How Somalia's legendary 'Mad Mullah' prefigured the rise of Osama bin Laden—and the 'forever war' between Islam and the West.
At Dul Madoba, which means Black Hill in Somali, a jihadist known to his enemies as the Mad Mullah enjoyed a great victory in 1913. It is a place and a moment of legend in these parts, but the site remains as it was, a wilderness of thorn bushes and termite mounds. No heroic memorial marks the spot. No restored ruin, no sturdy plinth holding up a statue. The place is venerated in other ways.
Every Somali with an education knows what happened here, back when the area was a protectorate ruled by British authorities. Some have memorized verses of a classic Somali poem written by the mullah. The gruesome ode is addressed to Richard Corfield, a British political officer who commanded troops on this dusty edge of the empire. The mullah instructs Corfield, who was slain in battle, on what he should tell God's helpers on his way to hell. "Say: 'In fury they fell upon us.'/Report how savagely their swords tore you."
The mullah urges Corfield to explain how he pleaded for mercy, and how his eyes "stiffened" with horror as spear butts hit his mouth, silencing his "soft words." "Say: 'When pain racked me everywhere/Men lay sleepless at my shrieks.' " Hyenas eat Corfield's flesh, and crows pluck at his veins and tendons. The poem ends with a demand that Corfield tell God's servants that the mullah's militants "are like the advancing thunderbolts of a storm, rumbling and roaring."
They rumbled and roared for two full decades. The British launched five military expeditions in the Horn of Africa to capture or kill Muhammad Abdille Hassan, and never succeeded (though they came close). British officers had superior firepower, including the first self-loading machine gun, the Maxim. But the charismatic mullah knew his people and knew the land: he hid in caves, and crossed deserts by drinking water from the bellies of dead camels. "I warn you of this," he wrote in one of many messages to his British foes. "I wish to fight with you. I like war, but you do not." The sentiment would be echoed almost a century later, in Osama bin Laden's 1996 declaration of war against the Americans: "These [Muslim] youths love death as you love life."
History doesn't really repeat itself, but it can feed on itself, particularly in this part of the world. Sagas of past jihads become inspirations for new wars, new vengeance, until the continuum of violence can seem interminable. In the Malakand region of northwest Pakistan, where the Taliban today has been challenging state power, jihadists fought the British at the end of the 19th century. In Waziristan, a favored Qaeda hideout, the Faqir of Ipi waged jihad against the British in the 1930s and '40s. Among the first to take on the British in Africa was Muhammad Ahmad, the self-styled "Mahdi," or redeemer, whose forces killed and beheaded Gen. Charles George Gordon at Khartoum. But no tale more closely tracks today's headlines, and shows the uneven progress of the last century, than that of Muhammad Abdille Hassan.
His story sheds light on what is now called the "forever war," the ongoing battle of wills and ideologies between governments of the West and Islamic extremists. There's no simple lesson here, no easy formula to bend history in a new direction. It's clear, even to many Somalis, that the mullah was brutal and despotic, and that his most searing legacy is a land of hunger and ruin. But he's also admired—for his audacity, his fierce eloquence, his stubborn defiance in the face of a superior power. Among Somalis, the mullah's sins are often forgiven because he was fighting an occupier, a foreign power that was in his land imposing foreign values. It is a sentiment that is shared today by those Muslims who give support to militants and terrorists, and one the West would do well to better understand.
The Rise of the Mullah
Muhammad Abdille Hassan was slightly over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and intense eyes. Somalis called him Sayyid, or "Master." (They still do.) He got much of his religious training in what is now Saudi Arabia, where he studied a fundamentalist brand of Islam related to the Wahhabi teachings that have inspired Al Qaeda.
Stories abound about how he came to be called the Mad Mullah. According to one popular version, when he returned to the Somali port of Berbera in 1895, a British officer demanded customs duty. The Sayyid brusquely asked why he should be paying a foreigner to enter his own country. Other Somalis asked the Brit to pay the man no mind—he was just a crazy mullah. The name stuck.
Many Somalis would come to think him mad in another sense—that he was touched by God. "He was very charismatic," says historian Aw Jama Omer Issa, who is 85 years old and interviewed many of the Sayyid's followers before they died off. "Whenever you came to him, he would overwhelm you. You would lose your senses…To whomever he hated, he was very cruel. To those he liked, he was very kind." His forces wore distinctive white turbans and called themselves Dervishes.
