Who will channel Somalia’s anger after bombings? Analysis
Massive bombings in Mogadishu have sparked outrage against Al Shabab, which had been weakened in the last decade. But can this be a turning point?
Michelle Shephard, Star, Oct. 22, 2017
Buildings for blocks around Yonge and Dundas Sts. would crumble, cars and pedestrians incinerated.
The blasts Oct. 14 in Mogadishu’s commercial and entertainment hub were so powerful some of the victims may never be identified and the missing never found. The death toll is just an estimate. There are more than 350 dead, and as many are grievously injured and missing, making this one of the deadliest terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001.
After 9/11, Manhattan’s streets became a gallery of the dead. “Have You Seen” posters lined every post, fence and wall, the faces of hundreds of victims staring out.
The search for the missing and tributes to the dead in Mogadishu have been virtual, pictures and posters spreading online.
A photo of medical student Maryam Abdullahi, 21, was one of the first to go viral. Her father flew from London that day to attend her graduation, but instead was in Mogadishu for her funeral. Marian Omer, another victim, worked at the ministry of planning and was described by many as a “rising star.”
Mohamoud Elmi, the director general of humanitarian affairs; human rights activist Yassin Juma; the four Ayaanle brothers, who ran a popular shop in the Safari Hotel; a school bus of children stuck in traffic.
For those who equate Somalia with endless war, piracy or the 1993 U.S. intervention known as Black Hawk Down, in which 18 American service members and hundreds of Somalis were killed, the truck bombings were merely a tremor in a country wracked by earthquakes.
But some are calling this attack Somalia’s 9/11. Which means its impact will spread well beyond the crater the bombing has left, where the search for the remains of the dead continues.
If a country can break your heart, then Somalia has broken mine.
There are few places that have experienced such trauma over the decades, yet proven so resilient. There are few places that have succumbed to such an endless loop of corruption and warfare, and international meddling that often seems to do more damage than good. There are few places as frustrating.
In my travels to Mogadishu since 2006, I have seen more destruction, and more resurrection, than anywhere else I’ve reported.
There is a 14-year-old Somali boy named Abdibasid Ahmed Hussein, who lives among more than 245,000 other refugees at the Dadaab camp, just across the Somali border, in Kenya. He hadn’t spoken since 2008, when he watched his father and brother die in a cruise missile attack.
When I met him and his mother in 2015, his face was haunted; his eyes unfocused; a thin sheen of sweat on his upper lip even though there was a cool July breeze blowing through the camp. His reaction to what he witnessed was so severe, but what shocked me was that his depression and comatose state was considered uncommon. Somalia’s population should collectively be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder for what they have endured.
“The resilience of human beings is just incredible,” Sahal Abdulle told me by phone Thursday from his home in Mogadishu, just a couple hundred metres from the outer edge of the blast site.
Sahal, a Somali-born Canadian and former photojournalist for Reuters, has become a good friend since I first met him Toronto years ago. He possesses that resilience he praises, having covered two decades of war, surviving a targeted attack on his car in 2007 that killed another Canadian journalist and colleague, Ali Sharmarke.
The Saturday explosion damaged part of his roof and when he was repairing it this week, he found body parts. “I’ve never seen or heard anything like this. It looks like a nuclear bomb had fallen onto the place,” he said about the district known as K5, where the bombs exploded.
But Sahal believes this is a turning point in Somalia’s history and hopes the reaction can be channelled into change.
“What made me stronger and realize that this will come to an end, is the public,” he said. “Today if you go around, you see people are rebuilding, immediately. Yesterday, children, moms and dads came out saying no to this killing; enough is enough. In all the wars I’ve covered in Somalia, I’ve never seen that kind of anger, the magnitude of the bombing brought this to the surface.”
Hodan Ali shows a photo of her missing brother, taxi driver Abdiqadir Ali, who was last seen on his way to a hotel to pick up a client, as she waits outside the mortuary of a hospital in Mogadishu last week. (Farah Abdi Warsameh / The Associated Press)
Al Shabab has not claimed responsibility for the attack, but there is little doubt they are responsible. No other group in Somalia has the capacity to carry out a bombing so big or has the network to move the trucks into Mogadishu past what Somali government officials have called the security “ring of steel.”
Matt Bryden, strategic adviser at Sahan Research, a Nairobi-based think tank, said the scale of the destruction was the only surprise, as Al Shabab has been conducting smaller-scale IED (improvised explosive device) attacks throughout the country. “The killing of numerous (Shabab) leaders, including some bomb-makers, has seemingly failed to disrupt their ability to plan and carry out IED attacks,” a 2016 Sahan report states, noting that there is often two phases to their bombings.
“They had reached somewhere between 800- and 1,000-kilo (bombs) … They were getting bigger all the time,” Bryden said. “So we absolutely should have expected a large suicide (vehicle-borne IED). The surprise is the quantum leap from the maximum of 1,000 kilos to what I guess we’re estimating over 2,000 kilos.”
Some reports have said the bomb exploded near a gas tanker, increasing the destruction. The details of the attack are still being investigated.
The level of destruction may have come as a surprise to the Shabab, too, and could be part of the reason they have not made a statement as of this writing. In 2009, the Shabab bombed the Shamo Hotel in Mogadishu during a graduation ceremony for medical students. The backlash against the group was immediate — although not as fierce as it has been this week.
