The careers of foreign correspondents are defined by certain epochs: the second world war, the cold war, post-colonialism and the Vietnam war, for example. My first stories told of the end of the Salvadorian civil war and the Romanian revolution. But then came the new world order whose defining story was that there was no defining story. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky? The Rwandan genocide? The opening of Eastern Europe? China? The internet? None quite fit the bill.
That changed on 9/11. Since then foreign correspondents have been working in the epoch of "the war on terror". Stories have swirled around Islam, often in strange ways. My undergraduate studies were in Islamic history. It was heady stuff, Averroës writing in the margins of Aristotle, co-mingling his observations in such a way that scholars still argue which nuance belonged to the Greek and which to the Moor. For all their luminosity, Granada, Cordoba, Damascus and the ecumenical court of Palermo were never an obvious fit for a foreign correspondent. Then I started racking up Muslim conflicts. Bosnia, Kosovo, Russia and Uzbekistan added to the tally. After 2001, I moved to Afghanistan to write about al-Qaeda. Like many other Westerners there, I longed to glimpse Osama bin Laden loping out of a cedar forest, into the sunlight.
For the last few years I have travelled among Muslim communities in Africa. In particular, I have been tracking the jihadist fighters in Somalia. There is something particularly wicked about the ideology of the global jihad there. Like a parasite, it feeds on the absence of order and Somalia is too weak to shake it off. It imposes its own certainties and brutality. It is resilient. The jihadists have lost several military campaigns. At one point its fighters were shredded from the air by Ethiopian and American planes. Yet they managed to take control of south Somalia and large parts of the capital, Mogadishu. In those areas music and dancing have been banned, women marginalised, and brave Somalis butchered for standing up for freedom and human rights.
Lurking among the jihadists was a group of al-Qaeda operatives responsible for blowing up the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. Those attacks, which killed 224 and wounded 5,000, were the curtain-raiser for the war on terror. In 2007 Abu Taha al-Sudani, an explosives expert, was killed by the Americans. In 2009 Saleh Ali Nabhan, a Kenyan was accused of carrying out a terrorist attack in Mombasa in 2002, was killed by an American helicopter strike. Nabhan's death left a Comorian, Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, as the head of al-Qaeda in the region.
I had long been fascinated by Fazul. I tracked down his mother and sister in the Comoro Islands and interviewed them about Fazul. What was he like as boy? Why had he turned to terrorism? His mother was angry, angry at the intrusion, and angry at her son; not for killing innocents, but for failing to come home for his father's funeral. Fazul's sister was more open. Fazul had been a good student. His teachers said he was close to winning a scholarship to a French university to study mathematics, but France had cut its budget for African students so Fazul—from a poor family—went to study in Pakistan instead. From there, tempted by the promise of a monthly salary, he was recruited into al-Qaeda. After 1998, he was listed on the FBI's most wanted list, a $5m bounty on his head. Kenyan police almost caught him several times, but he always managed to escape. George W. Bush claimed credit for his death in a missile strike. The missile missed.
I am dubious that Fazul was as brilliant as the FBI made him out to be: multi-lingual, a master of disguise, a computer expert, the operational brain of al-Qaeda in Somalia. Some sources suggest he was often depressed and spent his days in a room watching television. But Fazul was canny. His Comorian features—a descendant of runaway slaves and pirates—allowed him to hide himself among the Bajuni people of south Somalia. With the right beard and clothes he could pass as an Arab; jeans and a t-shirt made him look more Western. He sailed in and out of Somalia on shark-fishing dhows. He often ventured into the Somali desert, moving along the dried up river beds at night with groups of young fighters. He hid himself among the mangrove swamps close to the Kenyan border, assisting in the training of new recruits. The stories that he was involved in the blood-diamond trade seem unlikely. But he did handle wads of cash. He had a stack of passports and identities. He built up ties with the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda. He may have co-ordinated the suicide bombings in Uganda last year that killed crowds gathered at a restaurant and a nightclub in Kampala to watch the World Cup final.
Fazul was shot dead in Mogadishu on June 8th. He had travelled from Tanzania in March on a South African passport in the name of Daniel Robinson. It was midnight in Mogadishu. He found himself not at a Shabab checkpoint but a government one. He fired his pistol first but was then shot in the chest. He and a Kenyan accomplice who was killed along with him were wrapped in a sheet and buried. It was only after his belongings were sorted out and a laptop found, along with $40,000 and a modified Kalashnikov, that anyone suspected he might be anything other than a foot soldier. His body was exhumed and his DNA sent to Nairobi to be checked against samples the FBI had taken in 2007 from his children.
To me, Fazul's death, together with the sinking of Osama bin Laden to watery depths, signals the beginning of the end of the epoch of the war on terror. The end will not be tidy. Iraq has not recovered; the Taliban and the drug runners of Afghanistan will outlast foreign intervention. In their weakness the jihadists in Somalia are even more likely to strike Kenya, Ethiopia or perhaps South Africa and Europe. Since Fazul's death suicide bombers have already blown up the interior minister of Somalia. It is more a matter of drift: the narrative of jihad will no longer command the attention of foreign editors. It is spent. Other stories are taking over—China versus the rest, the anthropocene and climate change; a new epoch for today's foreign correspondents.