October 4, 2011

al-Shabaab Sows Terror in Mogadishu

In one of its most brutal attacks yet, a Kenyan suicide bomber from al-Shabaab rolled his lorry up to the front of Somalia’s Ministry of Education and detonated a load of fuel drums. At least 70 people are reported dead, with witnesses placing the toll near 100, with over 100 more wounded. The attack suggests that al-Shabaab’s leadership has minimal intentions of resorting to traditional guerrilla tactics, instead taking cues from their al-Qaeda cadres and skipping directly to terrorism in order to shatter Mogadishu’s relative calm.

"Somalis, we warn you: keep away from government buildings and the bases of their soldiers, more serious blasts are coming," warned spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage, according to Reuters.

On the explosion’s surface, al-Shabaab couldn’t have chosen a more indiscriminate or counterproductive target. The blast went off in Mogadishu’s busy KM-4 district, near the airport and immigration offices of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), creating a cocktail of government and civilian victims. Officials from Somalia's football association (outlawed by al-Shabaab) also escaped the blast with minor injuries. Only the civilians - many of them students and parents - far outnumbered the government officials and soldiers in the area, muffling the TFG’s insecurity with a barbaric act.

"This attack, which targeted the institutions of the Transitional Federal Government and murdered dozens of civilians, shows just how little the extremists value human life,” said President Sharif Ahmed.

This double-sidedness pervades today’s bombing. With the group’s political support already shot, al-Shabaab’s military perception plummeted after its August withdrawal from Mogadishu, only to rise again as it continued to operate inside the capital. Tuesday’s attack suggests that al-Shabaab cannot even ambush TFG and African Union (AU) troops, let alone hold ground against them. Concentrated attacks against government troops are possible in the future, but isolated bombings on civilian targets are counterproductive to an impression of strength.

Suldan Sarah, Ahmed’s communications director, told Al Jazeera, "To do a cowardly act like that does not mean you are a force to be reckoned with. It just means you can commit a mass murder using a suicide bomber. This is not the sign of strength, but rather a cowardly act."

al-Shabaab also bit off more than it can chew by attacking a Turkish scholarship examination. The Turks have engaged Somalia’s famine through education programs and operate in a better light than Western countries. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the wrong actor for al-Shabaab to challenge. The group stands a better chance of sticking to its currently bloated list of enemies: the TFG, AU, various warlords and local militias encroaching upon its southern territory, all with U.S. Predators flying overhead.

Tuesday’s bombing is both savage and militarily self-defeating on many levels. Unfortunately terror comes with its aftershocks, and al-Shabaab may achieve partial success of its objectives: spreading instability in Mogadishu and increasing pressure on the TFG and AU. KM 4 lies in the capital’s lower heart, near the airport and home to a number of hotels. The AU began its northern sweep of Mogadishu from KM 4 and the local districts, so this area is supposed to be relatively secure in comparison the northern districts still under al-Shabaab control. These types of deep targets presumably form al-Shabaab’s list, particularly the abandoned Bakaara market.

TFG and AU officials accept that stopping every bomber is impossible, but the fact that the group accessed a safe-zone with ease must have unsettled Ahmed’s government. Mogadishu’s residents, now under alert for the next bombing, are living under a wholly different fear.

Fresh urgency will only add to the friction of securing all of Mogadishu. al-Shabaab appears to have anticipated that the TFG couldn’t reestablish order when it withdrew from its inner districts, and the capital has yet to be secured by one authority. The AU continues to provide security to most of the south and central districts, and TFG soldiers are finally receiving regular paychecks, but the northern and outer districts remain lawless. Local warlords and militias are filling the gaps without TFG coordination, creating unease between the government and residents. Police are slowly fanning out but find their job overwhelming.

And this is only security detail. The TFG must deliver services, not just security, to obtain the permanent trust of Somalis.

"The fact al Shabaab has reoccupied at least three of the districts it abandoned at the time and is apparently able to operate freely in others to the extent of pulling off the bombing is an indictment of the regime's failure to capitalize on the opportunity, which was handed to it on a silver platter," said J. Peter Pham, a cautious Somali commentator and Africa director of the Atlantic Council.

Although Tuesday’s bombing will further damage what’s left of al-Shabaab’s reputation, its hardened core is likely nearing the end of its compression - a permanent 5-10% support based on economic factors and religious ideology. Rage even resurfaced on BBC-Somalia to deny that children had been targeted, suggesting that the group is still semi-conscious of its image. al-Shabaab's grip on the southern region also remains static, to be released only by additional politico-military action from the TFG and AU. If the group can orchestrate more bombings deep within Mogadishu’s core, and combine them with a limited number of ambushes on TFG/AU troops, the TFG will begin to assume more of the blame. An inability to capitalize on Mogadishu’s security vacuum is already eroding the goodwill built up over the last nine months.

"This is the biggest attack since al-Shabaab was defeated," said Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the AU peacekeeping force. "This was expected because we knew they would go more into this kind of attack, including suicide attacks."

al-Shabaab is on the decline - forced to devolve by the AU’s steady gains - but the group isn’t near outright defeat on a national level. Somalia has seen too many militias form, disintegrate and reform. al-Shabaab’s defeat would also leave a patchwork of regional and local authorities, both positive and negative influences, for the TFG to sort through and gain authority over. In the event that al-Shabaab is militarily defeated in the southern region, the group will likely devolve to the lowest point on the guerrilla spectrum, operating as a mobile network of terrorist cells.

How much lower the group can sink remains up for debate. The TFG and AU, on the other hand, have room to fall after a relatively successful 2011.

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