David Amess murder: How is Britain tackling the terror threat from Somalia?

Whitehall has spent millions on a Somali anti-terrorist unit, yet little is known about its ability to fight Al Shabab – amid fears the militant group radicalised the suspected killer of Sir David Amess MP.

Britain’s ambassador to Somalia visits the police Goodir Unit (Photo: FCDO / Twitter)
Britain’s ambassador to Somalia visits the police Goodir Unit (Photo: FCDO / Twitter)

The UK Foreign Office has spent around £24 million since 2013 assisting an armed police squad in Somalia whose counter-terrorism operations are shrouded in secrecy.

Funding for Somalia’s Goodir Unit is intended to stop attacks by Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked militant group in East Africa that claims to have recruited British Somalis from London, Cardiff, Birmingham and Bristol.

But despite operating for more than eight years, its officers had failed to arrest any British nationals in Somalia by May this year, Declassified has found.

The revelation, which comes in a freedom of information response from the Foreign Office, follows the murder of Sir David Amess, the veteran Conservative MP stabbed to death on Friday. 

The alleged killer is Ali Harbi Ali, the son of Somali immigrants, who had been referred to the Prevent counter-extremism scheme.

While his motive remains unclear, Scotland Yard have said it will probe any potential links between him and Al Shabab or Islamic State, who may have radicalised him online.

Ali’s father, Harbi Ali Kullane, has condemned the attack. He previously worked for Somalia’s UN-backed prime minister, a politician targeted by Islamic extremists.

Kullane has been pictured with British diplomats in Mogadishu, where the UK embassy works with the Goodir Unit. Britain’s ambassador to Somalia, Kate Foster, visited the squad to discuss its future as recently as June. 

In 2019, UK diplomats gave the Goodir Unit £81,000 worth of ammunition and ballistic shields. The Somali police did not respond to our questions about how many terror suspects the Goodir Unit has killed or captured.

Al Shabab, which means The Youth in Arabic, was formed in the early 2000s with the aim of expelling foreign forces from Somalia and implementing its extreme interpretation of Islamic law, which is opposed by the country’s Sufi Muslim majority.

Private companies

The Foreign Office has paid several companies to train the Goodir Unit. One contractor, Axiom International, is led by former Metropolitan police commissioner Lord John Stevens. 

Axiom received £646,000 in 2017 to train the Goodir Unit, according to the government’s contract finder website. The tender notice explained: “The Goodir Unit comprises a hard arrest unit, the Rapid Reaction Team and an investigative unit, the Counter Terrorism Unit.”

It added: “The objective of the project is to train the police units to such a standard that they can conduct compliant independent day/night detention operations, fully competent in the recovery, preservation and continuity of evidence.”

Another contractor, GardaWorld, has advertised for two “full time mentors” with “excellent inter-personal skills” to help Britain instruct the squad.

Their recruitment advert said the Goodir Unit trains at Mogadishu airport, a heavily fortified part of Somalia’s capital that houses the British embassy – where diplomats live in a series of shipping containers.

“The Goodir Unit comprises a hard arrest unit, the Rapid Reaction Team”

Coaching provided by the company covered “high risk arrest situations” and “the use of escalation up to and including lethal force,” as well as how to handle the paperwork.

GardaWorld said Goodir Unit officers “have been trained using UK case files,” adding that its members “are able to book prisoners into a UK compliant custody.”

Teaching the unit to mirror Scotland Yard’s standards would make it easier for evidence gathered against British-Somali suspects to be used in UK courts.

The Foreign Office told Declassified in May that it would be informed if the Goodir Unit arrested any British nationals, but said it was not aware of any having taken place.

Secrecy

Although the involvement of both Axiom and GardaWorld is listed online, the Foreign Office initially refused to confirm their role in response to freedom of information requests by Declassified.

Officials were reluctant to release even basic details about the Goodir Unit, such as what year UK training began, claiming transparency could jeopardise national security, international relations, commercial confidentiality and even health and safety.

Funding for the Goodir Unit is funneled through Whitehall’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, an opaque aid scheme that a Parliamentary committee has described as a “slush fund”.

In addition to police mentoring, British soldiers train the Somali army to fight Al Shabab, and UK special forces are believed to conduct operations against the terror group in neighbouring Kenya.

The Islamist militants continue to carry out deadly attacks, killing eight people in a suicide car bombing near the Presidential palace in Mogadishu last month.

Meanwhile Somalia’s president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed faces a legitimacy crisis after postponing elections when his mandate expired in February and has increased his executive powers.

Whitehall efforts to train foreign forces for the so-called War on Terror have recently come under increasing scrutiny.

British-backed Afghan troops capitulated to the Taliban in August and last July a UK-supported police unit, trained to fight Al Qaeda in Mali, shot dead 14 unarmed protesters.

GardaWorld declined to comment on its work in Somalia. The UK Foreign Office and Axiom had not responded at the time of publication.

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