On Saturday October 14, at 4:13pm, my cellphone lit up. “Big explosion…at the Zobe Junction,” the first WhatsApp message announced. For half an hour or so, updates from friends and colleagues in Mogadishu continued to pour in.
It has been a week after the attack and we’re just starting to grasp the full horror of it. The figures are staggering: over 358 confirmed dead, 228 injured with about 56 others still missing. The charred bodies of many will most likely never be identified. Even for a city that has experienced almost 30 years of violence, the October 14 assault has shaken its residents to the core. I emailed a journalist friend to ask how he’s doing. He said the mood in the city was darker than he’d ever known. “People are all in shock…Schools, universities, shops and public offices are closed. The city is deserted as residents remain at home except few people who came out for blood donations.”
The hours following the attack, I did what most people do these days, I turned to Twitter to look for updates but also, I suspect, for answers to unanswerable questions about human cruelty and the nature of evil. But all I found were platitudes such as #JeSuisMogadishu. I pored over photos posted by Twitter users that showed pools of blood and rickshaws twisted into balls of metal in a futile attempt to make sense of it all. I realized then this blast would be the tipping point for Mogadishu.
One of the two car bombs went off at the K5 Junction, a spot that connects several major districts of the capital. It’s a very busy roundabout that is home to a dizzying array of shops and kiosks selling everything you can imagine: cafes offering Somali tea and sweets and well protected hotels where politicians socialize. On my last visit to the city in July, we drove by that very intersection, passed bustling shops and massive advertising billboards and marveled at the resilience of Mogadishu residents who have endured decades of violence and destruction; their yearning for the ordinary pleasures of city life as simple as they are profound.
Saturday’s catastrophic attack represents the first serious political challenge to the young presidency of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, famously known as “Farmaajo.” The 55-year-old Somali-American from Buffalo, New York was elected in February of this year by lawmakers in the upper and lower houses of the parliament. Following his election, the streets of the capital exploded with jubilant celebrations that betrayed the public’s deep longing for good leadership.
How President Mohamed deals with last Saturday’s bloodbath will determine the rest of his presidency. So far, he has made all the right moves with an impromptu press conference at the site of the attack and an emotional expression of grief as he visited a makeshift emergency center. But grief is already giving way to fury. The days following the attack, protestors took to the streets in several cities including Mogadishu and the port city of Kismayo as they chanted “down with Shabaab.” The public’s anger could soon turn on the government if their response to this tragedy is deemed ineffectual.
The question now is whether the government can do more that what has already been done in the seemingly endless battle against the jihadist group. March 2017 marked the 10-year anniversary of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Aside from a few headline-making victories such as the liberation of towns such as Baraawe in 2014 and and Kismayo in 2012, AMISOM doesn’t seem to have much to show after ten years of fighting and billions of dollars spent on a mission some say has given Shabaab the perfect recruitment propaganda. However, most critics of AMISOM concede that without the presence of the twenty-thousand troops from neighboring countries such as Uganda, Burundi, Kenya among others propping up the federal government, the whole of Somalia would fall to the Al Qaeda linked terrorist group. This nightmare scenario would cause a humanitarian crisis in the country and destabilize the whole region.
Aside from AMISOM, the United States has been carrying out controversial airstrikes that have eliminated key Shabaab figures but caused civilian casualties. These strikes are expected to increase dramatically thanks to a directive by President Trump. In March this year, Trump designated Somalia an “area of active hostilities” giving the Department of Defense greater authority to carry out bombings against suspected Shabab members without the vetting process intended to reduce civilian deaths. Sadly, the higher probability of civilian casualties resulting from this revised policy would pretty much hand Al Shabaab the propaganda it craves to sustain its funding, fighting troops and justification for further attacks.
It’s difficult to assess the exact size and capability of the group. I spoke to a security expert who works in Mogadishu who asked to remain anonymous. He told me that over the years, the group has become fragmented due to their decentralizing of its command center – a decision made with the goal to adapt to increased attacks by government and AMISOM forces. As a result, it is very difficult to gain an accurate picture of its current size. “You have various estimates that rage from three thousand to five and a half thousand men,” he said.
