First, Al-Shabaab switched off the internet. Then, they picked a new enemy: mobile phones, or at least the majority of the ones that come equipped with a camera.
Earlier this month, the al Qaeda-linked militant group, which controls vast sections of Somalia and has been engaged in a years-long battle to topple the country’s government, took to the streets of Barawa, a port town south of Mogadishu, ordering residents through loudspeakers to turn in their phones or face the consequences.
The group, which controls the surrounding area and has regularly terrorized the local population, proceeded to confiscate any camera-equipped devices, threatening harsh punishment to anyone who failed to comply with the order.
This isn’t the first time that Al-Shabaab has picked a fight with technology.
Last November, the group ordered residents to turn in their television sets and satellite dishes, weeks after a thwarted effort by US Navy SEALs to capture a local militia leader. Claiming that it violates Islamic principles, the group banned TV — though critics said the blackout was meant to keep the local population away from the news.
"This ban’s real target is TV news stations, which annoy Al-Shabaab by showing viewers not only its atrocities but also the progress that the population has made in the regions from which Al-Shabaab has been expelled,” press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said at the time. “This level of obscurantism recalls the worst period of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and just reinforces Al-Shabaab’s image as a predator of freedom of information that tries to turn the areas it controls into news black holes.”
Earlier this year Al-Shabaab gave the biggest telecommunication company in the country a 15-day ultimatum to switch off its mobile internet service.
Abdirazak Mohamed Nur, the mayor of Mogadishu, told reporters that officials from the Hormuud Telecom provider were forced to turn off the service “at gunpoint.”
Al-Shabaab said that smartphones are used by Western spy agencies to collect information on Muslims, and that any individual found to be violating the ban would be considered as “working with the enemy.”
The group reportedly resorted to such measures after revelations, by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, that the US government was tapping global internet and phone systems to watch over groups like Al-Shabaab.
Mobile internet was introduced to Somalia in 2013, and has proven popular. While the country has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world, the service reached some 125,000 of the country’s 10 million residents.
That was evidently too much of a threat for the militant group, which after banning the internet and ordering people to turn in their phones, started carrying out house-by-house raids to confiscate any remaining devices.
Terrified residents of Barawa largely complied, though some noted the absurdity of the request was a sign of Al-Shabaab’s faltering control over the area. The group has increasingly come under pressure from the Somali National Army and African Union Mission joint military offensive (AMISOM).
“Al-Shabaab is extremely fearful,” Warsame Ali, a Barawe elder, told Sabahi, a news website sponsored by the US army. “They began to inflict more abuse on the residents of Barawe, so that the people do not become aware with al-Shabaab's losses.”
Ali complained that Al-Shabaab forcefully seized his phone even though the device’s camera was not working.
“These men did not even have any knowledge of which phones have functional cameras and those that did not,” he said. “Their minds are stuck on the orders they were given."
Al-Shabaab, which wants to impose a regime of Islamic law over the country, was driven out of the capital two years ago, but retains control of large rural areas and smaller towns, where it regularly launches strikes into Mogadishu and other cities.
The latest attack, on Monday, caused an unconfirmed number of deaths after militants drove a car bomb into a hotel used by African Union peacekeepers and Somali military forces in the central town of Bulobarde. On the same day, a separate attack killed four soldiers in Mogadishu.
It is unclear how effective Al-Shabaab’s attempts to disconnect Somalia’s population have really been. Fixed broadband services, for instance, remained available in the country, even after the mobile internet tune-out.
But so far, the ban on camera-equipped devices has had a different kind of effect: demand for older phone models, without cameras, has skyrocketed, according to Sabahi. And so have the prices of some of the normally cheapest phones on the market.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi