Attack Near Mosque Shows al-Shabab Capabilities Intact

Somali media film near a destroyed vehicle outside the scene of a twin bombing on a hotel in Mogadishu, Feb. 20, 2015.
Somali media film near a destroyed vehicle outside the scene of a twin bombing on a hotel in Mogadishu, Feb. 20, 2015.
Somali media film near a destroyed vehicle outside the scene of a twin bombing on a hotel in Mogadishu, Feb. 20, 2015.

The Somali government is trying to determine how a car filled with explosives was able to enter one of the country’s most heavily guarded hotels just hours before worshippers gathered for Friday prayers at a neighboring mosque.

The explosion from the car killed at least 25 people, including the deputy mayor of Mogadishu, Mohamed Aden Guled.

According to security sources who spoke to the VOA Somali service on condition of anonymity, the vehicle was parked inside the hotel next to the mosque at about 11 a.m. local time. The explosion occurred at 1:03 p.m. A second explosion occurred moments later, which authorities said they were investigating as well.

A spokesman for the security agencies, Qasim Ahmed Roble, promised the government would figure out what happened.

“The president, the Cabinet, chiefs of the army, they are all in a meeting,” Roble said. “The president will take tough measures. He promised this will not be tolerated, and those responsible will be held accountable.”

The attack came as African Union troops and Somali government forces have dislodged forces of al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-linked militant group, from a number of major towns within the last year, including Barawe, the group’s headquarters. Al-Shabab responded by attacking key installations such as the presidential palace, parliament and the headquarters of the African Union.

Mastery of complex attacks

Drone strikes have also killed key al-Shabab figures, but Somali and regional experts said the developments had done little to al-Shabab’s capability of launching sophisticated attacks.

“They have mastered the art and science of conducting these complex attacks,” said Abdirashid Hashi, director of the Heritage Institute in Mogadishu. “They look for an opportunity, a loophole. They have their infrastructure in the city, and thus far the security agencies and the African Union, which has been mandated to protect the government officials and administrations, have so far failed to find where these suicide bombers and where these vehicles are coming from.”

Al-Shabab has been fighting the Somali government and international forces since its inception in 2006. Experts say the group is deeply rooted within Somali society and is well-organized, with fighters willing to carry out suicide missions.

“We would say that it’s both entrenched but also it’s facing a security force that is fairly heavily clan-based and to a certain extent politicized, so there are still lots of vulnerabilities that al-Shabab can exploit,” said Cedric Barnes, the Horn of Africa project director of the International Crisis Group.

He said the recent political crisis in Somalia, where a prime minister was ousted following a drawn-out political battle, may have shifted some focus away from al-Shabab.

“We should also say over the last four months there has been huge amount of distraction in terms of what the government has been focusing on. … There has been a real delay and a real hiatus in the campaigns against al-Shabab,” Barnes said.

U.S. strike killed leader

A U.S. drone strike killed al-Shabab leader Ahmed Godane last September. Two later strikes killed the group’s chiefs of intelligence and external operations, Abdishakur Tahlil and Yuusf Dheeg.

Hashi, of the Heritage Institute, warned that al-Shabab carries out attacks in retaliation for such strikes.

“They have the capabilities,” he said. “And whenever they receive a blow from the U.S. drones or their leaders are killed, in return they come back to Mogadishu and they try to stage a high-profile and complex attack. … The government and the AU should have the capacity to stop this.”

Al-Shabab merged with al-Qaida in February 2012. The leadership of the group has so far not spoken publicly about the rise of Islamic State forces, but Barnes said the group is getting support from outside the country.

“Al-Shabab has always had support from outside Somalia, which has made it different from a lot of the factions and insurgent groups we have seen over the last 20 years,”  Barnes said.

“Al-Shabab certainly has links, and most of those links have been toward al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and may be further afield to al-Qaida central as well as networks that have developed in East Africa over the last 20 years. But there has also been an exchange of personnel and expertise with other jihadi groups. Boko Haram is sometimes mentioned, but these links are probably opportunistic rather strategic.”

Al-Shabab predates Boko Haram, and it is not clear if the two groups regularly and frequently share information and resources, according to experts. Al-Shabab has a large number of foreign fighters in its ranks, most of whom are Kenyans and other East African nationals.