Al Shabaab is gaining momentum in Somalia, taking advantage of some of the Somali government’s controversial security policies.
Somalia was hit by the worst terrorist attack of its history on 14 October, when a truck packed with hundreds of kilograms of military-grade and homemade explosives hit the center of the capital, Mogadishu. The death toll is estimated to have reached 350, with over 300 people injured. It took Somalia’s ruthless terrorist group Al Shabaab a few days to claim responsibility for the attack, perhaps hesitating to endorse an operation whose death toll is so high that it is likely to damage the group’s public image.
However, it didn’t hesitate to claim responsibility for the blast and siege of a Mogadishu hotel on 28 October. The Naso Hablod hotel in the Somali capital came under attack by five militants after a suicide car bomber detonated an explosives-laden vehicle at the entrance. The militants then occupied the building holding everyone inside hostage for the whole night until they were overtaken by Somali security forces. The attack left 23 people dead and more than 30 injured.
This is just the two most recent attacks in what seems to be a string of mass casualty strikes, starting with the three-day siege of a shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013, killing 67 people, and the 2015 attack and siege of the Garissa University in Kenya, near the Somali border where 148 people were massacred. Throughout its more than a decade long fight against the Western-backed government of Somalia, in 2016 Al Shabaab became the most deadly terrorist group on the continent. With its 4,281 casualties that year it even overtook Nigeria’s Boko Haram (3,499) and the Islamic State (2,350) in Africa.
After mostly carrying out attacks in neighboring Kenya – as retribution for the country’s involvement in the African Union led coalition force (AMISOM) in Somalia – Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab stepped up its efforts in its home country too. In January 2016 it carried out an attack against an AMISOM base in El Adde, Somalia, killing over 175 Kenyan soldiers. This was followed by several other attacks against military bases, personnel and training camps in Mogadishu and throughout Somalia.
With Al Shabaab ramping up its operations against Somalis, the government is also stepping up its counter-terrorism efforts. In February 2017, the newly appointed president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo vowed to fight Al Shabaab and, as a first step, offered amnesty to fighters in exchange for laying down their weapons. Al Shabaab refused as it saw the offer as a gesture to please the West. The Somali National Army (SNA), supported by the 22,000-strong AMISOM, has also became more active in carrying out raids on suspected Al Shabaab operatives.
In August, in a highly controversial incident, the SNA together with AMISOM carried out a coordinated raid on the small town of Bariire in the southern part of the country, a stronghold of Al Shabaab and a launchpad for several attacks on the nearby city of Mogadishu. Although Bariire was recaptured by the military, the offensive resulted in the death of ten civilians, including three children under 10, causing resentment towards the government.
The perpetrator of the 14 October Mogadishu attack was a former SNA soldier whose home was raided in August. Officials investigating the attack claim that he might have acted out of revenge. According to the investigation, not only did the bomber come from the specific community targeted by the raid, but the truck used could also be traced back to Bariire. The initial target of the bombing also suggests revenge: if the attacker wasn’t forced to detonate early, he would have reached a heavily guarded compound, where the United Nations, most embassies and the headquarters of AMISOM are located.
It seems that if the government goes too far with these counterterrorism measures it might push people into the arms of the extremists. According to a recent UN study on African extremism, “state security-actor conduct is revealed as a prominent accelerator of recruitment [to extremist groups], rather than the reverse”. 71% percent of the 500 former militants interviewed by the UN claimed that “government action”, including “killing of a family member or friend” or “arrest of a family member or friend” prompted them to join an extremist group. The Somali government must therefore take into account the possibility of its counter-terrorism measures backfiring and playing into the hands of Al Shabaab.
Cover Picture: scene of a popular Mogadishu restaurant after an attack carried out by Al Shabaab in 2013, © AMISOM Public Information / Wikimedia Commons