Everything You Have Told Me Is True

The Many Faces of Al Shabaab

April 2019 9781787381247 208pp


Al Shabaab is one of the century’s most successful violent jihadist movements. It has governing power, ruling over millions of Somalis and vast swathes of territory, and kinetic power, committing spectacular acts of violence. But what lies behind the headlines and the bloodshed? Who are Al Shabaab, and why do people join? How does this organisation govern, educate and indoctrinate?

Reporting on Somalia for twenty-five years, Mary Harper has gained extraordinary access to members of Al Shabaab—and, disturbingly, they in turn have access to her. In this engrossing book, she paints the complex picture of life for ordinary people in the group’s shadow—stories of tremendous loss, unbearable compromise, and unexpected profit. She reveals a resilient movement with many faces, and discovers that it can be difficult to know where Al Shabaab begins, and where it ends.


‘An astonishing account of [Al Shabaab]  . . . gives a vivid insight into the lives of the Somalis who exist in the shadow of its terror.’ — The Daily Mail

‘Harper has written the best book in print on Africa’s most significant extremist organisation.’ — The Literary Review

‘Harper has long reported on Somalia for the BBC, and her searing account of Al Shabaab relates with moving detail and nuance the stories of the many Somalis she has met over the years.’ — Foreign Affairs

‘Outstanding … Everything You Have Told Me is True is an essential read for everyone, scholars and lay readers alike, who wants to better understand the workings of Al Shabaab and the everyday lives of ordinary Somalis who live under its rule, or at least its influence, in South-Central Somalia. This volume is also a tribute and an homage to those Somalis, who refuse to give up their struggle and their belief in a better Somalia, a dream for which they are ready to live and die in the shadow of one of the world’s most sophisticated Jihadi movements.’ — African Studies Quarterly

‘Mary Harper’s vivid prose and wealth of personal experience make Everything You Have Told Me Is True a pleasure to read and a valuable supplement to the existing scholarship on Al Shabaab.’ — Michigan War Studies Review

‘An incredibly well-crafted and engaging narrative account of the multiple facets of Al-Shabab … Everything You Have Told Me Is True should be widely read and is particularly a must-read for international politicians and policymakers whose decisions continue to significantly impact Somalia and its people.’ — The Muslim World Book Review

‘Taking you into the world never reached by today’s journalism – cutting through the simplistic headlines of fear – this book is a brilliant description of what it’s like to live within a modern insurgency. If you want to know what’s really going on outside the Western pleasuredome, you should read this book.’ — Adam Curtis, writer–director of Bitter Lake and HyperNormalisation

‘Mary Harper knows more about, cares more about and writes better about Somalia than any other foreign correspondent I know. This book will become the defining account of Al Shabaab and its times.’ — Fergal Keane, former BBC South Africa correspondent

‘Mary Harper has listened to Somalis’ stories for decades, at considerable risk to life and limb. She captures the voices of those who join Al Shabaab, tolerate it, fear it, or would die fighting it. This unique book offers precious insights into the movement, and some slender hope for peace.’ — Michela Wrong, author of Borderlines

‘This brave, nuanced and revelatory book chronicles the emotional and social impact of living in a state in the grip of terror. Mary Harper skilfully unravels the complex network of relationships that leads many Somalis to collaborate with Al Shabaab, and many foreigners to profit from its presence.’ — Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor, Channel 4 News

‘A brilliant book. With brave energy and precision born of long experience, Harper vividly brings to life Al Shabaab fighters as I’ve come to know them over the past decade-and-a-half. This is a must-read for all those interested in the contemporary history of the Horn of Africa.’ — Mohammed Adow, Senior International Correspondent, Al Jazeera English

‘Mary Harper has written the essential book on Al Shabaab. With the gift of simplicity—allowing Somalis from all walks of life to speak for themselves—she has accomplished the remarkable task of allowing the reader to understand Africa’s most resilient jihadist group.’ — Alex de Waal, Executive Director, World Peace Foundation, and Research Professor, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

