the topic contentious. It was about a land feud between rival clan fighters.

Hosting the peace talks was Sheikh Mohamed Abu Abdallah, a short, stocky figure with a sparse goatee who likes to wear Shalwar Kurta – a two-piece garment commonly worn in Afghanistan and south-central Asia.

The Sheikh is the rebel group's lower Shabelle governor and the face of al-Qaeda in the province.

As soon as I walked into the gathering I spotted something unexpected - a gleaming new iPad. 

This piece of technology was being used by men who belong to a group that recently banned access to the internet through mobile devices. 

Every few minutes the Sheikh typed fiercely as he took minutes of the talks. He would occasionally refer to it to read notes of previous agreements.

And as they delivered their long grievance speeches, the elders also took turns to cast admiring glances towards the gadget, as Abu Abdallah type their words.

Sitting alongside him was Sheikh Ali Dheere – the most widely known face of al-Qaeda in Somalia. Even he had the iPad in his sights.

Members of al-Shabab are known to be tech-savvy, with some having Facebook and Twitter accounts. However,  they often minimise their use of gadgets for safety reasons - top members have been targeted and killed in drone strikes.

About three hours later the talks concluded, with the agreement safely typed into the iPad.

Early next morning and now with full clearance, I went to visit farms less than 10km from the frontlines between the rebel group and the government. There I bumped into the governor.

Instead of being armed with an AK-47, the governor packed an iPad, with which he took pictures and video  of an irrigation canal that was being constructed. There was no security detail in sight. Just him, his iPad and his three-door car.

It was a surprise. IPads can be used to track people if they are connected to the internet or geo-location services, and this man was undoubtedly a high-value target.

"It is safe like this but if you connect it to the internet it is not," he said. "I don't use it to access the internet." 

Some apps are "too dangerous" to download. Whatsapp and Skype are very useful to have but a no-no unless a fighter wants to fall victim to the "birds in the sky", according to him.

But he had one issue with his iPad and it had nothing to do with safety - the battery life is poor. For a man who says he spends many hours or days away from electricity sources the 10 hours is not enough.

They should have batteries that last a week, he told, me before driving off into the distance with his iPad to his next appointment.