Journalist Turned al Shabaab Commander Sentenced to Death in Somalia for Murdering Reporters

Hassan Hanafi, a 30-year-old former media officer for the militant group, was sentenced on Thursday for the murder of six journalists in the East African country.
March 3, 2016, 6:12pm
Photo by Feisal Omar/Reuters

A former media officer for the Somali Islamist group al Shabaab who arranged news conferences in the years when the militants controlled the capital Mogadishu was sentenced to death on Thursday for the murder of six local journalists.

Hasan Ali, chairman of the Somali military court, told reporters that Hassan Hanafi had admitted to killing one reporter and had been found guilty of killing five others. Several local journalists sat through the court proceedings, with the verdict welcome in a country where many feel those targeting journalists have not been held accountable.

"He will be put to death as soon as possible," Ali said.

Hanafi, 30, has said he joined al Shabaab in 2008 when he was working as a journalist for a local Somali broadcaster. He was arrested in neighboring Kenya last year and then returned to Somalia for trial. He had been promoted to commander in 2009. The following year, he was seriously injured in fighting.

"Al Shabaab killed many journalists, but personally I killed only one," Hanafi said after the sentence was announced. "But I am indifferent if you kill me. You will see if killings will stop even after my death."

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Al Shabaab, whose name means "The Youth," seeks to impose its strict version of sharia law in Somalia, where it frequently unleashes attacks targeting security, government, and foreign targets, as well as hotels and restaurants in the capital. The al Qaeda-linked militants have been active in Somalia since 2006, but were pushed out of Mogadishu and other strongholds by African Union (AU) peacekeeping forces in 2011.

Despite successes against al Shabaab, the group has remained a potent antagonist in Somalia, launching frequent attacks in its bid to overthrow the Western-backed government. Somalia plunged into anarchy in the early 1990s following the toppling of military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, and has been struggling to rebuild in the decades since, particularly in the face of the fight against al Shabaab.

Journalists have been frequent targets for attacks and violence carried out by al Shabaab. The militants are suspected to have been responsible for the deaths of four journalists last year, according to figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Two of the victims were murdered, while the other two killed in suicide bombings, including state-TV and radio reporter Hindia Haji Mohamed. Her husband Liban Ali Nur also died three years earlier in a suicide bombing. Nur had been in charge of news at Somali National TV and two other journalists were also killed in the same 2012 attack.

The group carried out several violent assaults in Somalia in February, including a bombing at the end of a month at a busy junction and a nearby restaurant in the town of Baidoa, killing as many as 55 people. Just two days earlier on February 26, al Shabaab claimed responsibility for a deadly park bombing and an attack at the nearby Somali Youth League hotel.

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Al Shabaab gunmen carried out a siege at a popular beach earlier this year, killing more than a dozen people, and in February a suicide bomber linked to the group detonated a bomb on a plane leaving Mogadishu's international airport. The plane was able to safely land with minor damage to the fuselage, but the bomber was sucked out of the plane through the hole created by the explosion.

The group has also been behind deadly attacks in Kenya and Uganda, which both contribute troops to the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia. With a particular vengeance for Kenya due to its military presence inside the country's borders, attacks against the neighboring countries' civilians and troops have increased since the 2011 AU mission got underway. In January, al Shabaab carried out its deadliest attack against Kenyan troops, reportedly killing some 200 at the AU's El Adde base.