Foreign Policy Blogs

What the terrorist attack in Mogadishu tells us about the resurgence of Al-Shabaab

What the terrorist attack in Mogadishu tells us about the resurgence of Al-ShabaabThe latest terrorist attack in Mogadishu has brought the threat of Al-Shabaab to the forefront of world news and signalled the weakness of the Somali American-backed government.

More than 300 people died on 14 October in Mogadishu after two bomb trucks exploded in the crowded district of Hodan. While no group officially claimed the attack, experts agree that it was almost certainly directed by Al-Qaeda affiliated militant group Al-Shabaab. The deadliest terror attack in Somalia since 2007 highlights the persistent threat of Islamist militant groups and their ability to carry out sophisticated assaults on soft targets. The threat of Al-Shabaab has increased in southern and central Somalia as well as outside the country’s borders. In 2016, Al-Shabaab became the deadliest terror group on the African continent, followed by Boko Haram. While Al-Shabaab has suffered setbacks in recent years, the latest attack in Mogadishu shows that the organisation is resurgent and has the capabilities to carry out acute attacks. The incident also undermines the credibility of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmaajo)’s government, less than a year after his election.

Al-Shabaab’s enduring presence in Somalia and beyond

Al-Shabaab continues to wage a violent insurgency against the government and US-backed forces in Somalia. Since 2010, the group has suffered territorial losses at the hands of the US coalition and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) but its ability to carry out deadly attacks has not diminished. In September the group attacked a military base outside the capital, killing eight soldiers. The choice of targets (busy public areas, security forces) reflects Al-Shabaab’s attempts to destabilise the government and inflict maximum damage to shock public opinion. While small-scale targeted attacks by Al-Shabaab are common in Somalia, the scale of 14 October bombings is unprecedented. It signals the growing sophistication of Al-Shabaab’s tactics and the failure of the Somali government to address the threat. Al-Shabaab still controls many parts of southern and central Somalia as well as several strategic supply routes.

Al-Shabaab has also extended its influence outside the country and poses a transnational threat in East Africa. The group launched several attacks outside Somalia’s border, notably in Kenya, where it has assaulted security forces and beheaded civilians. Al-Shabaab militants are believed to be present in several other countries in the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda. The organisation regularly targets AMISON troops, recently killing 24 soldiers in an ambush attack. In Somalia, Al-Shabaab has limited the expansion of Islamic State and imposed itself as the primary security threat for the population.

Flaws in Somalia’s security strategy

The Somali president has vowed to respond to the threat of Al-Shabaab following the recent attacks. His election in February raised hopes for the security of the country and the stability of the region. The reshuffle of security services and the nomination of new heads of police, military and intelligence signaled the government’s ambition to tackle terrorism. Extra resources were invested in securing Mogadishu. Between February and September, the number of attacks in Somalia decreased.

The latest attack has nonetheless dealt a blow to Farmaajo’s record. Since February, the new government has faced several controversies. The extradition of a commander of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (a separatist group fighting advocating self-determination for Somalis living in Ethiopia) to Ethiopian authorities has sparked accusations of breaches of national and international law and has weakened the president’s ambitions to unify the country. Divisions within Farmaajo’s government over security have also come to light. Two days before the 14 October attack, the Defence Minister and the chief of the armed forces resigned over disagreements on how to combat Al-Shabaab. In late August, the death of 10 civilians in a joint US-Somali security raid against the terror group brought to light the weaknesses of the government’s tactics. Factional violence, as evidenced by recent clashes between rival governmental units, represents an additional challenge for security forces.

The impact of the attack on the Somali government

While the attack could unite Somalis behind President Farmaajo in a show of solidarity, it is also likely to raise further questions about the government’s counterterrorism strategy and embolden the president’s opponents. Divisions between federal states and central government could deepen and Farmaajo’s political opponents could exploit the situation to hold a no-confidence vote.

The government will also face the task of maintaining its international allies’ support. In a statement released after the attack, the US State Department reaffirmed its commitment ‘to stand with the Somali government’. The US administration’s ambivalent stance towards Somalia nonetheless casts doubt over the US’ intentions to increase its support. AMISOM has vowed to assist Somalia after the attacks but continued support will depend on the Somali government’s ability to project credibility and convince its allies that it can address the threat of Al-Shabaab effectively.

This article was originally published on Global Risk Insights, and was written by Cecile Guerin.