The BBC star stalked by terrorists: Sinister phone calls that leave her sick to the stomach and Somali militants watching her every move is the grim reality of being a journalist in Africa in her own haunting words


April 21, 2019


© Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited | Mary Harper works for the BBC World Service


Frances Hardy for the Daily Mail


The messages are sinister and unnervingly accurate. It is as if an unseen stalker constantly shadows Mary Harper, noting every move she makes — even when she believes she could not possibly be observed — and reporting back to her on the minutiae of her life.

‘You went into a shop on the ground floor of a multi-storey building,’ the now familiar voice on the phone tells her. ‘When you came out, you were holding a tube of Pringles crisps.

‘Then you walked to the bank next door, but it was shut. You knocked on the doors and tried to open them. Your bodyguards were not at all professional. They were wandering about, chatting with their guns slung around their shoulders, instead of keeping watch over you.’

The man, whose voice is soft and quietly assured, goes on to tell her that earlier that day she’d been to a school where the girls wore yellow uniforms.

As Africa Editor for the BBC World Service, Mary, 53, mother to a grown-up son and daughter, has been reporting from Somalia — one of the most dangerous places in the world to work as a journalist — for 25 years.

She is familiar with the voice and its inflections; sometimes sharp and staccato, sometimes wheedling; apparently even concerned.

It belongs to a media contact in the violent Islamist insurgent group Al Shabaab who calls her regularly to inform her of its atrocities. And to remind her that it knows precisely where she is and what she is doing.

In Somalia, where the group controls vast swathes of the country, Al Shabaab is responsible for many thousands of violent deaths. It has attracted recruits from all over the world who are prepared to fight for it.

To the outside world it is known for its most despicable acts of mass violence — the shooting at the upmarket Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013 in which 71 died, the attack on Garissa University College in Kenya in 2015 which killed 147; the devastating truck bombing in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, in October 2017, in which up to 1,000 people lost their lives, one of the worst terror attacks ever to hit the African continent.

Al Shabaab has threatened to attack targets in the UK, the U.S. and France, and arguably as IS loses power, its influence will increase. Its aim is to overthrow the Somali government and set up an Islamic state in the country based on Sharia law, but there are more ambitious members who want to spread its caliphate across the world.

Its ruthlessly efficient intelligence arm has spies everywhere: ‘Cooks, soldiers, mechanics, cleaners, civil servants and street children can all be the eyes and ears of Al Shabaab,’ says Mary. ‘Some sympathise with the movement, while others are so terrified of it that they dare not refuse to carry out its demands.

‘Al Shabaab is not a black-and-white phenomenon. Of course there are those who embrace it entirely and those who reject it. But there is a large grey area in between and plenty of blurred lines.’

The media man, its conduit for channelling information to Mary, tells her in impeccable English — he has learnt it from listening to the BBC — every move she has made during a visit to Baidoa in south-west Somalia.

‘I feel sick to my stomach,’ she explains, ‘because I try to be extremely discreet when I visit Somalia. I tell as few people as possible that I am coming to the country and switch off all my social media accounts when I am there.

‘I change my local phone number regularly and use secure messaging apps whenever I can. Meetings are arranged at the last minute, with times and locations often changed.

‘I do not talk openly about my internal travel plans, only sharing them with my two trusted security advisers. How could Al Shabaab know all these details?’

‘We have been monitoring you wherever you go,’ the voice tells her. ‘We have people in the government, the security forces, NGOs, and the media who tell us everything.’

He goes on to talk about the people she has met in Mogadishu. He gets it right every time. She says, ‘It makes me think of a phrase I hear so often from Somalis: “Al Shabaab is everywhere and you never know who is Al Shabaab.” ’

Al Shabaab have Mary’s British phone number and when she flies to London — she spends about a third of the year in Africa and the rest in the UK — she ‘almost invariably’ receives a call as she is collecting her luggage or in a cab back home.

‘I am asked about my trip, what the weather is like in the UK, and given a blow-by-blow account of what I got up to in Somalia. They must have someone in the airport telling them I’ve got on the plane, which unnerves me.’

The calls have come regularly over the past two years; almost all from the same man. ‘When he is telling me about Al Shabaab atrocities his voice is staccato, as if he is reciting by rote. Then it can become quite gentle, even tender, which is even more disturbing.

‘He asks me if I’ve been thinking about my religion. (He often attempts to persuade me to join the Muslim faith.)

‘He tells me, “You might think you have a lot of Somali friends, but they are not your real friends. Your true friends would save you from hellfire, which is where you will end up if you do not convert to Islam.”’