The first British officer to hunt the mullah and attempt to crush his insurgency was Lt. Col. Eric Swayne, a dashing fellow who had previously been on safari to Somaliland, hunting for elephant and rhino, kudu and buffalo. He was dispatched from India, and brought with him an enterprising Somali who had once worked as a bootblack polishing British footwear. Musa Farah would serve one British overlord after another. He would gain power, wealth, and influence beyond anything he could have imagined, including a sword of honor from King Edward VII.
Swayne's orders were to accept nothing short of unconditional surrender. For intelligence he relied on Dervish prisoners, who sometimes gave him false information. "We were in extremely dense bush, so I decided to move on very slowly, hoping to find a clearing, which was confidently reported by prisoners," Swayne wrote in one after-action report. But the bush only became thicker. Soon the Dervishes were advancing from all sides. Men and beasts fell all around, as great shouts of "Allah! Allah!" rang out. Somali "friendlies" panicked and fell back. Pack animals stampeded—"a thousand camels with water tins and ammunition boxes jammed against each other…scattering their loads everywhere."
The British faced an enemy "who offered no target for attack, no city, no fort, no land…in short, there was no tangible military objective," wrote Douglas Jardine, who served in the Somaliland Protectorate from 1916 to 1921 and later wrote a history of the conflict. One defeat was so humiliating that some British soldiers imagined they had seen a "white man" among the Dervishes—how else could these "natives" be inflicting so much pain? At times, the British coordinated with forces from Christian Ethiopia in an attempt to trap the mullah. The Dervishes were able to avoid capture by crossing the border into Italy's colonial territory to the south.
A Mouthful of Spit
Somali jihadists engage in a similar type of war today. The Qaeda-connected group Al-Shabab, based in the area that was once colonized by Italy, targets Somali land to the north. On Oct. 29 of last year, six suicide bombers hit the Ethiopian trade mission, a United Nations office, and the presidential headquarters in Hargeisa, killing at least 25 people. A few of the plotters were later captured and are being held at a 19th-century prison in Berbera, along with others convicted of terrorist attacks.
When I visited the Berbera prison recently, the warden told me the militants wouldn't see visitors. The guards didn't want trouble. "These men are serving life sentences and have nothing to lose," said one. "They don't give a damn." Finally the warden agreed to let a Somali colleague and me walk past the barred cell, which housed all 11 of the men. It was part of a decrepit free-standing building that stood in the center of a dirt compound.
We could see figures in the shadows behind the bars. I asked from a distance if anyone spoke Arabic. One bearded man emerged and said with a smile (in Arabic), "Accept God's word, and you'll be safe." Another prisoner, older and larger, told him to shut up, then shouted in our direction: "Get lost, dog," and blew a mouthful of spit. Our guards hurried us away. My Somali interpreter said later that the spitting prisoner was known as Indho Cade, or "White Eyes," and was serving life for shooting an Italian aid worker in the head.
The Islamist radicals see parallels between their struggle and the war waged by the Sayyid. Osama bin Laden's "enemies may call him a terrorist," one top Shabab militant told a NEWSWEEK reporter in 2006, defending the Qaeda leader. It is "something that exists in the world"—a form of infidel propaganda—"to name someone a terrorist, [just] as the British colonialists called the Somali hero Muhammad Abdille Hassan the Mad Mullah."
The militants have sometimes used the mullah's words as a rallying cry. During the American intervention in Mogadishu in the early 1990s, pamphlets appeared in the city with a copy of the Sayyid's poem to Richard Corfield. "Say: 'My eyes stiffened as I watched with horror;/The mercy I implored was not granted.' " It's impossible to gauge the impact the poem had on the thinking of Somali fighters. What is known is that sometime later, militants dragged the nearly naked bodies of American soldiers through the streets, images that were captured on camera and beamed back to the United States.
In an age before television, the Internet, and streaming video, the mullah used poetry as a propaganda tool, both to gain sympathy and to terrify his foes. Today poetry is also written and recited by bin Laden and just about every other Qaeda leader with a following. The poems proliferate on jihadi Web sites.
The Final Campaign
As the mullah gained strength and power, some British politicians argued for a more aggressive stance—a "surge," in today's parlance. Others thought the whole enterprise was a waste of re-sources. Among the latter was Winston Churchill, who briefly visited Somali-land in 1907 when he was undersecretary of state for the colonies.
