Al Shabaab Suicide Bombing in Mogadishu

October 4, 2011

African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) soldiers sort through a bag of hand grenades and other munitions that al Shabaab used to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at a former steel factory in Mogadishu, Somalia. (UN Photo/Stuart Price)

An al Shabaab suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden vehicle into a checkpoint at the entrance to Somalia’s Ministry of Education in Mogadishu. The blast killed over 65 people, with the casualty number expected to rise over the next few days. Shortly after the explosion, al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack on one of its websites.

Two months ago, al Shabaab controlled areas of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city. On August 6, the al Qaeda-linked militants abruptly vacated their bases in the capital and left for al Shabaab strongholds in south and central Somalia. Al Shabaab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu marked, according to senior leadership, a shift in tactics. The group will focus its energies on attacks in Mogadishu, a frontline against the government, instead of on holding ground in the capital city. An August 15 press release declared success in the first phase of the group’s operations, saying that the al Shabaab’s attacks were deadlier than before. The statement read, “This change in military tactics, as well as the increased mobility of the Mujahideen’s forces in all of Mogadishu’s districts, will provide them with the ability to inflict maximum damage to the frustrated AMISOM & TFG troops whilst greatly minimizing the losses on the side of the Mujahideen.” Several car bombs have been defused in Mogadishu over the course of the past two months, signaling that al Shabaab has actively been pursuing this type of attack since its withdrawal from the city.

Today’s attack is an example of how deadly this shift in tactics could be. The Ministry of Education is located in a government compound with three other ministries that is jointly secured by Transitional Federal Government (TFG) soldiers and African Union Mission on Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping troops. The compound itself is in the K4 area of Mogadishu, which is under government control. The major supply route running between AMISOM’s headquarters near the airport and government buildings runs through the K4 intersection. The precise target of the attack is unclear: students taking exams were gathered outside and government officials were meeting inside. Al Shabaab has used suicide attacks before, but the group has made clear that it plans on markedly increasing the number of such attacks.

Al Shabaab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu did not degrade its ability to carry out attacks. The group maintains control over key territory and established networks remain operational. Control over territory provides the group space to train, plan, and prepare for attacks. Established networks provide the ability to move materiel and personnel to the site of the attack. Access to both of these gives al Shabaab the capability to carry out complicated attacks, such as today’s suicide car bombing.

Defeating al Shabaab will require denying the group safe haven and disrupting its networks in Somalia.