Dr. Matteo Gemolo, Cardiff University
The images of Italian aid worker Silvia Romano landing at Ciampino airport in Rome on May 10, have been shared around the globe.
Her conversion to Islam has been the subject of controversial debates on several media outlets. Romano has denied all rumors about being forced into marriage with one of her kidnappers. Since the moment she took off her surgical mask in front of the cameras, her facial expressions and body language have been meticulously scrutinized and often presented as alleged evidence that she might have fallen victim to Stockholm syndrome. The street where she now lives in Milan is being patrolled by police, after Romano received a flurry of threatening messages.
For some, Romano has gone from being the victim of physical and psychological torture at the hands of a foreign jihadist organization, to being insulted and attacked on social media by the far right. To put it bluntly, her homecoming reception has been nothing short of grotesque. The lack of a shared sense of solidarity — together with such a morbid interest in her private life — have tainted the story of her release with unnecessary and bigoted rumors.
However, aside from the disgraceful and misogynistic treatment she has received, a number of legitimate queries about her rescue operation and kidnappers still remain unanswered: did the Italian government pay a ransom for Romano’s release? And if so, what diplomatic (or otherwise) role have countries like Turkey and Qatar played in such an operation? Should Romano’s kidnapping be analyzed as an isolated case of terrorism or was her abduction a part of a well-established extortive strategy carried out by jihadist groups with the intent of strengthening their local power and gaining international exposure?
In order to answer to the abovementioned questions, we must first look at the hard facts of this case. Romano was most likely kidnapped by Kenyan common criminals for extortion purposes. Captured from her home in the small rural village of Chakama (Kenya), she was forced — mostly on foot — on a roughly four-week journey and later sold to al-Shabaab militants. Once in Somalia, she was held hostage for a total of 18 months during which she moved around six times. She fell ill during the course of her captivity and was handed a Quran by her abductors, which she began reading almost every day. When she was released in mid-May, she publicly declared her conversion to Islam.
Al-Shabaab: A violent extremist group
Al-Shabaab is a jihadist group based in East Africa. Born out of the armed wing of the ICU (Islamic Court Union) in 2006, it began acquiring control over large parts of southern Somalia, including its capital, Mogadishu. It later splintered into a number of smaller factions following its defeat by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which was backed by Ethiopian military allies. Since that moment, it has become one of the most influential and visible terrorist organizations operating in the Horn of Africa, thanks to its alliance with neighboring fundamentalist groups such as al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.
After an incursion by the Kenyan Army, however, the group has shrunk in size and influence. However, al-Shabaab still controls certain areas of Somalia and has mounted attacks against Western forces and civilians in the region. In the most notorious attack, al-Shabaab stormed Garissa University College in Kenya on April 2, 2015, killing 148 people and injuring 79. The jihadist group also works closely with criminal gangs and pirates, smuggling money, weapons, drugs, trafficking ivory, extorting NGOs, recruiting fighters, corrupting government officials and, of course, kidnapping.
Al-Shabaab also enforces its harsh interpretation of sharia law and wants to establish an Islamic state in Somalia and neighboring regions. A Human Rights Watch report compiled during 2009 (the year when al-Shabaab was at its zenith, controlling over 80 percent of southern Somalia) disclosed complaints from dozens of Somalis who said they had been beaten up, flogged and imprisoned for committing haram (forbidden) behaviors, such as listening to music, playing board games, wearing ‘un-Islamic’ clothes and not respecting segregation between men and women. Sitting outside with a male neighbor (as reported by a nineteen-year-old woman from Kismayo) could land someone in jail for years, while refusing to wear a full-body jilbab (as testified by a Mogadishu woman) could lead to be thrown into a shipping container for weeks. Gold and silver teeth could be forcibly pulled out from people with unsterilized tools as a punishment for being ‘vein.’ Those engaged in homosexual acts could be stoned to death. The question then arises: how could such a fundamentalist and violent environment produce a voluntary conversion to Islam?
A track record of kidnapping for ransom
As many other jihadist groups in Africa and the Middle East, al-Shabaab has a long and ill-famed history of kidnapping. In November 2008, the group seized two Italian nuns (Maria Teresa Olivero, 67, and Caterina Giraudo, 60) employed as aid workers in El Wak, a Kenyan border town. They were abducted from their home, forced to wear a burqa (an outer-garment that covers a woman from head to toe) and brought to Mogadishu where they were held hostage until their release in February 2009, upon an alleged ransom payment of nearly $2 million . On its part, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied the ransom payment.
In July 2009, al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam gunmen kidnapped two French security consultants working for the government from the Sahafi hotel in Mogadishu. One of the hostages, Marc Aubriere, managed to escape from Hizbul Islam kidnappers on August 26, 2009. However, there are conflicting reports on whether Aubriere actually escaped or was let go in exchange for ransom. The other hostage, Denis Allex, remained in the hands of al-Shabaab for more than 18 months and he was eventually killed in a botched rescue attempt in Bulo Marer on January 11, 2013.
