Language Alert: Can Your Words Make You A Terror Suspect In Mogadishu?

It is very difficult to come to terms with the fact that one of East Africa’s main languages is associated with terror when you are in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

Swahili is one of the East Africa’s most useful languages; it is the official language in Kenya, Tanzania, inland of Zanzibar and is widely used in Uganda, Congo and even Malawi.

Kenyan Somalis who work in Somalia normally use Swahili for communication with fellows, and in some instances, for phone conversations.

In December 2014, my uncle from Kenya, working in Mogadishu, made a big mistake when he answered a phone call in Swahili.


We were at a popular hotel in Mogadishu where senior Somali government officials were having a meeting.

Plain clothes security personnel approached him and requested his identification, and when he showed his Kenyan ID the case became serious and intervention to persuade them did not bear any fruit. He was later released after interrogation.

Another close friend of mine, who is Somali Kenyan also experienced a similar problem. He was driving late in Mogadishu and when stopped by security forces, he forgot that he was in Somalia and answered the security personnel in Swahili.

The Somali security forces pointed their guns at him and ordered him out of the car. After interrogation for more than two hours, he was finally released.

For those of you who do not know, Swahili language is very sensitive in Somalia, particularly in government environmental areas, such as main airports and even checkpoints inside Mogadishu.

It is not a secret that there are quite number of Kenyans in the ranks of Al Shabaab who use their native language in their main communication network, this was evident in various Al Shabaab clips posted online by the group.

That is why Somali security forces are suspicious about the use of the language in important areas of the country.

It is amazing that in Kenya, Somali language is considered a threat and a potential terror language in some areas; despite the contradiction, interestingly Kenya and Somalia share security cooperation against their fight against the Al Shabaab militant group.

Next time you’re visiting Somalia, try not to forget to use familiar languages, most importantly Somali and English or you will find yourself in trouble, as these others have done.

Omar Wardere is a Somali researcher, reporter and editor. He is a committee member of National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) and member of Foreign Correspondents Association of East Africa.