Churchill had already engaged other "mad mullahs." As a young man, he served as a military correspondent in the North-West Frontier province of what is now Pakistan, where he battled jihadists and wrote about it in his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. Then he fought the followers of the Mahdi at Omdurman, in Sudan. He disparaged Islam. "Individual Muslims may show splendid qualities…but the influence of [this] religion paralyses the social developement [sic] of those who follow it," he wrote in The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan. "No stronger retrograde force exists in the world." (In the same passage, he also noted that the "civilization of modern Europe" had been able to survive largely because Christianity "is sheltered in the strong arms of science.")
After seeing the Somaliland port of Berbera, Churchill wrote a tough-minded report. "The policy of making small forts, in the heart of wild countries…is nearly always to be condemned," he wrote. Britain should withdraw from the interior and defend only the port of Berbera. After much debate, London ordered a policy of "coastal concentration." Officers in Somaliland could further arm the "friendlies," but were not to engage the mullah themselves. Chaos ensued, as clans battled each other for ascendancy and loot. Tens of thousands of Somalis were killed.
This was the dilemma that Corfield faced in 1913. The son of a church rector, he had a moralistic streak. But he'd also served in the Boer War and was "made of stuff that does not thrive in offices," wrote biographer H. F. Prevost Battersby. When the Dervishes began marauding against friendly clans, Corfield rashly defied orders and went in pursuit. A Dervish soldier shot him dead 25 minutes after the battle at Dul Madoba began. Some of the mullah's fighters later took Corfield's severed arm as a war trophy to present to their master. "It was a great morale booster for the Dervishes, no doubt about it," says the Somali-born Rutgers historian Said Samatar. "Corfield was a symbol—the British colonial man. In a sense it was a blow against colonialism."
To some in Britain, Corfield was a fool who damaged national prestige by disobeying orders. To others, he was a man of principle—he was "the straightest, whitest, most honorable man I have ever met," said one colleague, displaying the casual racism of the time. The prevailing view was that Corfield's death had occurred, in part, because the British had encouraged the mullah by withdrawing to the coast and seeming reluctant to fight. It "had been proved once more that 'there is nothing so warlike as inactivity,' " wrote Jardine.
The decisive turn in the conflict came only years later. In 1920 a decision was taken to send warplanes—one of the early uses of air power to put down an insurgency. Churchill, by now the minister of war and air, had become convinced that air power could do what ground forces had never been able to accomplish. He was instrumental in getting backing for the mission.
The Z Unit arrived in Somaliland disguised as geologists, and assembled the de Havilland 9A planes on site. By this time, the mullah had grown tired of running around the bush and had built many stone forts. On Jan. 21, 1920, he awoke at his fort in Medishe expecting nothing out of the ordinary. He was sitting on a balcony with his uncle, other Somalis, and a Turkish adviser.
According to Jardine's account, Somali aides suggested the spectral objects coming out of the sky might be the chariots of God coming to escort the Sayyid to heaven. But five minutes after a first pass, the pilots returned and dropped bombs. "This first raid almost finished the war, as it was afterwards learned that a bomb dropped on Medishe Fort killed one of the mullah's amirs on whom he was leaning at the time, and the mullah's own clothing was singed," wrote Flight Lt. F. A. Skoulding, who took part in the raid.
For two weeks the planes provided air support to ground forces—including some organized by the mullah's Somali nemesis, Musa Farah. But the mullah, hiding in caves and outwitting his pursuers, again managed to escape. The British made a peace offering; the mullah responded by listing conditions of his own, including a payment of gold coins, diamonds, cash, pearls, feathers of 900 ostriches, two pieces of ivory, and books, all of which he said had been taken from him. Somali allies of the British chased him farther into the bush, where he aimed to rebuild his forces once more. But the mullah succumbed to flu later that year. With his death, his Dervish movement died out.
Jardine didn't gloat. "Intensely as the Somalis feared and loathed the man whose followers had looted their stock, robbed them of their all, raped their wives, and murdered their children, they could not but admire and respect one who, being the embodiment of their idea of Freedom and Liberty, never admitted allegiance to any man, Moslem or Infidel," he wrote.
Up the Black Hill
In the mullah's old battlegrounds, the tensions of the past are alive and the divisions are complex. Ever since the overthrow of the Somali government in the early 1990s, southern Somalia has been a Mad Max landscape of warlords, terrorists, and pirates. (The mullah's statue once stood in Mogadishu, but looters long ago tore it down and sold it for scrap.) The northern territory of Somaliland, however, is relatively stable. The region, dominated by a clan that generally aligned itself with the British during the protectorate, declared its independence from the rest of Somalia in 1991. Somaliland has held free elections and maintained a very fragile stability, while the rest of Somalia has become a void on the political map.
