Tea With a Terrorist

I know the “spiritual leader” of the Somali militant group Al Shabab who exhorted his followers to attack East African targets days before bombers killed nearly 80 people watching the World Cup final in Kampala, Uganda, on July 11.

His name is Mukhtar Roobow Ali, and I know him because he once tried to kill me. In 2008 in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, his forces tried to blow up my TV crew’s vehicle with a roadside bomb. I often relive the memory of how the shock wave sucked air from my lungs and, as the smoke cleared, the sight of three innocent bystanders killed by the blast that missed us.

But I also know Mr. Roobow because, another time, he probably saved my life.

In 2006, Mr. Roobow — an intelligent, media-friendly 30-something also known by the nom de guerre Abu Mansur — invited my TV producer and me on a road trip to Al Shabab’s battle lines. At the time, American-backed Ethiopian troops had invaded Somalia to attack Islamist factions, and Al Shabab was part of the coalition opposing them.

We drove with him to a base in central Somalia teeming with jihadi warriors. “Lock all the car doors,” he instructed, and went off to report our arrival to his comrades. As soon as he left, fighters with henna-red beards and weapons approached. They scowled at us through the car windows, while Taliban-style black flags fluttered in the wind.

Locked doors were no defense, but Mr. Roobow’s hospitality was. He chatted with some militants and cleared our way to the front line, where he paraded his troops for us while expressing his delight at the prospect of imminent violence. Making chopping motions, he boasted how his “arms would become tired from beheading” his foes.

Farther down the road, Mr. Roobow got out of the vehicle to hail Aden Hashi Ayro, Al Shabab’s founder. Like Mr. Roobow, Mr. Ayro got his terrorism training in Afghanistan. In the mid-2000s, he mustered Al Shabab’s first forces at a derelict Mogadishu shampoo factory called Ifka Halane (which means “Clean and Shiny”) and, soon after, he claimed to have turned his militia into the East African franchise for Al Qaeda.

But as we sat in that car, the most relevant aspect of Mr. Ayro’s résumé was that he was widely suspected of arranging the murders of a British journalist and a variety of respected, moderate Somalis. After a few words with Mr. Roobow, he loped toward the car as if to greet us, but recoiled when he saw what we were. I waved timidly through the windshield.

Mr. Ayro slung his AK-47 over his shoulder and strode back to Mr. Roobow. A heated debate ensued. I later realized that our host was bargaining for our lives. Mr. Ayro was understandably nervous about Westerners eyeballing him — in an earlier raid, American agents had tried but failed to capture him. And on this day, as on all days, an American spy plane was visible in the sky.

Our acute discomfort melted when Mr. Ayro drove off and Mr. Roobow returned to us, laughing. “All fine now!” he said, and, paradoxically, we felt grateful to this man who we knew might gladly have murdered us had he not thought our coverage of Al Shabab was useful.

Later that day, on a roadside stop at tea time, in the shadow of a burned-out tank, we drank gourds of foaming camel’s milk served by veiled women. In conversation, Mr. Roobow came across as a monkish warrior with focus. He didn’t sweat in the flyblown desert heat. But he exposed another side of himself on that journey to the heart of Somali extremism, one I remembered again when I heard about the Kampala attack this month.

When we met Mr. Roobow in 2006, the international jihadist movement regarded Al Shabab as a provincial African outfit, one that had failed to show any bravery in the form of suicide bombings. A small Qaeda cell had used Somalia as a base for the 1998 African embassy bombings, but for the most part the Persian Gulf Arabs behind the movement considered the Somalis too turbulent, clan-obsessed and independent to make their territory a major base.

But in his talk to us, it became clear that Mr. Roobow had ambitions to make the movement grow — literally. For our trip, he had brought along his 12-year-old son, Mansur, who struggled under the weight of his AK-47. “My head of security!” he joked, telling us that on the day of the boy’s birth he had prayed that Mansur would be martyred in holy war.

In May 2008, Mr. Ayro was killed by an American airstrike and Mr. Roobow became Al Shabab’s top man. In the last few years, he and his colleagues have gained for Al Shabab a more central role in Somalia’s protracted, bloody disintegration. Mr. Roobow lied to me in 2006 when he said his forces were all locals, because even at that time I could see a small contingent of foreigners. And since then, hundreds have joined Al Shabab’s international brigades. Many volunteers are diaspora Somalis fresh from radicalization in the Western nations where they were raised.

In 2006, Shabab forces were primarily providing muscle for a coalition of Islamist interests, the Union of Islamic Courts, that had wrested power from the Western-backed warlords in Mogadishu. For better or worse, the coalition had brought relative security to the city, and was therefore popular.

However, incumbent rule was the last thing Mr. Roobow’s extremists wanted; they had no interest in fixing the sewage system. Inevitably, Al Shabab’s outlandish tendencies were revealed as they brutally enforced bans against soccer on TV, Bollywood movies and music. Hard-line factions began to quarrel, and the people began to look at Al Shabab as a problem.

To thrive, Al Shabab needed an outside enemy — and Washington obliged. In early 2007, Ethiopian forces roared into Mogadishu, the West gave legitimacy to a weak government made up mostly of warlords, and Somalia plunged into a cycle of violence that killed tens of thousands.

With an exterior enemy distracting Somalis from their clan divisions, Al Shabab’s insurgents gained support among some clan powerbrokers while at the same time terrorizing the people into submission. While Ethiopian troops pulled out early last year, they were replaced by Amisom, a force of African peacekeepers mostly from Burundi and Uganda ordered to protect a Western-backed government. It hasn’t hurt Al Shabab and other Somali hard-line groups that the peacekeepers have a tendency to fire mortars into civilian neighborhoods.

Still, while Mr. Roobow’s forces have seized territory across much of south and central Somalia, their inability to rule day-to-day reveals itself over and over. Now they seem to have gone off the deep end, banning mustaches and the wearing of bras, even ripping fillings out of peoples’ mouths on the ground that gold is “un-Islamic.”

Mogadishu’s battlefield has become a stalemate, Al Shabab’s ranks show fresh internal divisions, popular support has ebbed and rival militias have mobilized against the extremists. Finding an outside target — especially in Kampala, the capital of a nation that provides troops for the African mission — was a means for Al Shabab to get back in the game.

What Mr. Roobow wants, as I witnessed on the road in Somalia, is a war against an alien enemy that will bring him international prestige and jihadi money before his group’s forces implode and his country’s people turn on him. The Uganda bombing is another reason the West has to find an intelligent diplomatic path out of Somalia’s crisis. A military backlash would give Mukhtar Roobow exactly the ammunition that he is looking for.

Aidan Hartley, a reporter for Channel 4 TV in Britain and the author of The Zanzibar Chest, a memoir.