The voice affects concern, too, when he calls while she is driving her car in England. ‘He says, “You mustn’t answer your phone in the car or you’ll have an accident or be arrested.” ’

I ask why she imagines he tells her so accurately about her movements; why he also professes concern about her welfare.

‘It might be to show me how efficient Al Shabaab are. It might just be showing off,’ she speculates. ‘And perhaps he is trying to win me over, to be sympathetic to them. I don’t think the aim is to unsettle me, because I am useful to them. Although I give them very little airtime, there will be a short line if they take responsibility for a bombing.’

Nonetheless, I say, as a lone and conspicuous Western woman, she must be terrified of being killed. But she says her contact insists she is not on their target list.

‘Although he says, “If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time that’s just your bad luck.” And I got very angry about this because a good friend, a Somali journalist, was maimed in an attack, and I was told, “It was his fault. He went to a place where Government people eat.” They have this cold logic about people who get hurt or killed like this.’

Mary is talking to me as her book about Al Shabaab is published. It is an astonishing account of the movement and gives a vivid insight into the lives of the Somalis who exist in the shadow of its terror.

We meet at her mum Kay’s flat back in Britain — book-lined and busy with memorabilia from her African travels — and it is easy to see that Mary’s love of the continent is inherited.

Kay, 74, a former aid worker, was a nurse with Save the Children in Mogadishu. Mary’s father, Professor Malcolm Harper, 83, taught at the University of Nairobi where Mary and her three siblings spent part of their childhood. She then boarded at Bedales and went on to Cambridge to study anthropology and archaeology.

But it was her mum’s satellite phone that secured her job with the BBC. ‘It was the 1990s, before mobile phones, and I’d just joined the BBC’s African service. Mum’s satellite phone gave me a means of communication,’ she says.

I ask Kay if she worries about her intrepid daughter: ‘You do worry, but you’re also proud because she does her job so well. I’d never say, “Don’t do it because I’m scared for you.” But I’m always very happy when she’s safely back in England.’

Slender, gentle in manner and softly spoken, Mary’s unassuming demeanour masks a spine of steel. ‘I don’t think of myself as brave, but I am resourceful,’ she says. ‘I know how to make my way.’ I ask about her children — a son, aged 28 and 22-year-old daughter — and she is unforthcoming.

Wasn’t she scared of leaving them motherless when she went to Somalia during their childhood? I press her. She declines to answer, other than to say that she travelled much less when they were little, and ‘took fewer risks’. ‘I keep my work and personal lives compartmentalised,’ she says with finality. When I ask about a husband or partner, she says merely that she is single.

It is, of course, unsurprising that she does not elaborate: Al Shabaab know enough about her already. Since she has been back in London, her ‘contact’ has phoned her. ‘He asked, “Have you left the BBC?” I’ve been away from work for a while, and it was one of those concerned calls.

It is hard to imagine the peril in which Mary operates.

She came within a whisker of death on New Year’s Day, 2014, when the Jazeera Palace hotel in Mogadishu was attacked just a few doors away from where she was enjoying a meal with friends.

‘Suddenly, an enormous blast thunders through the air,’ she writes. ‘It is as if the sound has hit us physically.

‘Flames burst out of the hotel; the mangled remains of the suicide vehicle which was rammed into the perimeter wall lies among other destroyed cars.’

In Somalia, Mary reports, ‘girls as young as nine years old are abducted by Al Shabaab and forced into marriage. Boys are terrorised into joining. “I didn’t want to,” one child confesses, “but if you refuse they will kill you.” ’

Anyone working for ‘infidels’ is hounded: Mary visits a sprawling camp in Mogadishu, crammed with displaced people escaping the insurgents. ‘I made and repaired soldiers’ uniforms,’ a tailor tells her. ‘Al Shabaab told me to stop making clothes for infidels, but I had to.

‘I was also afraid of the soldiers (the government forces). Both the soldiers and Al Shabaab could kill me. I’d have been killed for repairing uniforms and killed for refusing to. The only thing to do was abandon my livelihood and come here.’

The choice is often invidious: join, die — or flee and face destitution in the camps.

The calls to Mary continue, unabated: she logs as many as 17 missed in a single hour of one day.

In June last year, she went to Mogadishu, staying for the entire trip in secure accommodation in its airport compound. ‘Yet still the phone call came when I got back to London. “How was your trip to Mogadishu?”

‘I tell my contact this makes me very scared. He replies, his voice almost tender, “You don’t need to be afraid of us. We have hundreds of enemies, but you’re not one of them.” ’

Perhaps it is enough, for al Shabaab, that she is forced to listen to their gloating announcements of massacres and bombings; enough too, that she knows their omnipresent eyes follow her everywhere.

Published Date: April 19, 2019

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