Managing the Disruptive Aftermath of Somalia’s Worst Terror Attack
Managing the Disruptive Aftermath of Somalia’s Worst Terror Attack
Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out
Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out
A Somali man reacts next to a dead body on the site where a car bomb exploded in the centre of Mogadishu, Somalia, on 14 October 2017. AFP/Mohamed Abdiwahab
Briefing 131 / Africa

Managing the Disruptive Aftermath of Somalia’s Worst Terror Attack

The 14 October 2017 twin bombings in Mogadishu mark the deadliest attack in Somalia since 2007. As Somalis unite in their disgust at the most likely perpetrator Al-Shabaab, President Farmajo must immediately provide care for victims and use surging support for the government to redouble efforts aimed at overcoming the divisions in Somalia's society that make Al-Shabaab such a persistent threat.

  • What happened?  On 14 October 2017, twin truck bombings in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, killed upwards of 300 people. Al-Shabaab, an Islamist insurgency, was almost certainly behind the attack, but has not claimed responsibility.
  • Why did it happen?  Al-Shabaab has been fighting the government since 2007. The targets of the attack are unclear, though may have been government buildings and the base of African Union forces fighting Al-Shabaab.
  • Why does it matter?  The attacks have united Somalis in disgust at Al-Shabaab and may shore up support for Somali President Farmajo’s government. They also illustrate the challenges he faces: not just Al-Shabaab’s resilience, but chronically weak security forces; escalating friction between the government and federal states, which the Saudi-Qatar spat has worsened; and longstanding clan disputes, all of which Al-Shabaab exploits. 
  • What should be done?  The first priority is to care for victims and cope with the attacks’ aftermath. President Farmajo and his government should also improve relations with federal states and address disputes underpinning political infighting. Cleaning up corruption in the security sector and local reconciliation remain priorities.

I. Overview

The devastating twin truck bombings in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu on Saturday, 14 October 2017, mark the deadliest attack in that country since the current phase of its war began in early 2007. It almost certainly was perpetrated by the Islamist insurgent movement Al-Shabaab, though there has been no claim of responsibility. The death toll most likely will exceed 300, the vast majority ordinary Somalis, including dozens of children, going about their daily business. The immediate priority is to care for victims and deal with the aftermath. Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo”, his government and its foreign partners should also redouble efforts to mend the divisions in Somali society and the chronic weaknesses in the security sector that make Al-Shabaab such a persistent threat.

The first and deadliest bomb exploded at the Zoobe Junction in Hodan – a bustling commercial mini-district close to the Red Crescent office and ministries of education and foreign affairs (the foreign minister was grazed by flying glass and debris). Whether the principal targets were the government buildings, as some reports suggest, or a nearby military training camp recently built by the Turkish government, is unclear. A second and smaller blast, that killed twelve, occurred at Ceel Qalow near Halane, the base of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM).

Al-Shabaab, an insurgent group fighting to overthrow the Somali government since 2007, is the only organisation with the capability, motive and experience to pull off anything on this scale. That it has neither denied nor claimed responsibility may reflect its reluctance to take responsibility for an attack that has provoked unprecedented anger and revulsion (it similarly avoided claiming a 2009 attack on a graduation ceremony in Mogadishu) and/or its hope that rumours and conspiracy theories – most peddling the idea of security forces’ collusion – continue to sow confusion.

Despite having suffered military setbacks since 2011 at the hands of AMISOM, Al-Shabaab remains resilient.

Despite having suffered military setbacks since 2011 at the hands of AMISOM, Al-Shabaab remains resilient (see Crisis Group Commentary, “Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out”, 27 June 2016). It controls tracts of rural south central Somalia and supply routes between towns, pursues a steady campaign of car bombings, assassinations and other attacks in Mogadishu and has targeted and in some cases overrun isolated AMISOM and Somali army bases.