‘Mary Harper has brilliantly pieced together something rare: an exhaustive account of human suffering that we’ve all collectively failed to notice. She has captured all angles of the conflict, from the fighters’ zero-sum arithmetic to the very human stories of those living in Al Shabaab’s wide zone of influence.’ — Hussein Sheikh Ali, Chairman, Hiraal Institute, and former national security advisor to the Somali government

‘One of the most detailed examinations of Al Shabaab, and a great book about Somalia. Harper has drawn on her long experience reporting on the region to explain the political and social context allowing Al Shabaab to survive, with great sensitivity to the culture and resilience of the Somali people.’ — Richard Barrett, Director, The Global Strategy Network, and former Director of Global Counter-Terrorism Operations, British SIS

‘Mary Harper has written an astonishingly good book—not about Al Shabaab, but about the Somalis who have lived under the militant group’s control for more than a decade, and who know Al Shabaab not only as terrorists, but as brothers, neighbours and friends.’ — Bronwyn Bruton, Deputy Director, Atlantic Council Africa Center

‘A massively insightful and rounded perspective of Al Shabaab’s workings, thinking and governance, put into perspective by the experiences of those living under Al Shabaab. Mary Harper’s journalistic professionalism, her humanity and deep understanding of Somalia make a major contribution to understanding Al Shabaab’s growth and evolution.’ — Mark Bowden, former UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia

‘Only Mary Harper could have written such a vivid and insightful account of the perils and opportunities of daily life under Al Shabaab. This brilliant book allows the reader to understand the resilience of Al Shabaab as a political and military force through the voices of Somalis themselves.’ — Sara Pantuliano, Acting Executive Director, Overseas Development Institute

‘Everything you wanted to know about Al Shabaab but were afraid to ask. This splendid book draws unique insight from Harper’s years of reporting from and on Somalia, benefiting from her sharp journalistic eye and engaging writing. Essential reading for understanding this highly nimble, adaptable and resilient violent Islamist movement.’ — Alex Vines OBE, Head of the Africa Programme, Chatham House

‘No one knows the Horn of Africa—and Somalia—like Mary Harper. No one else could have written such an intimate account of Al Shabaab. Her very human stories bring an important and untold chapter of the region’s recent past—and present—to life.’ — Seth Kaplan, Professorial Lecturer, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and Senior Adviser for the Institute for Integrated Transitions

‘A must-read. Harper tells the story of Somalis and Al Shabaab like no one else before her—taking the reader on a gripping, deftly mapped journey to unmask this secretive, violent group by revealing its complex, and often surprising, human impact.’ — Judith Gardner, co-editor of Somalia – The Untold Story: The War Through the Eyes of Somali Women

‘Mary Harper has written an important and disturbing book on Somalia’s Al Shabaab. Drawing on her personal encounters with Somalis, she describes our complicity in sustaining one of the world’s most enduring violent insurgencies.’ — Mark Bradbury, Rift Valley Institute, and author of Becoming Somaliland

‘Mary Harper has found a unique, compassionate way to tell the complex story of Al Shabaab. Much has been written about the organisation, but rarely do we hear of the human cost of its atrocities, from those most affected. It is their voices that are raised up by this book.’ — Idil Osman, journalist, and Senior Teaching Fellow, Department of Development Studies, SOAS University of London

‘Mary Harper combines long personal experience, analysis, compassion and journalistic craft in this compelling volume—an accessible “must-read” for anyone trying to understand the phenomenon of Al Shabaab.’ — Michael Keating, Executive Director, European Institute of Peace, and former UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Somalia


Mary Harper, the BBC Africa Editor, has reported on Africa and from its conflict zones for a quarter-century. The author of Getting Somalia Wrong?, she has served as an expert witness and advised the European Commission on the Horn of Africa, and contributes to The Times, The Guardian and The Economist.

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