- 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.
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.