According to multiple sources, the attack at Zoobe Junction involved an ageing TM (Bedford) truck – a model formerly used by the Somali army and ubiquitous in the country – converted for civilian use as a cargo transporter and packed with explosives. It reportedly originated from the Shabelle Valley and is thought to have passed several checkpoints manned by Somali soldiers on the Afgoye-Mogadishu road. The explosives may have been concealed by cargo, and thus harder to detect without thorough screening or specialised detectors (attempts to introduce sniffer dogs at checkpoints have run aground because many Somalis view the animal as unclean under Islamic law, though such dogs are now used at the airport). It is also plausible that soldiers were bribed to allow the truck through.

Although full responsibility for the horrific attacks lies with their perpetrators, a number of recent trends may have contributed to Al-Shabaab’s ability to mount an operation of this scale and should inform the response of President Farmajo’s government and its foreign partners.

II. Losing Territory around Mogadishu

Al-Shabaab recently recaptured several areas in the Shabelle Valley, including the town of Bariire, only 45km outside Mogadishu and on a major route to the capital. Those areas fell to the movement after government forces pulled out early this month, in protest that some had not received salaries for three months. Averting attacks in Mogadishu is ever harder when surrounding districts revert back to Al-Shabaab control or when communities, incensed by government corruption and dysfunction or by civilian deaths during counter-terrorism operations, provide the movement tacit backing. Al-Shabaab consistently plays on anger at officials’ graft – Somalia is ranked the world’s most corrupt country by Transparency International – to win support.

The government’s efforts to secure Mogadishu largely involve mopping up illicit weapons, reigning in clan militias and putting up barriers on arterial roads into the city. But these measures are not enough. Corrupt, unpaid soldiers and discontented clans on the city’s peripheries enable Al-Shabaab operatives to infiltrate. The organisation’s elite Amniyat (intelligence) cells for years have been active in the city, penetrating state security structures, gathering intelligence and assassinating government officials and informants.

III. Infighting among Security Forces

The Somali army and other branches of the security services have been under considerable recent strain.[fn]Crisis Group’s Watch List 2017, 24 February 2017.Hide Footnote Rising factionalism and clan tensions triggered skirmishes in September, when a Somali army unit and elements of the newly-established Mogadishu Stabilisation Unit engaged in a firefight[fn]At least six killed as rival Somali troops clash in Mogadishu”, Voice of America, 16 September 2017.Hide Footnote that left six soldiers dead. Such clashes often involve competition for control of turf, checkpoints and other sources of revenue. They undermine morale and cohesion in the security forces, erode the military’s effectiveness and make it more likely that troops or factions collude with the enemy. The defence and army chiefs recent resignations, as well as the army’s retreat from parts of the Shabelle Valley, may have been related to such problems.

Until the tragic attacks, Mogadishu’s overall security this year had seen gradual if modest improvements.[fn]SRSG Keating briefing to the Security Council”, UN Assistance Mission in Somalia, 13 September 2017.Hide Footnote Assassinations and car bombings have been less frequent and deadly than in past years (of which 2016 was the deadliest) and Somali security forces have foiled several attempted vehicle-borne improvised explosive devise attacks. Better training, vehicle checks and patrols on major urban roads have almost certainly helped. But the endemic wrangles between official security forces appear to have allowed insurgents an opening to mount a major attack.

IV. Political Tensions

Mounting tension between Mogadishu and Somalia’s federal states has also impacted security. The rift between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on one hand, and Qatar on the other, has aggravated such friction. As the Saudis and Emiratis develop direct links with federal states and undermine their relations with the federal government, tensions have grown over which side of the Gulf dispute to back. This also diverts attention from security problems in Mogadishu.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi also have stopped direct budgetary support to Somalia, affecting the federal state’s ability to pay soldiers, police and intelligence officials. Saudi Arabia in October agreed to release $50 million to the Somali government,[fn]Somalia gets $50m in Saudi aid”, Middle East Monitor, 3 October 2017.Hide Footnote but sources say this is a one-time donation, not a resumption of its previous budgetary support. So long as Mogadishu remains “neutral” – ie, refuses to explicitly back the Saudis and Emiratis in their dispute against Qatar – Riyadh is unlikely to resume its prior assistance. Yet, with Qatar and its ally Turkey also major donors, the Somali government is understandably reluctant to pick sides in this dispute between its partners.