Somalilanders are pleading for diplomatic recognition—as an autonomous region if not a full-fledged state—so the area can attract foreign investment and be a part of the world. As it is, So-ma-li-land's public schools lack books and other supplies, and the number of private madrassas is growing. Young people with no opportunities smuggle themselves across deserts to Libya, hoping to board a creaky vessel to Europe, or they jump aboard a dhow to Yemen. Others join Al-Shabab. "The whole nation is a big prison," says Abdillahi Duale, Somaliland's foreign minister. "We are nurturing an infant democracy under trying circumstances in a tough neighborhood…and all we're getting is a slap on the back."
Many Somalis, not surprisingly, are ambivalent about the mullah. Rashid Abdi, who follows current wars and abuses in the region for the International Crisis Group, recalls learning the Sayyid's poetry as a child, and can still recite some of his verses by heart. He's also aware that the mullah was a warlord who committed abuses very similar to those that Abdi chronicles today. "There is nobody who can claim to be a Somali historian who can whitewash the atrocities of Muhammad Abdille Hassan," Abdi told me on a phone call from Nairobi, Kenya, where he's stationed. "He wanted to unify the Somalis, and if he had to break a few clans to do that, he would. In the evening he might craft a poem about his dying horse, and the same day he might have burned down whole villages, killing hundreds of people. It's the nature and the tragedy of how Somalis have existed all through the years and centuries."
Hadraawi, a renowned Somali poet who goes by a single name, has mixed feelings about the Sayyid. "He was a power maniac…a dictator," he says. Still, Hadraawi admires the man for his unequaled talent as a Somali poet and the leadership he showed in the struggle against colonial powers. "He was the light I was following in my youth—my guide," says Hadraawi, who was a teenager during the heady days of Somali in-de-pend-ence in 1960. "It was later on that I realized his mistakes." Hadraawi still rejects the name Mad Mullah—mostly, he suggests, because it's a simplistic caricature.
Hadraawi is my companion on a trek to the Black Hill. The journey from the capital, Hargeisa, is long, but not as difficult as it was in Corfield's time. To get there, a foreigner is required to fill out an "escort-authorization form" for the "Special Protection Unit" of the police and hire two armed guards for $20 a day. The area is much safer than the chaotic mess to the south, or the pirate-infested coastline of Puntland to the east. But ever since terrorists killed the Italian aid worker and two British teachers in 2003, the government has required foreigners to travel with armed guards.
Hadraawi, who has spent time in London, has found a way to honor Hassan without admiring all that he was. Rather than dwelling on his more violent and divisive poems, he has focused more recently on the mullah's astonishing knowledge of the natural world. "The poems I like are not political," he says. "He writes about trees and stars, the rivers and rains and seasons…He'll tell you about the camel, and he'll capture the innermost nature of the camel."
When Hadraawi and I trek up the Black Hill, we know there is no victory monument to the Sayyid there. But we've heard of another memorial, a marker for Richard Corfield. One source has suggested that it's a pillar three meters high; another believes it's made of white stone. Perhaps it has some writing on it. Nobody really knows: it's out there in the bush.
At the tiny village of Dul Madoba, we pick up a guide who thinks he can find the place. Then we travel on a road more populated by goats than by vehicles, until we turn off the tarmac between thorn bushes and drive a short distance till we can go no farther. With guards in tow, we get out and hike. We pass termite mounds that stand like giant sentries. A neon-yellow grasshopper flits by, and a wild hare dodges among some brush.
Up the Black Hill we march. As the sun is near to setting, we come to a giant pile of large brown rocks. It's a burial place, and the guide insists this is Corfield's tomb, but his tone doesn't inspire confidence. The rock pile looks more like a tomb from the Cushitic period, before the advent of Islam. We scout around a bit more, but the monument can't be found. Soon we spy another giant pile of rocks on another small ridge. It seems there are several tombs up here of uncertain origin. But none of these are likely for Corfield. Nor are they Dervish graves. The Sayyid's soldiers, anxious to make off with their lives and their loot, left their dead as they fell on the field. They believed the souls of their Dervish brothers were already enjoying the pleasures of paradise.
Verses from the poem "The Death of Richard Corfield" come from a translation by B. W. Andrzejewski and I. M. Lewis.