The bomber who was responsible for killing more than 300 people in a truck suicide attack in the Somali capital Mogadishu was a former soldier in the army. It appears that the attack may have been revenge for a botched raid by US and local troops on his home village, which killed ten civilians as they ran to take cover under banana trees.
On 25 August, the botched raid occurred in the bomber’s village in Bariire, southern Somalia. I penned down back then that it would lead to blowback towards government forces as family members impacted by the counter-terrorism raid may be inspired to join armed groups to spearhead their anger. It transpired, according to officials, that the bomber defected from the Somali forces in 2010, and allegedly joined Al-Shabaab – there is no way to verify this information. It’s time to be pragmatic about Somalia’s counter-terrorism quandary amid a dire humanitarian landscape and political fragility – and ask whether counter-terrorism is working.
The missing narrative
The missing narrative in the Mogadishu truck bomb attack is whether counter-terrorism in Somalia is actually working. On what intelligence did the US and local Somali forces act upon to raid an innocent village remains unclear, but if the counter-terrorism raid was based on tip-offs from local clan dynamics between tribes, that would explain the disingenuous attack. The village only held eight guns, seven of which were stored away and one in operation for a watch-keeper who was guarding the village from rival clans in the southern region. Al-Shabaab was nowhere to be seen.
Three days after the Mogadishu truck attack, the bomber’s village was subject to another counter-terrorism operation – this time with drone strikes killing eight civilians, including five men and three women. It is unclear which country conducted the drone strike, but the US regularly conducts strikes in Somalia, including in the southern Lower Shabelle region.
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump provided the US military and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) larger autonomy to carry out targeted killings – considering parts of the country “temporary battlefields”. Some 510 people have been killed as a consequence of targeted strikes since 2007 with 52 injured.
Conflict dynamics in the south
Earlier this week, African Union troops unexpectedly withdrew from Rasadaay village, located 179 kilometres southwest of Mogadishu in southern Somalia. This was a strategic location which required control, and was at risk of Al-Shabaab taking over. A caravan of Al-Shabaab fighters comfortably roll in to the village without any battle less than two hours later. It is unclear why the African Union decided to withdraw from Rasadaay, but it now risks more attacks in southern Somalia including in the capital Mogadishu.
The peacekeeping African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) may have made some gains against Al-Shabaab’s territory, but the UN’s Security Council Resolution 2372 seeks to downgrade uniformed soldiers in Somalia. This poses another quandary for Somalia’s future as AMISOM’s overarching goal is to hand over the responsibility for security to local Somali forces. Judged on the botched raid which led to the Mogadishu truck bombing, this may weaken Somalia’s security. Risk of attack will most likely increase across Somalia, particularly as AMISOM does not assist or have a goal to influence any political infrastructure for governance in Somalia.
Conflict dynamics in southern Somalia – in particular the Lower Shebelle region – has prominently been in favour of the Al-Shabaab group which poses a major dilemma for counter-terrorism efforts and whether they have an impact on the ground. Local communities therein have no reason to join forces alongside Somalia’s national army or AMISOM, both Gedir-Hawiye and Bimal-Dir clans have found it particularly advantageous to join forces with Al-Shabaab, the Somali national army and AMISOM forces at different times of the conflict. In such a context, based on changing political callings of communities in the south, it is important to ensure that clans are not grieved or hold negative sentiments from disingenuous counter-terrorism led hostilities – this can sway dynamics in the hands of Al-Shabaab.
Government forces ironically pulled out of towns only 45 kilometres outside of Mogadishu, near Lower Shabelle, which were taken over by Al-Shabaab. One reason for this is that salaries of government forces were not paid making low morale rife among forces guarding strategic regions. Without salaries, national army soldiers are likely to quit guarding their positions, making way for Al-Shabaab.
Similarly, Somalia’s national army and security forces have had a major issue of infighting, which has displayed weakness to its foes. In September, infighting between government forces led to the killing of nine people in Mogadishu, scores have been injured on separate occasions as a result.
Somali nationals marched the streets of Mogadishu against Al-Shabaab in the official three-day national mourning period following the truck attack – cementing an anti-Al-Shabaab sentiment on the ground.
How Somalia will deal with the following months will be crucial to winning over the support of the population. Somalia is already destabilised with a sensitive internal political demographic. President Mohammed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed should use this as an opportunity to unify the country – a dynamic which may work in his favour. The federal states may also see it as an opportunity to push a vote for no confidence and oust Farmajo due to the ongoing unrest caused by Al-Shabaab.
As some 1,000 Ethiopian forces march forward into Somalia to battle Al-Shabaab, it is vital to ensure that counter-terrorism operations are not targeting innocent civilians, potentially encouraging their relatives to join fringe groups in the quest for revenge once again.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.