V. Priorities for the Government

The next weeks will be crucial for President Farmajo’s government. Fury on the street at Al-Shabaab could shore up support for the government and provide momentum for efforts to overcome divisions in Somali society. But there is also a risk that the president’s opponents, especially those in the federal states, could attempt to capitalise on the crisis with the goal of ousting him and his government. Even in the weeks before the attacks, rumours of plans by regional governments to introduce a no-confidence vote in parliament were intensifying. The federal states’ formation of a caucus and issuance of a critical communiqué at the end of an 11 October meeting in Kismayo only deepened speculation.[fn]Somalia: Federal states suspend constitutional reviews”, Garowe online, 11 October 2017.Hide Footnote Such upheaval could easily play into the insurgents’ hands.

The government [...] should work quickly to improve relations with federal states and address the constitutional questions that lie at the roots of much of the political infighting.

Of course, the government must cope with the aftermath of the attacks and ensure victims receive necessary support. But it also should work quickly to improve relations with federal states and address the constitutional questions that lie at the roots of much of the political infighting, especially those related to resource sharing and devolved powers. The government has invited the federal state presidents to discuss main points of disagreement, including the Gulf crisis, over the coming weeks. This is positive and ought to be supported.

Reforming and cleaning up the security sector is another imperative. Unless the Somali leadership prioritises such efforts, the significant external investment in that sector will fail. Present rates of corruption fuel insecurity. For its part, AMISOM has made significant inroads in reversing Al-Shabaab’s territorial control, but it is overstretched and struggles to fight a non-conventional war against a resilient insurgency that feeds off local conflicts and, frequently, the heavy-handed tactics of its enemies, whether African, Somali or U.S. forces. Somali forces’ inability to secure and govern areas taken, often with heavy losses, by AMISOM saps morale. Partly in an effort to force the government to prioritise security sector reform, some troop contributors now threaten to wind down operations in the next two years. While Somali forces must gradually assume more responsibility, a hasty AMISOM withdrawal would be disastrous, almost certainly ceding larger parts of the country, including main towns, to Al-Shabaab.

Political divisions – between the government and federal states and among clans – pose a grave obstacle to reforms. Redoubling efforts to address such divisions, including through clan-level reconciliation, are critical in themselves but also a prerequisite for security forces’ coherence and motivation. If not built on solid political foundations, training and arming units in the Somali forces could end up aggravating instability.

In this light, a bottom-up, national reconciliation process and political settlements between the government and federal member states, and among those federal states, should be a top priority. Somalia’s key partners, the European Union (EU), UK, U.S. and the African Union (AU) should continue to promote such efforts. In tandem, federal states, supported by Mogadishu, should launch grassroots initiatives to reconcile clans and make local governance more inclusive. Somalia’s Western partners could accompany this process by supporting state administrations to boost their role in intra- and inter-clan reconciliation and help reinforce local security forces.


Nairobi/Brussels, 20 October 2017

A Somali soldier takes position at the scene of a suicide attack by al Shabaab militants in capital Mogadishu on 21 June 2015. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
A Somali soldier takes position at the scene of a suicide attack by al Shabaab militants in capital Mogadishu on 21 June 2015. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Commentary / Africa

Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out

Somalia’s militant group, Al-Shabaab, has often defied its adversaries’ claims that it is in decline. In recent months, however, the movement has suffered setbacks, including territorial losses, high-ranking commanders killed and defections. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) and its internal, regional and international allies need to be clear-sighted about the reasons for these, and what they can do to stop another Al-Shabaab recovery.

