Somali jihadist group al Shabaab on Oct. 4 claimed responsibility for a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) that exploded in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab withdrew from the Somali capital in August, but the attack is hardly surprising. Leaders from the transnationalist faction of the jihadist group have continued to espouse their ideology, claiming they would continue attacks in Mogadishu, a city that is very difficult to pacify. Thus, al Shabaab continues to be a real threat.
Somali jihadist group al Shabaab on Oct. 4 claimed responsibility for a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) that exploded in the early afternoon in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. The suicide VBIED detonated at a checkpoint outside the Education Ministry of the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), resulting in the deaths of an estimated 70 bystanders who reportedly were waiting to apply for scholarships to study at universities abroad. Though al Shabaab's insurgent forces largely pulled out of Mogadishu in August, the attack should come as no surprise. It is not unusual for militants who are forced to withdraw their conventional forces from an area to switch to using terrorist tactics. This has occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places. Rather than suffer a defeat at the hands of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, al Shabaab forces withdrew to their respective home areas and safe zones to regroup. These most notably include Kismayo, a sanctuary for transnationalist elements within the group. Despite the pullback, leaders of the transnationalist faction — Ahmad Abdi Godane (aka Abu Zubayr) in particular and Ibrahim Haji Mead (aka Ibrahim al-Afghani) to a lesser extent — continued to espouse jihadist ideology, indicating that residual forces in Mogadishu would continue to conduct militant operations there. The group still poses a serious threat. Al Shabaab has conducted these types of attacks before, most recently on Feb. 22, including as many as three VBIED attacks per year. But the Oct. 4 attack demonstrates that al Shabaab maintains substantial operational ability to conduct acts of terrorism (which are distinct from insurgent attacks), and that it retains strong intelligence capabilities in the Somali capital. Even after leaving the capital, al Shabaab retained its local human-source networks and relied on elements of the Somali population sympathetic to the insurgency. These individuals are willing to help even when they are unaware what they are helping with — including with a terrorist attack of this sort. As the attack shows, a withdrawal of insurgent forces from Mogadishu does not mean al Shabaab cannot conduct terrorist attacks. AMISOM forces can block a large-scale al Shabaab offensive in the capital and push the majority of al Shabaab forces out of Mogadishu, but it is impossible to rid the city of all the group's members. Thus, the capital remains an environment highly conducive to terrorist operations by al Shabaab, carried out by small team units. Mogadishu has an estimated population of more than 2 million and is poorly lit and organized. Additionally, officials and members of security forces are vulnerable to bribery by groups such as al Shabaab that want to co-opt those within state and international institutions. With 9,000 African Union peacekeepers and a few thousand TFG soldiers, AMISOM and the TFG lack the forces, equipment and training to fully patrol the city, let alone secure it against such operations. Even U.S. troops have not been able to completely lock down cities such as Baghdad and Kabul, so there is not much chance that AMISOM and the TFG will be able to prevent attacks in chaotic Mogadishu. As an insurgent group, al Shabaab is not reconstituting the loose alliance of nationalist and transnationalist militias it once commanded. But the Oct. 4 attack shows it is still capable of carrying out terrorist operations. This allows the group to make its presence known and ensure Somalia remains in a state of transition and confusion.