Somalia Bombing Exposed the Security Cracks That Have Allowed Al-Shabab to Thrive

From World Politics Review

On Oct. 14, a huge truck bombing in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, killed at least 350 people, the deadliest act of terrorism in the country’s history. The manner and scale of the attack reveal much about the security situation in Somalia and the ongoing war against the Islamist militant group al-Shabab. In an email interview, Yasin Ahmed Ismail, who leads GLAFPOL, a research, analysis and consultancy group operating in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, explains the faults in Somalia’s security system, the government’s ongoing campaign against al-Shabab, and how the Trump administration’s intensified engagement in Somalia could change things on the ground.

WPR: What does the recent bombing say about the security situation in Somalia, and what might it obscure? 

Yasin Ahmed Ismail: The magnitude and the location of the Mogadishu bombing show the fragility of Somalia’s security. A large truck carrying military and homemade explosives detonated prematurely in the heart of Mogadishu at a bustling intersection 10 minutes from the heavily guarded international airport in Mogadishu. The intended target for the attack is suspected to have either been Somalia’s nearby Foreign Ministry, the new Turkish military base or the airport, which is home to numerous embassies, international organizations and the headquarters of the African Union peacekeeping mission, or AMISOM.

Even though al-Shabab has not claimed responsibility for this bombing, the attack reflects the group’s modus operandi of using a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device to conduct attacks. No other group in Somalia has the capability, knowledge and experience to carry out such an attack. The most likely reason for the group’s silence is because of the staggering number of casualties inflicted and the demographics of those killed, which it fears will guarantee blowback from the Somali population.

There is a lot we don’t know about the attack, but the information emerging from investigations illustrates al-Shabab’s ability to hide and operate in plain sight. The ease with which the truck passed through the first checkpoint, despite it arousing the suspicion of soldiers who wanted to search the truck, signifies all that is wrong with Somalia’s fight against terror. It has been reported that the driver managed to pass through the checkpoint without being searched after he made a call to a well-known individual who vouched for him. This demonstrates the inadequacies of the current system in which a soldier’s suspicion can be overridden by personal or clan affiliation. A search at the first checkpoint would have undoubtedly abated the scale of this tragedy. The current security system is obviously lacking as al-Shabab has managed to infiltrate society and continues to thrive through clan connections. For the Somali government, the tragedy of this attack must be a wakeup call to establish a more stringent security-first approach.

WPR: What is the status of the fight against al-Shabab, and what are the prospects for sustainable security?

Ismail: If we judge the fight against al-Shabab based on the territory the group controls, then Somalia and its international partners are winning this war. However, this could not be further from the truth considering al-Shabab shifted tactics from ruling over territory to guerrilla warfare starting in late 2011, after their withdrawal from Mogadishu and the subsequent merging with al-Qaida in early 2012.

Al-Shabab continues to increase the tempo of its attacks on both soft and hard targets. The same day of the Mogadishu attack, the group retook Bariire, a town barely 30 miles west of Mogadishu and the location of the botched raid by U.S. and Somali forces in August that caused the death of three children. Moreover, in a sophisticated attack last month, al-Shabab overran a Somali military outpost in Bariire, killing at least eight soldiers and looting the base.

Despite the campaign promise of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed to defeat al-Shabab and restore security, little progress has been achieved. While al-Shabab increases the frequency of its attacks, the president’s declared war on the militant group has not yet amounted to any tangible results due to a lack of coordination, political infighting between different clans and continuous disputes between the federal and regional governments. Just days before the Mogadishu bombing, both the defense minister and military chief resigned unexpectedly and with no explanation. The public support that Mohamed, who is popularly known in Somalia by his nickname, Farmaajo, enjoyed when he came to power in February continues to diminish as a result of this political infighting and the insecurity that has resulted from the failure to implement concrete security measures.

Ultimately, the success of this effort depends on whether the Somali government can take the following actions. First, rely less on U.S. airstrikes in the short term and take advantage of the public anger directed toward al-Shabab by launching Farmaajo’s promised offensive against the group. Second, institute stringent security measures at checkpoints to ensure large-scale attacks can be prevented or minimized. Third, utilize this brief moment of national unity to find a solution to the political infighting among various clans and regional governments. And last, provide sustainable long-term security through the creation of a strong, unified, trained and disciplined Somali National Armed Forces—without which, al-Shabab will continue to thrive.

WPR: How would you characterize the U.S military involvement in Somalia under the Trump administration, and how has that affected security?

Ismail: As a result of President Donald Trump’s designation of Somalia as an “area of active hostilities” in March, allowing U.S. military commanders greater latitude to launch offensive airstrikes on al-Shabab, there has been an observed increase in the American military footprint in the country. Two weeks after Trump’s designation, dozens of regular U.S. troops were deployed, and recently the Pentagon said that the number of troops in Somalia had quadrupled to 400 since the beginning of 2017.

This accelerated U.S. military campaign in Somalia has its pros and cons, however. While the increased number of troops intended to train and equip the Somali National Army is a much-needed development, the new designation allows U.S. commanders, working with the Somali government, to order pre-emptive and offensive strikes rather than simply intervening on a self-defense basis. This relaxes former President Barack Obama’s 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance requiring interagency vetting, and poses significant risks. The flexibility granted to U.S. military commanders to conduct such strikes, on the one hand, could help aid Somali and African Union forces in pacifying al-Shabab controlled areas. On the other hand, it risks being used by al-Shabab as a potent tool for recruitment and radicalization, especially if innocent lives are lost as collateral damage.

Moreover, a continued escalation of the U.S. military campaign could potentially lead to a reversal of public outrage against al-Shabab. It is crucial for the U.S. involvement to be seen playing a secondary and supportive role to the Somali government efforts. Finally, the success of this increased U.S. military intervention depends on whether it is matched by a joint ground offensive by Somali and African Union forces to secure the remaining areas of the country controlled by al-Shabab. Without that, airstrikes may only produce limited results, or worse, serve as a catalyst for al-Shabab to re-emerge as a stronger fighting force.

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