Al-Shabaab’s set-backs – and fewer attacks by the movement during the Ramadan holy Muslim month of fasting than in previous years – are the result of three distinct and unrelated factors. First, an enhanced and largely externally directed and funded campaign including drone strikes has eliminated high-profile leaders and diminished its military capacity. Second, some of Somalia’s new federal units are demonstrating greater military effectiveness, even if they and the government still rely primarily on clan-based militias. Third, the Islamic State (IS) has challenged Al-Shabaab’s greatest internal vulnerability – its ideological cohesion.

Whether the Somali government and its allies can advance their cause will largely depend on greater agreement on priorities and coordination of action – no easy task, given the wide and diverse range of external and internal actors.

The Impact of U.S. Strikes

The U.S. has already stepped up its longstanding campaign against individual Al-Shabaab commanders and attacking the group’s military capacity. Drone strikes and ground operations have killed at least five Al-Shabaab leaders: Abdirahman Sandhere “Ukash”, from the combat operations wing (jabha), in December 2015; Hassan Ali Dhore, from the security and intelligence wing (amniyat) in March 2016; Daud Ma’alim (also known as Yusuf Haji), also from the amniyat, in May 2016; and Ma’alim Aden Hassan, a military instructor, in June 2016.

The U.S. army also claims that a drone strike in March this year killed 150 militants in a training camp in the Hiiraan region. Other successful assaults were launched by the U.S. contractor-trained Somali “Thunder” (Danab) Brigade – an elite, 570-strong commando force – from its Baladogle military air base in the Lower Shabelle region. Most recently the brigade killed Mohammed Mahmoud Ali “Dulyadeen” or “Kuno”, a leading commander reportedly responsible for the attack on Kenya’s Garissa university college that killed 147 students.

Map of Somalia. CRISIS GROUP 2016

The Clan Resistance and Islamic State Encroachment

Another important strike against Al-Shabaab came from some Somali clans, a reversal of Al-Shabaab’s usually deft management of clan relations. In February 2016, Abgal clan militias forced the group out of several locations in the Middle Shabelle region following resistance against alms (zakat) demands; Gugundhabe “Ma’awis Lei” clan militias did the same in Hiiraan, as did the original clan-based Sufi-inspired anti-Al-Shabaab militia Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a in Gedo (with the help of Ethiopian forces). The now more substantive federal states and interim administrations have also used their clan-based militias. In March 2016, for example, Al-Shabaab units were caught between the Somali National Army, Puntland’s “Darwiish” forces and Galmudug Interim Administration militias as they attempted to enter the Mudug region and its port town of Gara’ad.

The IS factor is the latest playing into a number of internal divisions that are arguably more deadly to Al-Shabaab than the military forces pitted against it.

The March 2016 losses in Mudug were the result of Al-Shabaab’s botched attempts to move fighters toward their Golis mountain stronghold between Puntland and Somaliland as the group tried to eliminate a dissident faction that had declared allegiance to the so-called IS. The IS factor is the latest playing into a number of longstanding internal divisions – including reports of internal criticism of the current Emir Ahmed Diriye “Abu Ubaidah” – that are arguably more deadly to Al-Shabaab than the military forces pitted against it. The prominent Sheikh Abdulqadir Mumim’s October 2015 pledge of loyalty (ba’ya) to IS was the most high-profile of at least four different pro-IS dissident factions across Somalia, which Al-Shabaab’s amniyat security wing ruthlessly began to exterminate in November 2015.

The internal purge against suspected IS sympathisers may explain a wave of Al-Shabaab defections to Somali government forces. These include the April defections of Ahmed Mohamud Afrah, a senior commander responsible for collecting tax (zakawat) contributions and Mohamed Hooley, a district commander in Galgadud region, as well as the defection of amniyat security officer Hassan Isaq Nuur in May. It may also explain a reshuffle of Shabaab’s governors (walis) in Lower Shabelle, Hiiraan and Mudug.

