In September 2014, former President Barack Obama boasted that his “strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” Yemen is in the midst of a fierce civil war and still faces a serious Islamic terrorist threat. As for Somalia, the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab Islamic terrorist group is thriving. “Al-Shabab reportedly killed more than 4,200 people in 2016, making it the deadliest Islamic terror group in Africa,” according to the Counter Extremism Project. In the first seven months of 2016, al-Shabab killed more than twice as many people using improvised explosive devices as it did during all of 2015. If that were not enough, a group of jihadists broke away from al-Shabab in 2015 and pledged their allegiance to ISIS. The ISIS affiliate may be a relative newcomer in Somalia, but has already left its own bloody trail. ISIS also has established strongholds in Africa as a whole, where ISIS reportedly killed 2,350 people in 2016. So much for Obama’s claim of success against terrorism, using Somalia as one of his examples.
The carnage from Islamist terrorist attacks in Somalia has continued during 2017. Two bomb blasts in the heart of the Somali capital of Mogadishu Saturday, one detonated shortly after the other, killed at least 237 people and wounded at least 300 others. The Mogadishu bombing is considered the deadliest single attack in Somalia's history. A truck full of military-grade and homemade explosives was reportedly targeting Somalia’s foreign ministry. When the explosives detonated, they apparently ignited a fuel tanker which multiplied the effects of the explosions in death and destruction. “In our 10 year experience as the first responder in #Mogadishu, we haven’t seen anything like this,” the Aamin ambulance service tweeted.
Given the pattern of al-Shabab’s past bombings, that Somali-based Islamist terrorist group is suspected of being behind Saturday’s terrorist attack in Mogadishu, a frequent al-Shabab target. Somali Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman, for example, has already condemned the al-Shabab terrorists for the “barbaric attack.” However, as of the writing of this article, al-Shabab has not yet claimed responsibility.
It is possible that the break-away affiliate of ISIS in Somalia carried out the latest lethal attacks, following its attacks last May and again earlier this month. The ISIS affiliate sees itself as a rival of al-Shabab in Somalia and is looking for ways to lure Islamic militants away from the larger, more established al-Shabab. ISIS’s capture and brief occupation of a Somali port city last fall and its few small-scale attacks have hardly caused a ripple. Although ISIS has not yet claimed responsibility for the attack either, it may decide at some point to use Saturday’s bombings for propaganda purposes in an effort to establish more legitimacy amongst the jihadists vying for control in Somalia. If so, they have a lot of catching up to do with the far more dangerous threat in Somalia today, al-Shabab, which has resisted ISIS overtures to merge operations.
Al-Shabab is the entrenched Islamist terror group, which aims to turn Somalia and the entire East African region into a fundamentalist Islamic state. It presently controls substantial portions of the southern Somali countryside and has thousands of fighters. It has carried out numerous massacres of civilians in Somalia and its neighboring countries in East Africa since it broke off from its predecessor group, al-Ittihad al-Islami, in 2003.
Working with a group of Sharia courts called the Islamic Courts Union, the al-Shabab militants gained control of Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, in 2006, prompting a series of incursions from Ethiopia and Kenya to push al-Shabab out of its strongholds. Al-Shabab fought back, expanded its base of operations, and enriched itself through taxes, extortion and other means.
According to a report by the Counter Extremism Project, “Under al-Shabab’s strict brand of sharia, stonings, amputations, and beheadings are regular punishment for criminals and apostates. The group violently persecutes non-Muslims and clashes frequently with humanitarian and international aid workers.”
By 2011, al-Shabab was estimated to have been generating “between US$ 70 million to US$ 100 million per year in revenue from taxation and extortion in areas under its control,” according to a 2011 report by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.
Al-Shabab formally pledged allegiance to al Qaeda in 2012, although there were ties going back at least as far as 2008. In a preview of what ISIS would later accomplish using social media, al-Shabab employed sophisticated recruiting techniques to recruit from abroad, including use of twitter, videos and even hip-hop rap in English. One such rap included these lyrics: “[M]ortar by mortar, shell by shell, only going to stop when they go to hell.”
The recruiting efforts paid off, including by attracting “a number of Americans to fight in Somalia, most of whom are from Minnesota," according to CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen’s CNN.com column. Minneapolis has the largest Somali population in the United States. Most are either refugees or children of refugees. Some have been easy pickings for al-Shabab recruiters.
In another preview of ISIS-style behavior, al-Shabab has recruited children to fight in its ranks, and its militants have regularly kidnapped women and girls as sex slaves.
Al-Shabab has continued to step up its deadly attacks in Somalia, Kenya and Uganda. It has launched attacks against contingents of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a peace keeping mission operated by the African Union in Somalia with approval by the United Nations Security Council. It has also targeted civilians. In some of its massacres the Islamic terrorists singled out non-Muslims. The following is just a sampling.
In September 2013 al-Shabab’s Westgate Mall attacks in Nairobi, Kenya left 68 people dead and 175 wounded. In November 2014, al-Shabab militants slaughtered 28 non-Muslim passengers who were traveling on a hijacked bus on the way to Nairobi, Kenya. The dead, 19 men and 9 women, were shot at close range. The victims were killed for not being able to recite an Islamic declaration. In December 2014, al-Shabab singled out more non-Muslims in Kenya for death. They were either beheaded or shot in the head at close range. In April 2015, the jihadist militants reportedly singled out Christians and shot them, while freeing many Muslims, during their attack at a Kenyan college. In April 2016, suspected al-Shabab militants in Mogadishu killed a woman working for the UN High Commission on Refugees office. In July and August of 2016, attacks involving car bombs killed at least 55 people. The first occurred near AMISOM’s headquarters at an airport in Mogadishu. The second car bomb attack, which also involved some shootings, occurred at a beach restaurant in Mogadishu. The third occurred near the Presidential Palace and two hotels in Mogadishu. In October 2016, al-Shabab killed six Christians in a Kenyan town near the Somali border.
Al-Shabab regularly claimed responsibility for such attacks, but has kept silent so far regarding Saturday’s massacre.
Somali president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, declared three days of national mourning for the victims of Somalia’s latest horrific attack. “Terror won't win," he said.
Whether the group determined to be ultimately responsible for the carnage turns out to be al-Shabab, ISIS or some other radical jihadist group, there is little doubt that the ideological spark for the explosions was the poison of Islamism.