Mogadishu mosque (Photo by Ctsnow, available at Flickr).

December 04, 2009

Turning Threats into Action: The Significance of Al Shabaab's December 3 Mogadishu Suicide Bombing

The success of the December 3, 2009 suicide attack at a college graduation ceremony in Mogadishu, Somalia demonstrated that the Somali militant group al Shabaab is capable of conducting spectacular mass-casualty attacks in secure areas and following through on its threats.  The attack, which killed at least twenty-two people,[1] was likely carried out by al Shabaab, a militant Islamist group that controls most of southern Somalia, as as it resembles previous attacks for which al Shabaab has taken credit.  The group’s decision to target a graduation ceremony in a stable section of Mogadishu and its ability to successfully conduct the attack reflects diligent planning and preparation, an availability of valuable resources, and, possibly, an indication of al Shabaab’s concern with the education sector.   

Terror groups possess only a finite number of suicide bombers, and they value them greatly, making the use of a suicide bomber not an insignificant decision for a terrorist group.  Al Shabaab has no shortage of fighters to conduct an ongoing insurgency against the fragile, U.N.-backed Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and about 5,000 African Union troop stationed in Mogadishu.  The group has also demonstrated that it has the capacity to train and deploy suicide bombers and successfully strike intended targets.  The group carried out a suicide bombing on June 18, 2009 at a hotel in west-central Somalia that killed the TFG’s Security Minister, as well at least thirty others.[2]   On September 17, 2009, al Shabaab used U.N. vehicles to penetrate the highly-secured African Union base in Mogadishu and conducted a suicide operation killing seventeen African Union troops.[3]  The September attack occurred just three days after, and was a likely response to, a U.S. Special Forces killing of a top al Qaeda leader sheltered by al Shabaab, and demonstrated the alacrity with which the group can deploy well-trained suicide bombers.  The attack at the graduation ceremony on December 3 was executed by a male terrorist dressed in a woman’s traditional veil, and it occurred in one of the few parts of Mogadishu allegedly still under the TFG’s control.[4]  The terrorist’s disguise as a woman, as well as his decision to detonate the explosives near the podium in the immediate vicinity of senior government officials, demonstrates the careful planning involved in the attack.

The group’s decision to target a college graduation ceremony, which resulted in the deaths of the Ministers of Education, Higher Education, and Health, as well as numerous students, is significant for two reasons.  First, it may show al Shabaab’s ability to follow through on verbal threats.  The group issued a statement in September 2009 warning schools about using textbooks provided by the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that taught “un-Islamic” subjects.[5]  The Minister of Education at the time, Ahmed Abdulahi Waayeel, dismissed the warning in the following way: “The government and the education fraternity make sure that any books that are being used in our schools do not violate our religion and culture, so their [al Shabaab’s] statement does not concern us.”[6]  Ahmed Abdulahi Waayeel was killed in the December 3 attack.

The second reason that the choice of targeting a college and education official is important is because it may indicate al Shabaab’s growing interest in influencing Somalia’s education sector.  Al Shabaab operates shadow governments in the swaths of territory that it controls in southern Somalia.  These shadow governments collect taxes, administer a draconian form of justice, provide food for the poor, and conduct public works projects.  One notable field of governance in which al Shabaab has played a limited role thus far is education.  The group has appointed executives responsible for education in at least some of its provinces,[7] but it does not appear to have set up schools, designed curriculums or appointed teachers.  Perhaps the programs most resembling traditional schools are the training programs to which young al Shabaab recruits are sent.  Al Shabaab militants reportedly inculcate the recruits at these training programs with lessons about previous al Shabaab victories and forthcoming battles.[8] 

The December 3 attack may highlight al Shabaab’s desire to gain greater influence in the education sector by means of intimidation.  The threat made in September regarding UNESCO-provided books was dismissed by the TFG and, thus, ineffective.  Al Shabaab may reason that the most effective way to influence the education system is through violence.  Little evidence exists at this point suggesting that al Shabaab has previously attempted to kill teachers or destroys schools.  The December 3 attack may foreshadow the group’s foray into the education sector.   

Al Shabaab has proven that it has the human and material resources, the technical expertise, and the physical space to plan and execute attacks on its intended targets.  The group has an influence in nearly every sector of Somali society, and now it appears that it may want to expand that influence into the education sector.  More importantly, however, the connection between al Shabaab’s September warning about textbooks and its December attack suggest that the group’s threats and warnings cannot be dismissed lightly – and the group has made many indications that it would like to strike beyond Somalia’s borders.

[1] “Somalia Blames al-Qaida, Somali Group for Bombing,” Associated Press, December 4. Available:
[3] Frank Nyakairu, “U.N. Probes Use of Its Vehicles in Somalia Bombing,” September 19, 2009. Available:
[4] Reuters, “Suicide Bomber Kills Three Somali Govt Ministers,” New York Times, December 3, 2009.  Available:
[5] “Minister Rejects al-Shabab’s Education Warning,” IRIN, September 22, 2009. Available:
[6] “Minister Rejects al-Shabab’s Education Warning,” IRIN, September 22, 2009. Available:
[7] “Islamist Al Shabaab Faction Appoints Lower Shabelle Administration,” Garowe Online, December 6, 2008. Available:
[8] “Al Shabaab Targets Local Youth,” Daily Nation, December 2, 2009. Available:
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