Many Somalis are bewildered by how the combination of government forces, twenty-two thousand African Union troops and U.S airstrikes have so far failed to pacify such a small group of fighters. The security expert told me that the group has become deft at fighting on its own terms. Shabaab fighters avoid getting into open military confrontations because they know they will lose so they opt for surprise attacks on weak targets such as hotels and restaurants where they can cause maximum bloodshed. “They almost never lose,” he added.
But that only explains the group’s military adaptability. What justifies the support it continues to enjoy in parts of the country? The security expert said it was simple: Shabaab “provides a credible alternative to a lack of rule of law and lack of governance.” The group’s support is strongest in rural areas where meager government services such as security, education and health care almost never reach. So in the absence of a responsive federal government in these rural areas, Shabaab provides residents its own brand of rule of law and justice even if that law is so draconian that few would ever wish to live under it were other options available to them.
To better understand the political and security implications of last Saturday’s massive attack in Mogadishu, I reached out to Dr. Afyare Abdi Elmi, a Somali-Canadian academic who teaches international politics at Qatar University in Doha. “The security approach that has been used for the last ten years has not worked,” Dr. Elmi said emphatically. “If Al Shabaab can pick and choose their targets, attack government military posts and drive a lorry full of explosives into the busiest area of Mogadishu and kill hundreds, then this means that for the government, regional forces and the U.S, there is a need for a new security strategy.”
One thing that the deadliest terrorist attack in Somalia’s history has made crystal clear is the utter failure of the hyper militarized counterterrorism strategy of the past decade. Ultimately, the Shabaab conundrum is a political one, and not a purely military problem. The time has come for Somali leaders and the international community to think outside the box and try a new approach instead of continuing with the same failed strategy. Negotiations with willing Shabaab members was one such proposed idea but it has not been pursued in any meaningful fashion.
There have already been some high profile defections from the group, most recently that of Mukhtar Robow who surrendered to the government in August of this year. And proponents of the negotiation strategy contend that more members would be willing to defect if they are offered credible promises of amnesty. Dr. Elmi asserts that in the past, negotiating with Shabaab has been a redline for Western donor nations, especially the United States which wants nothing less than total defeat of the terrorist group.
Saturday’s attack is likely to become a turning point. Years from now, we might view the fight against Shabaab in terms of before and after October 14, 2017. There is something new in the way Somalis are talking about it that makes it seem like this reached a tipping point. There is so much anger on the part of the public. There has also been so much support and goodwill toward Somalia from all over the world. The magnitude of attack has put the vast majority of Somalis on the same page in terms of how they view Shabaab and its crimes against humanity. And it is this shift in opinion that appears to be unprecedented. Somali leaders must take advantage of this moment. This is the time to come up with long-term political solution to the Shabaab question.
Perhaps I am being too hopeful. President Farmaajo yesterday declared “state of war” on the terror group. The same war that has been declared countless times before. Sadly, as time passes and collective grief moves from the streets of the capital and into the homes of those who’ve lost loved ones, the particular horrors of this attack will slowly recede into the dark recesses of the national consciousness. No doubt the two-kilometer radius of the city that was decimated will be rebuilt. The blood will be washed; tarmacs fixed; and new walls and store signs put up. Until the next big one.
In times like these, you hear a lot about the famous resilience of the people of Mogadishu. And that is true—I’ve witnessed it myself. The city is always rebuilding, always metamorphosing into something new yet familiar. But at what cost? What is the psychic toll that the residents of this beleaguered city pay for all their resilience and surviving? It is certainly a heavy one. Perhaps I’ll understand next time I’m in the city and I encounter one of its countless survivors and I look into their distant, vacant eyes that have seen so much horror and yet reveal so little.
Hassan Ghedi Santur is a contributing editor at Warscapes. He is a Somali-Canadian journalist based in Nairobi and the author of the novel Something Remains and Maps of Exile. He holds a Master's degree in politics and global affairs from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Twitter @hgsantur