Al-Shabaab claimed credit for a suicide bombing in Mogadishu on Tuesday which killed 70, the group’s largest attack in the Somali capital for years. They still have the power to devastate, clearly; but is this latest attack a confirmation of their strength or a sign that they’re under pressure? By SIMON ALLISON.
Two months ago, Mogadishu’s mayor declared “the beginning of the end of Shabaab”. His government claimed credit for forcing the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab to retreat from Somalia’s war-torn capital, although credit – if any was due – should go to the African Union troops who are the Somali government’s only serious fighting force. Al-Shabaab disputed this version of events, saying that they’d made a “tactical retreat” and that Mogadishu had not seen the last of them.
On Tuesday, they made good on this promise, returning to Mogadishu with a vengeance. A suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden car into a government compound in the heart of Mogadishu, where the country’s best and brightest students were queuing up to find out the results of a scholarship examination. Over 70 people were killed in the resulting explosion – students, government officials and soldiers who were guarding the compound. After the explosion, firefights erupted between al-Shabaab fighters and African Union troops over control of certain parts of Mogadishu, and continued all day.
The incident highlights again the tenuous nature of the control of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. Propped up by international funds and African Union force, they only controlled a few square-kilometres around Mogadishu airport until al-Shabaab’s unexpected retreat. They don’t control much more than that now.
But most intriguing is what the latest attack says about al-Shabaab. Yes, it’s a demonstration of their ability to evade government and AU security forces and show a giant middle finger to the smug government officials who said they were nearly finished. They’re still here; that much is clear.
But for how long? The Somali famine is said to have fatally weakened popular support for the group, whose leadership has denied that a famine exists and prevented humanitarian aid from reaching people in need. Local commanders are said to resent this position, concerned more about feeding their families and friends. And the people affected by hunger aren’t too happy with the people who are keeping food from them. Despite this, al-Shabaab retains control over large parts of southern Somalia, and is strong enough to enforce bizarre edicts such as the group’s recent decision to change the script of the Somali language from Latin to Arabic. Is Tuesday’s explosion – the deadliest since the twin attacks in Kampala, Uganda which killed 76 during the World Cup Final – a desperate attempt by the militant group to stay relevant and show they can still wreak havoc? Or is it a show of strength from a group very much in control?
The African Union is expecting more troops in the coming months, as Burundi beefs up its existing contingent and Sierra Leone sends in some soldiers. These should be enough to consolidate the gains made in the wake of al-Shabaab’s retreat, but not nearly enough wipe the group out entirely; or to prevent similar attacks in the future. If this is indeed the bloody response of an organisation trying to hold onto power in the wake of popular dissatisfaction with its methods, expect it to get bloodier before it gets better. But if this is just a casual show of strength from an al-Shabaab that is entirely in control of itself and most of Somalia, then the future for Somalia is very bleak indeed. DM
All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.