Appetiser by Timothy Wittig
“Send lawyers, guns, and money. The shit has hit the fan” – Warren Zevon
Terrorists are also businessmen, but not particularly good ones. Even so, they know how to navigate the realities of the global economy better than most Western business and political leaders. Being a ‘terrorist’ today is to be the ultimate outlaw; hated, hunted, and forced to do business outside the formal economic and legal structures which are the backbone of Western society, power, and prestige. Such economic exile dooms terrorists, conventional wisdom says, to marginalisation, debilitation, and eventually defeat. This notion – that success at the ‘edge’ of the formal Western economic system is difficult, if not impossible – is a foundational principle of Western foreign and economic policy. Unfortunately, it is also wrong.
Through the prism of one particular place suspected of being a key link in the financing of terrorism, this article explores what terrorists can teach us about how to navigate the global economy of the future; an economy where opportunities abound, but only for those who can successfully navigate the blurry lines between the formal and informal, legal and illicit, and legitimate and illegitimate.
Eastleigh makes the rest of Nairobi look like Copenhagen. The neighbourhood, dubbed ‘Little Mogadishu’, is dirty and polluted, with semi-paved streets cratered with three-meter wide potholes that somehow are always filled with water even if it hasn’t rained in weeks. Eastleigh, I had read, was a dangerous Somali ghetto and hotbed of both organised criminal and terrorist financing activity. I visited Eastleigh in August and September 2011 to research its role in financing al Shabaab, the brutal al Qaeda affiliate that now controls much of southern Somalia. The day before I first visited the neighbourhood, I was told by a wealthy Kenyan businessman that Eastleigh’s streets were patrolled by the Shabaab, and that since not even Nairobi’s police could safely enter, it was likely that I would die on arrival.
But when I did arrive, what I found was one of East Africa’s most vibrant commercial centres. Day and night, its streets are clogged with taxis, delivery trucks, street hawkers, roadside stands, and tens of thousands of men, women, and children. Eastleigh, it turns out, is where Kenyans buy cheap goods; and where Somalis come to do business, send and receive money, and meet relatives and friends. It is the heart of the Somali diaspora, especially its middle class, and even though it is in Kenya, Eastleigh also in many ways is Somalia’s main business district. It is from Eastleigh, like countless other similar places around the world, that one can gain insight into the future of the global economy, and the West’s changing place in it.