A Still-Lethal Punch

Despite these setbacks, the group can still hit hard against the Somali Federal Government and its allies, including the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Soft targets like government offices and hotels in Mogadishu are regularly subject to Al-Shabaab “complex attacks”, the latest against the Naasa Hablood Hotel on 25 June and the Ambassador Hotel on 1 June, killing civilians and a number of SFG officials, ministers and members of parliament with whom both venues were popular. An AMISOM base manned by an Ethiopian National Defence Forces contingent near the town of Halgaan, in Hiiraan region, was overrun on 9 June with significant casualties. Unlike the devastating attack on the Kenya Defence Force contingent in AMISOM’s base in El-Adde in January 2016, (Ethiopian) air power and reinforcements came quickly to Halgaan and inflicted heavy casualties on Al-Shabaab.

Reduced European Union funding and domestic issues are making some troop contributing countries threaten a draw down, with Uganda announcing its planned exit in late 2017.

Worryingly, however, AMISOM has appeared to have disengaged somewhat on the ground. Despite its critical role and sacrifice in removing Al-Shabaab from strategic locations and opening the space for political progress, it has taken both a physical and political beating over the last eighteen months. Reduced European Union funding and domestic issues are making some troop contributing countries threaten a draw down, with Uganda announcing its planned exit in late 2017.

The Double-edged Sword of Regional Peace-support

AMISOM’s role as both an operation against Al-Shabaab and as a peace-support force increasingly suffers from being dominated by nearby powers. It could almost be called “IGADSOM”: Burundi aside, all troop contributing countries are members of East Africa’s regional peace and security organisation, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Kenya and Ethiopia are Somalia’s direct neighbours; part of a wider trend on the continent of neighbours participating in stabilisation or peace operations. A troop contributor that is a neighbour can more directly support the new federal entities with whom it shares borders and knows intimately. But this also risks sidelining the development of the still weak Somalia National Army, and may indirectly risk friction between the Somali Federal Government and federal entities, as well as between the entities themselves.

The heavy presence of neighbouring states in the newer federal entities of Jubaland, South West State and Galmudug can look like a partisan foreign occupation, especially where they are still internally disputed. Al-Shabaab can easily appeal to disgruntled Somali clans by charging that foreigners are manipulating internal affairs, then portray its role as Muslim resistance to non-Muslim powers, and implicitly, the defender of Somalia’s sovereignty.

Al-Shabaab has been a tough survivor and one of its easiest wins is that it has been able to split the internal and external threats it faces.

Ethiopia’s deployment to Somalia of the auxiliary (Ogaden) clan militias – from its own federal Somali National Regional State – has also led to clashes with non-Ogadeni Somali clans in the shared border regions. In the medium term, with better-armed federal entities and clans taking the fight to Al-Shabaab, AMISOM may be faced with more conventional tasks of inter-communal peacekeeping, tasks for which governments and electorates in the troop contributing countries may have little appetite.

Sustaining Gains Against Al-Shabaab

Any strengthening of Somalia’s federal states represents a threat to Al-Shabaab. This includes the coming elections, where local clan-based electoral colleges in each of the federal states will directly select MPs. This should garner greater local buy-in for the federal government model, if not for centrally directed government. Greater stabilisation support to the more substantive federal entities will also help. But to win back the political space and undermine Al-Shabaab’s ideology, Somali actors must create and act on a coherent narrative.

Al-Shabaab has been a tough survivor and one of its easiest wins is that it has been able to split the internal and external threats it faces. The divisions that IS prompts within Al-Shabaab are worth nothing if the Somali Federal Government does not offer a third way for political dialogue and accommodation, enhancing the current policy of individual amnesty.

Despite effective U.S. training for specialised commando units, overall attempts to rebuild the Somali National Army could be strengthened by better coordination among the large number of other states – at least eleven others – involved in their training. The reality of stronger federal entities and clan-based militias also demands a rethink of how Somalia’s security forces are to be rebuilt from a less centralised starting point. Above all, there is an urgent need for a concerted program of reconciliation at all levels, without which federal states and their clan militias are still as likely to fight one another (and the Somali National Army) as they are to take on Al-Shabaab itself.

With additional research by Horn of Africa Research Assistant Abdul Khalif

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