The Enduring Horror of Al Shabab
Mass murder in Mogadishu comes after years of failures to stop the terror group
On Oct. 14, 2017, a truck packed with 350 kilograms of explosives stopped at a checkpoint at a crowded crossroads in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, where it blew up. The driver, a former Somali soldier who switched sides to the terrorist group Al Shabab, killed more than 300 people in one of the deadliest mass killings in the world in recent years.
The wanton murders, characteristic of the Al Qaeda-aligned Al Shabab, were reportedly in revenge for an August 2017 U.S. and Somali ground raid into the driver’s hometown of Bariire, in which civilians were killed. Bariire is one of the group’s strongholds and the location of where a U.S. Navy SEAL died in a firefight in May 2017.
But Al Shabab has not needed excuses to carry out the wanton murder of civilians many times in the past. It is a characteristic tactic for the Islamic extremist group.
The U.S.-led commando raids — part of an expanding, covert war on the group — are also due to Al Shabab’s own resiliency after more than a decade of counter-attacks by the fledgling Somali government, the United States and the U.N-approved African Union peacekeeping force AMISOM. Despite the loss of territory, the terror group has kept itself financially afloat by taxing the lucrative sugar and charcoal trades — while also leveraging divisions within Somali clans to keep its enemies divided.
Footage: Large explosion has taken place in Mogadishu. i filmed this short video. pic.twitter.com/xGL3uYzqQB
— Hussein Mohamed 🇸🇴 (@HussienM12) October 14, 2017
The group further embraces a diversity of tactics. It carries out guerrilla attacks and IED ambushes on AMISOM and Somali government troops, relatively large-scale set-piece attacks on their bases, and spectacular suicide bomb attacks targeting civilians.
Indicative of the group’s continued strength, Al Shabaab overran a Kenyan military base in Jubbaland in January 2017, killing 57 soldiers a year after another base attack left 180-200 Kenyan troops dead. In June, militants stormed a government base in Puntland, killing 61.
The militants have launched further attacks outside its borders targeting civilians in countries which have troops participating in AMISOM. Examples include the Garissa University College attack in Kenya in 2015, where Al Shabab gunmen killed 148 people. Clan members within Somalia who participate in federal elections are targets for assassination.
“Al-Shabab’s continued strength has some worried that such a move by AMISOM may be premature, and that Somali military forces may not be fully prepared to deal with the terrorist organization by then,” O.E. Watch, the monthly newsletter of the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, noted this summer.
These attacks have increased since the election of Somali Pres. Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed in February 2017.
Above — Burundian troops preparing to deploy to Somalia. U.S. Marine Corps photo. At top — an Ugandan soldier guards hundreds of Al Shabab fighters who gave themselves up in 2012. AMISOM photo
“This is their fingerprints, this is what they have done,” Farmajo told Al Jazeera on Oct. 18 following the Mogadishu attack. “If they succeed here, they’ll [find it] easier to promote their crazy ideology and their political ideology to the youth in the United States and Europe.”
Al Shabab has not claimed responsibility for the bombing. It’s possible the busy crossroads was not the intended target. Before the blast, a militant in a Toyota minivan rushed the heavily-guarded Medina Gate leading to Mogadishu airport and AMISOM’s compound.
The tactic suggests the minivan was to punch a hole for the truck bomb to enter. The truck being stopped at the checkpoint in the city foiled the original plan. “I thought they would claim, but maybe they feel that this is a huge responsibility,” the Somali president added, referring to the size of the attack.
The attack comes soon after AMISOM — which is planning to leave the country in October 2020 — handed over security responsibilities in Mogadishu to Somali forces, who often don’t receive salaries. AMISOM, for its part, has suffered by sending in inexperienced troops into the Somali countryside without gradually rotating them in with units experienced at fighting Al Shabab.
The militants have frequently waited and sprung major attacks on these “green” units, contributing to heavy losses. It’s possible deaths within AMISOM since 2007 could number in the thousands, making it not only the deadliest peacekeeping operation in the world, it could be deadlier than all previous U.N. peacekeeping missions combined.
“The mission is heavily military-focused because its mandated task is just to provide security and fight Al Shabab,” the pan-African Institute for Security Studies noted in May 2017.
“Other U.N.-led missions — such as those in Darfur and South Sudan — are often given more comprehensive mandates with more appropriate financial and logistical capacity. These missions also have a mandate to coordinate donors, development partners and humanitarian agencies in the host countries.”
Somalia has also seen the emergence of two Islamic State affiliates, the Islamic State in Somalia or ISS and another chapter for Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda known by the acronym ISISSKTU. Both split from the Al Shabab, which professes alignment with Al Qaeda and not Islamic State and has threatened to kill members who switch sides.
These disputes have not stopped ISS from recruiting, however, as the group has built up enough strength to stage attacks inside the state of Puntland in the north.
ISISSKTU has plotted terrorist attacks but only carried out a few known ones, and has less of a presence inside Somalia than Al Shabab or ISS. The strong horse in Somalia’s Islamic extremist scene remains Al Shabab.
These I.S.-affiliated groups also have less chance of marketing itself to recruits as Islamic State blows apart in Syria and Iraq. This means out of these groups, “none really rivals the major Al Qaida-aligned affiliates on the continent, which dominate in terms of number of groups, number of adherents per group, and length of time in operational area,” the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point noted over the summer in its newsletter.