A file photo of the eternally war-torn Somali capital
A file photo of the eternally war-torn Somali capital
Domenico Quirico

MOGADISHU - General Barisse’s men are in the pick-up trucks, one next to the other, holding their weapons, looking around.

They do not fidget, a military patience having descended upon them: they simply wait. They have been waiting for food, pay, the enemy's attack -- in this, they also wait for the end of a war that does not seem to want to end.

Abdullahi Barisse’s men are hunting the al-Shabaab, the Somali Taliban, the nightmare that al-Qaeda bore, even here in the sands of the Horn of Africa, cultivated in the microbes of an infinite tribal war that the West did not know how to, or did not want to solve.

Yes, the war that Barisse’s men fight is complicated. It isn’t a drone war - mechanic, sterile, rather cowardly - that the Americans are also fighting here, and that has silently eliminated at least 200 al-Shabaab, including several key leaders. They fight in the savannahs of the Shebeli valley: looking east, above there is an infinite blue, below an infinite white.

They also fight a war of which no one speaks: in Mogadishu, in Merca, in Brava – cities which have just been liberated. Here, Barisse’s men, about 1,000 in all, are not recognizable: they wear rags, they blend in among the market people, as the al-Shabaab do, they follow the rumors and tips of informers.

The al-Shabaab have changed tactics, after having been beaten in the field by tanks, helicopters and cannons, hunted from the city where they recruited young men and children. Now with their sources of money dried up, they have spread out in small units in the countryside and move continually to avoid capture, with others camouflaged in the city, lone wolves ready to attack, with explosives or pistols.

‘Hamza al Italì’

There are also the “foreign” al-Shabaab: even here, like in Syria or in Libya, al-Qaeda has sparked the formation of an Islamic legion, some 2,000 men according to Somali estimates, above all Yemenis, who blend in easily among the locals. There are also Chechens, Pakistanis and Europeans.

General Barisse tells me a the story of an instructor of the Italian al-Shabaab, an expert in explosives, whose battle names are “Hamza al Italì” and “Hamza Abu Yaya.” His real name is reportedly Angelo Paganin.

“The Italian” appears in the report that the general gave to Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism unit in June. The British have met Barisse here in Mogadishu, looking for traces of an al-Shahaab with British citizenship, named Steve.

“Two weeks ago, Abu Yaya was identified in the Shebeli zone with al-Qaeda’s command group that withdrew from Kismayo; they are continually moving along the river from village to village, hiding out in the savannah.”

According to Somali police information, Hamza the Italian arrived here from Afghanistan and moves around Mogadishu dressed as a woman -- these days, he's at the side of the Somali head of al-Qaeda, Godane.

The foreigners are thought to have separated from the Somali al-Shabaab, moving up north, maybe towards the heights of Puntland, where the pirates control much of the territory. With them is a French hostage, Denis Allex.

Barisse crosses the capital with his men, but he doesn’t do it for thrills: the city is his responsibility. Several days ago, Ugandan soldiers withdrew their tanks from the airport base. Yesterday, he captured two al-Shabaab, who were possibly preparing a suicide attack. The Islamic Court will judge them.

The general is tall and solid, his face sanded down by its continuous exposure to the elements. His gestures are lively but gruff. He is a man with a thankless mission: he is neither warlord nor national hero, his population massacring each other for years; and with his unpaid, non-uniformed and widely despised men that make up “the investigative division,” he hunts down criminals in a place where the old state police units have given up.

Barisse has a good cop's dream: an academy in which his men can specialize in criminology, as well as fighting terrorism and trafficking. And above all, he dreams of modern equipment for the classification of digital fingerprints: “Then there would be no escape for the al-Shabaab, not even for your Italian.”

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