September 8, 2021


A beautiful young woman, a ruthless terrorist group, a spy agency at war with itself and a secret that some will go to any lengths to conceal.

More by Kenya Forum Somalia Correspondent

A Mogadishu Murder Mystery – What Happened to NISA Agent Ikran Tahlil?

A Mogadishu Murder Mystery – What Happened to NISA Agent Ikran Tahlil?

The disappearance of Somali intelligence agent Ikran Tahlil has all the elements of a thriller: a beautiful young woman, a ruthless terrorist group, a spy agency at war with itself and a secret that some will go to any lengths to conceal – including murder.

Grainy CCTV footage shows a young Somali woman leave a high-walled private house in a safe area of Mogadishu and get into a car, which then drives off. The time-bar says 8.03 in the evening on Saturday, June 26th of this year. The woman, Ikran Tahlil, was only 26 years old but was already a high profile agent in the Somalia National Intelligence & Security Agency or NISA. She has not been seen since.

Many assumed that the al-Qa’ida linked terror group, al-Shabaab, had lured Ikran Tahlil to her death. This was a reasonable assumption: in a country where the institutions of government are plagued by corruption, incompetence and personal or clan agendas, NISA is an exception: well funded, well equipped and staffed by committed young Somalis who are well trained and capable and who regularly receiving training from international partners such as the US and the UK. Many have trained abroad as well, as Ikran Tahlil did, in the UK, where she also studied. This makes NISA, along with the Somali National Army’s Special Forces unit, Danab (‘Lightning’), prime targets for al-Shabaab’s assassins and bomb makers.

But there is a problem with that theory. The car that picked Ikran Tahlil up that fateful night in June belonged to NISA.

The Woman Who Knew Too Much?

Ikran Tahlil had a promising career ahead of her with NISA and perhaps beyond. She had been embedded in the office of the popular Mayor of Mogadishu, Engineer Yarisow, with a security portfolio, and lead the investigation into his assassination by a woman suicide attacker in July 2019. She was one of the young women who are driving Somalia forward, highly educated and motivated and willing to challenge the status quo and the cultural norms of conservative Somali society. This is often in clear contrast to their lackadaisical brethren who believe their mothers when they tell them they are little princes, and spend the rest of their lives acting accordingly. Did she uncover something during the investigation into the Mayor of Mogadishu’s death, like how the suicide bomber gained entry to, ironically, a security meeting that he was chairing? Or was it something simpler, where her success or just her behaviour had caused offence in an environment where no good deed goes unpunished?

Or was it her intimate knowledge of the hundreds of army recruits that Somalia has sent to Eritrea to train? The same recruits who have then found themselves fighting – and dying – on the Ethiopian side against Tigrayan rebels? Latterly Ikran Tahlil had moved into a cyber-security role, protecting vital information – like the names, locations and ultimate fates of all those soldiers, whose mothers regularly take to the street of Mogadishu demanding to know what has become of their sons. Any one of these elements is enough to get you killed by someone in Somalia. All three?

Who Didn’t Dunnit

NISA eventually announced Ikran Tahlil’s death – at the hands of al-Shabaab. No time, no place and no body, but it was definitely al-Shabaab.

In an unexpected move, al-Shabaab begged to differ, issuing a lengthy press statement where they claimed that they would have killed Ikraan Tahlil if they had the chance, but on this occasion, they hadn’t. Al-Shabaab are murderous and oppressive, but they are generally honest about what they have or haven’t done, and most Somalis believe their denial.

So who did kill Ikran Tahlil? And why? The Prime Minister of Somalia has ordered an enquiry and suspended the head of NISA, Fahad Yassin – but the Somali President has reinstated his loyal supporter, prompting a political crisis that is currently teetering on the edge of a descent into full blown factional violence. No-one knows where this scandal might end, just as all those mothers of Somali soldiers do not know what has become of their sons and Ikran Tahlil’s mother does not know what happened to her bright young daughter after she walked out the family house that night in June.


Related Articles