Terrorists Wage War on Mogadishu

by Katherine Zimmerman

The capital of Somalia, Mogadishu, exploded Monday night with a surge of violence from al-Shabaab, the radical-Islamist group that recently killed 79 people in twin bombings in Kampala, Uganda. At least 80 more people have died this week at al-Shabaab’s hands.

Al-Shabaab controls or contests most of the districts in the war-torn city, and the U.N.-supported Transitional Federal Government (TFG) operates only in a limited area surrounding key sites such as the presidential palace, the seaport, and the airport. The TFG’s security force has yet to prove itself against the Islamist insurgents. A small contingent of peacekeepers, around 6,100 Ugandan and Burundian soldiers, supports the TFG by guarding government infrastructure, per their mandate under the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). Al-Shabaab has repeatedly threatened to overthrow the TFG in order to establish an Islamic administration in its place, and the newest round of fighting illustrates how tenuous the TFG’s survival really is.

Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage held a press conference Monday evening to announce al-Shabaab’s newest offensive in Mogadishu. “Our holy warriors have started the offensive right now, and the fighting will continue until Allah’s wish is fulfilled,”Rage declared. “The enemy will face larger attacks from now on.” Al-Shabaab militants commenced their deadly offensive on TFG and AMISOM soldiers nearly simultaneously with Rage’s pronouncement Monday night,

Tuesday, just before 11 a.m., al-Shabaab attacked the Muna Hotel, only blocks from the presidential palace. Heavily armed militants, disguised as government soldiers, stormed the building and opened fire, moving from room to room. Two of the militants detonated suicide vests, killing at least six parliamentarians and five government security personnel, according to Somalia’s Information Minister, Abdirahman Osman. Five additional parliamentarians were wounded in the attack, and at least 31 people died.

John Brennan, President Obama’s assistant for counterterrorism and homeland security, condemned the attack. He added that al-Shabaab was “bent on depriving Somalia of security, peace, and stability.” The offensive on the streets of Mogadishu continued throughout the day, and by nightfall, al-Shabaab had closed in on the presidential palace.

This morning, AMISOM troops repelled the insurgents, but it is unclear how long the combined efforts of the TFG and AMISOM forces will be able to hold them off. Al-Shabaab is now vying for control of the few districts that surrounded the TFG’s stronghold.

The capability of al-Shabaab to execute an attack on what was perceived to be a well-guarded hotel in a secure area demonstrates the extent of the threat that al-Shabaab poses to the weak TFG. This is not the first time that the group has specifically targeted Somali lawmakers: on Dec. 3, 2009, al-Shabaab executed a suicide bombing at a college-graduation ceremony, killing three government ministers, and on May 16, 2010, al-Shabaab attacked the parliament building while parliament was in session.

Despite al-Shabaab’s repeated victories over the TFG and pro-government forces, little has been done to reinforce the Somali government’s position. The AMISOM troop level is below that allowed for in its mandate — and even if the full 8,000 troops were to be deployed to Mogadishu, the troops do not have the authority to conduct offensive operations against al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab, which has the capacity to strike internationally, cannot be permitted to strengthen its position in Somalia, and the international community should provide enough support to ensure the survival and the success of the TFG.

– Katherine Zimmerman is a Critical Threats Project analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.