In December 2010, Spaniards Juan Alfonso Rey Echeverri and José Alfonso García, captain and boatswain of a Mozambican fishing vessel, were kidnapped by Somali pirates southwest of the Comoros Islands (Indian Ocean) along with 19 Mozambicans and three Indonesians. This happened at a time when al-Shabaab worked closely with local pirates and such operations proved to be reliable sources of income. The two Spaniards were released on May 14, 2011 after a ransom of $5 million dollars was paid.
The list goes on. In October 2011, two Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) workers were kidnapped in Dadaab camp (Garissa county) in October 2011. In February 2016, Kenyan businessman James Gashamba was held hostage for 15 months. In September 2017, Kenya’s Secretary of Public Works, died after being injured in a rescue operation by the Elite forces.
All these kidnappings demonstrate that al-Shabaab has a clear and consistent pattern of targeting foreign workers with the intent of bribing their respective governments for ransom pay. So, Romano’s abduction must be viewed within this context and whether or not the Italian government has paid a ransom in exchange for her release is a legitimate question.
Turkey’s role in Romano’s release
As recently reported by the ISPI (Italian Institute for International Political Studies), Romano’s release was secured by the joint efforts of at least three international intelligence services: the Italian External Intelligence and Security Agency (AISE), the Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) and the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT). Turkey’s involvement in such an operation should not surprise anyone. Since 2011, Ankara has been increasingly expanding its influence into Somalia, playing a major role in mediating local disputes and, according to former Somali diplomat Abukar Arman, “digging water wells, rebuilding roads and erecting hospitals”. Turkey also controls Mogadishu’s port and airport.
When Romano was released and brought to the UN base in Mogadishu, she was reportedly wearing a bulletproof vest with the coat of arms of the old Ottoman empire in sight. American and British diplomats were reportedly taken aback by this — angry that they had not been warned beforehand. It was clear to them and the rest of the world, that if ransom money was paid to al-Shabaab, it was not coming directly from Rome.
Nevertheless, Turkey alone would not have had enough leverage or interest to negotiate with al-Shabaab for Romano’s release. The question then arises: who could directly profit from her release and be willing to act as an intermediary between Rome and al-Shabaab? The answer is Qatar.
Qatar and Turkey: overlapping interests
Since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Turkey and Qatar have been aligning their regional policy and backing Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Qatar’s support for various terrorist and sectarian groups prompted the Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt) to boycott Qatar and impose a sea and air embargo in June 2017. Since then, Ankara has stepped up its support for Doha and even deployed troops to the Gulf peninsula to help train Qatar’s military.
Qatar and Italy: expanding economic ties
On its part, Italy has strengthened its economic relationship with Qatar since 2016 by selling seven Fincantieri warships for €4 billion, 28 NH 90 helicopters for €3 billion and signing an agreement for €6 billion for 24 Typhoon fighters from the Eurofighter consortium, of which Leonardo-Finmeccanica has a 36 percent stake. Meanwhile, Qatar has de facto established itself as one of the largest foreign investors in Italy. What is more, on May 27, 2020 the Italian parliament ratified an agreement on education, university and scientific research with Qatar, which was first signed in 2012 by former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and former Qatari Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani.
In January 2020, Italian President Sergio Mattarella payed a visit to Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani to consolidate their long-standing partnership. Accompanying Mattarella was an important man: General Luciano Carta, head of AISE, who would soon become the president of Leonardo, which is a global high-tech Aerospace, Defence and Security company, with revenues of €13.8 billion. Invested in such a double role, Carta was the right man at the right place.
Somalia’s uranium mines: an economic opportunity
Meanwhile, Qatar has reportedly been running several operations in the central regions of Mudug and Galgadug — occupied by the Aer subclan — which represents the backbone of al-Shabaab. Doha’s main interest lies in their uranium mines. Although Qatar does not have any nuclear power plants yet, it could nonetheless sell the uranium to another country who does have them — its ally Iran for example, which has strengthened its relationship with Doha since the boycott was put into place.
As the future president of Leonardo, Carta arguably has a vested interest in seeing Qatar succeed in such an operation which could have economically reinforced their upcoming collaboration (as claimed by Massimo A. Alberizzi and Monica A. Mistretta in their dossier for Africa ExPress). Meanwhile, Aerei da Trasporto Regionale, better known as Franco-Italian planemaker ATR, has also signed an agreement with Iran Air for the sale of 20 new generation 72-600s and an option for 20 more, valued at €1 billion — a win-win for both Iran and Qatar. Africa exPress also suggests that Carta might have also been intrigued by the idea of ending his security agent career with a win and only Qatar (with the help of the Turkish forces in the region) could give him that.
While Romano’s repatriation should be celebrated, the murky circumstances surrounding her abduction and release should be investigated.
 Maruf, Harun. Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally. Indiana University Press, 2018.
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