On Oct. 29, Somalia’s capital Mogadishu was rocked by twin car bombings in an assault that claimed over 100 lives and left more than 300 wounded.
The explosions were the deadliest attacks in the country in five years and reignited fears that the terrorist group al-Shabab, which claimed responsibility, would carry out further violence.
After the bombings, I made my way to the blast site. It was early in the morning. As I neared the Zoobe junction, I could see large crowds gathered behind the yellow tape — mostly women huddled together, crying profusely, wondering about the whereabouts of their loved ones.
The war in Somalia is a complex and multifaceted conflict, with civilians often paying the ultimate price. Al-Shabab, an insurgent group linked to al Qaeda, currently controls the vast majority of rural southern and central Somalia, an area the size of the U.K., despite the presence of tens of thousands of foreign troops from the Western-backed African Union coalition.
Over the past 15 years, al-Shabab has gone from a guerrilla movement to a parallel government in Somalia that rivals and often surpasses the capabilities of the internationally-recognized authorities based in Mogadishu. The insurgent group is able to provide services and secure the safety of people living under its rule.
But al-Shabab’s dreaded bombing campaign targeting government-controlled cities shows the group’s complete disregard for civilian life when it comes to achieving its political means. The recent attack is a textbook example.
In the weeks leading up to the bombings, the Somali government launched a full-blown military offensive against al-Shabab with air support from the United States and Turkey. The U.S. sees Somalia as an important front in its “war on terror” and as vital to its national security interests.
The U.S. military carried out its most recent drone strike in Somalia on Oct. 25, just four days before the Mogadishu bombings. This is not to suggest any correlation between the two events but rather to illustrate how entrenched Washington is in the conflict in Somalia.
For its part, Turkey has been a key ally of Somalia over the past decade, involved in humanitarian efforts and rebuilding the war-torn country. Ankara has also enmeshed itself militarily in Somalia, unveiling its largest overseas military base in Mogadishu in 2016 and carrying out airstrikes in support of the Somali government’s campaign against al-Shabab, as revealed by Somali Interior Minister Ahmed Fiqi during a televised interview on Sept. 25.
Added to the fray is the decision by the Somali government to empower tribal militias in the fight against al-Shabab, in an attempt to mimic the so-called Sunni Awakening in Iraq, in which local tribes took up arms against al Qaeda. In Somalia’s case, the effort has had mixed results.
While the government has managed to seize territory from al-Shabab, many of its gains were later reversed after the militant group mounted a counteroffensive and recaptured much of the ground it had ceded, particularly in the Hiiraan region of central Somalia. Al-Shabab is hitting back hard and the conflict is likely to intensify in the coming weeks and months.
As I made my way through the clustered crowds, security forces allowed a group of journalists to pass beyond the yellow tape and begin documenting the tragedy that had unfolded less than 24 hours earlier.
Living in Mogadishu, you often see bullet-riddled buildings and bombed-out infrastructure. The scars left by years of urban warfare remain prevalent. Still, I was unprepared for what I saw when I stepped into the blast site.
Multiple buildings lay in ruin, encased in rubble. The remains of burned-out vehicles and three-wheeled motorbikes (tuk-tuks) were strewn on both sides of the roadway. Table stands that once belonged to street merchants were no longer visible. Windows were blown out of high-rises.
After that, the security forces lifted the yellow tape and allowed the public to access the site. Everyone was in disbelief. Many were visibly angry; some whispered prayers as they paced by the rubble.
Suddenly, a large crowd rushed to the wreckage of a once-bustling business center adjacent to the Ministry of Education, which was the original target of the bombings. From the rubble, they pulled out a body. Sadly, more deaths were to come, as many succumbed to the severe wounds they sustained from the bombings. This was not a movie. This was Mogadishu.
In all, more than 100 were killed and more than twice that number wounded in the explosions, according to the Somali government. Al-Shabab took credit for the attack but claimed the second explosive-laden vehicle that was intended to level the Ministry of Education sustained gunfire from government forces, which led to its premature detonation.
Whether or not this was true, the public backlash was simmering. In the eyes of many, nothing could justify this deranged level of violence against fellow compatriots. From Somalis both at home and in the diaspora, condemnation mounted.
As in most war zones, the level of violence perpetrated by the opposing sides in the Somali conflict has affected civilians more than the warring parties themselves.
Al-Shabab claim to be fighting to liberate Somalia from an international coalition of foreign troops, whom they deem “crusaders” opposed to the implementation of Sharia (Islamic law) nationwide. Yet most of the violent tactics they employ often kill or maim the same people for whom they claim to be fighting.
The Somali government, on the other hand, exists only on paper and, in essence, can be seen as a mere extension of America’s war on terror. The government’s willingness to collaborate with external actors only further empowers al-Shabab, encouraging more young men in the bush to take up arms.
The end result has ordinary Somalis caught in the middle. The rural and urban populations both suffer.
Attacks such as these are orchestrated by the powerful and feared Amniyat (intelligence) wing of al-Shabab and often unfold in the heart of the city. The areas targeted are often government buildings, upscale hotels and seaside resorts. By such tactics, al-Shabab is able to kill two birds with one stone.
First, they humiliate the government, by showing the Somali public and the world at large that it not only exists only in name but also that it cannot even secure the strongholds under its direct control.
Second, they strike fear into the public. Fear is at the heart of al-Shabab rule and is the reason the insurgent group wields so much power and influence, even in government-controlled territory.
Al-Shabab operates a quasi-government in Somalia. It even runs a judicial system independent of the Somali government, based on Sharia, which can be found operating on the outskirts of Mogadishu itself. Furthermore, it taxes nearly every business in Mogadishu. As a result, it has built up a lucrative extortion racket under the guise of zakat (Islamic almsgiving), going as far as to collect taxes from the government-run seaport and businesses located next to the presidential palace.
Even by al-Shabab’s standards, the latest bombings represent an escalation, marking the most deadly attack in Somalia in five years, with the majority of the victims civilians. This is why Mahad Karate, the group’s deputy leader, offered condolences to the civilian victims killed in the attack in an audio statement released online.
The attacks were the deadliest since Oct. 14, 2017, when a truck bomb detonated at the very same location in Mogadishu, killing over 500 people. Neither al-Shabab nor anyone else claimed responsibility for that attack.
The Somali government does not appear to have a concrete plan to curb al-Shabab attacks, let alone secure the safety of their constituents in the only city in the country that is actually under their control. Meanwhile, ordinary Somalis will bear the brunt, as the dysfunctional and kleptocratic regime in Mogadishu fights a war it cannot win against a foe it cannot defeat.