Most analysts believe K5 was not the intended target and Al Shabab was likely aiming for the airport, the Turkish military training base that opened just weeks ago, or one of the embassies inside Mogadishu’s fortified zone; where most international visitors work and live and is protected by forces with the African Union, a mission known as AMISOM.
While the Shabab does not control areas of Mogadishu as the group once did, members of its elite intelligence unit, Amniyat, have infiltrated the capital. In the last two years, there have been a number of assassinations and smaller attacks on hotels, restaurants and shops.
How the trucks, laden with explosives, entered the city — the route the suicide bombers took and checkpoints they passed — is still uncertain.
“There’s no question about the degree of negligence and/or complicity at some of the checkpoints in Mogadishu,” Bryden said. “But it sounds as though one of the checkpoints may have done its job.
“By some accounts, the truck was stopped at a checkpoint, refused to pull over, guards opened fire, and it barrelled down the road towards K5 and it became so cluttered with kiosks and small vehicles, that it eventually came to a stop and exploded outside the hotel.”
Al Shabab began as a small, militant wing of the Islamic Courts Union in 2006, but rose to power during the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion the following year. By 2009, when Ethiopia was forced to pull out its troops, and Somalia was weak from two years of war, Al Shabab had grown to a major force. In 2012, they officially joined Al Qaeda and attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi a year later.
In recent years, they have lost most of their territory, now based primarily in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region. There have been high-level defections from the group, and the Somali government has run a rehabilitation centre to help the hundreds of defecting foot soldiers reintegrate with their families.
There was a photo posted on Twitter on Sunday of Mukhtar Robow, as he donated blood for the wounded. Robow, the original co-founder of Al Shabab, defected to the government in August. The image sparked vigorous debate online. How could a man who had so much blood on his hands be acknowledged for giving his own?
“I recognize that this image is deeply upsetting on a day like this,” wrote Abdi Aynte, who has worked as a journalist, analyst and most recently as the minister for planning and international co-operation in Somalia. “But such is the paradoxical reality in #Somalia. #Pray4Somalia.”
Andrew Harding, a BBC journalist and author of The Mayor of Mogadishu, later weighed in on Twitter: “What does this extraordinary image say to you? The sting of conscience, idle hypocrisy, gesture politics, or perhaps the price of peace?”
The Toronto sign at city hall was illuminated in blue and white for a night last week, the colours of Somalia’s flag. There were other signs of solidarity around the world — at the Eiffel Tower, the moment of silence that was held at the UN Security Council, social media hashtag hugs that included #MogadishuMourning.
But the outpouring of support was nowhere near that which follows attacks in the West, which can compound the grief of the grieving.
In a New Yorker piece Tuesday, staff writer Alexis Okeowo asked, “Where is the empathy for Somalia?”
“It was as if the bombing were just another incident in the daily life of Somalis — a burst of violence that would fade into all the other bursts of violence. The lack of public empathy was startling but not surprising,” she wrote.
Somali women wait for any news of their missing relatives outside a hospital ward in Mogadishu on Tuesday. (Farah Abdi Warsameh / The Associated Press)
Empathy for many, comes with a shared bond: citizenship, religion, a common affliction or experience, or simply being able to just picture a scene. Part of my affection for Somalia and sadness this week is because I’ve been stuck in traffic at K5 where the explosion occurred and on my Facebook feed friends in Mogadishu were checking in as “safe,” as they posted their painful accounts of what they saw.
Public empathy, beyond giving comfort to the grieving, is important as it can drive change.
But not all reactions to terrorist attacks transform a country for the better, and just how last Saturday’s attack will affect Somalia is unclear.
Mogadishu has undoubtedly reformed in recent years, and dramatically so since the 2011 famine. Mogadishu “rising from the ashes” became cliché, but is an apt description in terms of the physical restructuring.
The election earlier this year of “Farmajo” Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed as president was seen as a turning point for many. Like most Somalis, he is referred to by his nickname, which he told me in a 2012 interview he adopted because of his father’s love of cheese.
Farmajo, who is also a U.S. citizen, was Somalia’s prime minister in 2010, credited with cleaning up much of the government corruption and ensuring Somalia’s soldiers were fed and paid. In August 2011, the Shabab withdrew from the capital and retreated to strongholds in the south.
Farmajo’s return to government in February was celebrated, especially among the youth, considerable in a country where 70 per cent of the population is under the age of 30.
But a president — no matter how popular — cannot alone overcome the deep clan and political divisions that often frustrate Somalia’s governance.
Most recently, the country has been split over the Gulf dispute. In June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and initiated an economic boycott, accusing Doha of funding terrorist groups.
Somalia’s federal states announced last month that they have cut ties with Qatar, in defiance of Mogadishu’s neutral stance. “As the Saudis and Emiratis develop direct links with federal states and undermine their relations with the federal government, tensions have grown over which side of the Gulf dispute to back,” notes an International Crisis Group report released Friday. “This also diverts attention from security problems in Mogadishu.”
There has also been recent strife within the government’s ranks. Two days before the attack, the country’s defense minister and army chief resigned following an increase in Shabab attacks on army bases across south and central Somalia.
“What we’re seeing in Mogadishu and elsewhere — this sentiment, this surge of anger — could be actually quite dangerous,” says Bryden. “Although it’s a reaction to this atrocity, it can be directed in any direction.”
The thousands who took to the streets wearing red headbands this week in Mogadishu and other major Somali city were united against Al Shabab.
But the Shabab’s survival in recent years has not been due to popular support. Their strength comes from the weaknesses they exploit.
Michelle Shephard is the Star’s national security correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm.