This past weekend in the heart of downtown Mogadishu, suspected al-Shabaab terrorists detonated two vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in the busy K5 neighbourhood, killing over 300 people and wounding hundreds more. It was the deadliest attack in Somalia’s history.
Yet despite an outpouring of global goodwill, was this attack just another sad day in war-torn Somalia? Absolutely not. The reality on the ground is clear: after over two decades of civil war, Somalia is finally re-emerging from the ashes.
So what should policymakers know about the Mogadishu bombing? Two key factors explain the attack and its implications for Somalia and the region: the decline of al-Shabaab and the rising tide of Somali national unity.
First, although al-Shabaab have not yet claimed responsibility for the attack, security experts on the ground insist that the bombing is clearly their handiwork. Yet the fact is, al-Shabaab has systematically lost power across Somalia over the past five years. In 2012, African Union and Somali forces pushed al-Shabaab out of Kismayo, a southern coastal city, causing the terrorist group to lose tens of millions of dollars in revenue from taxing the port. Since then, the group has lost its control over other lucrative land routes, including the strategically significant Afgooye corridor.
“Al-Shabaab are now weak,” explained internationally decorated humanitarian doctor Deqo Mohamed, who runs a clinic in Mogadishu and a hospital along the Afgooye corridor. “They have a small number of checkpoints between Mogadishu and Baidoa, but they’re running out of money, they’re far away [from the key areas], and people are fed up with them.”
Indeed, analysts who have been tracking the group know it is desperate and lashing out, just as it did with the 2013 Westgate Mall terrorist attack in Kenya. “When I was in Mogadishu late last year, it was clear that al-Shabaab was tottering,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “The government’s defection program was gutting levels of trust within the organization and everyday people were totally sick and tired of them.”
Even the scale of the recent attack appears to have been a lucky shot on the part of the alleged al-Shabaab terrorists. Some observers have commented that the reason the blast was so deadly was because the bomb happened to be near to a fuel truck, which unintentionally amplified the explosion. “Somalia’s law enforcement is stretched thin and these kinds of attacks will happen from time to time, but we shouldn’t confuse luck for strength,” said Amarasingam.
Second, since al-Shabaab has been pushed back, the political landscape in is undergoing a remarkable transformation. A crucial moment was the surprising presidential election victory earlier this year of popular Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, affectionately nicknamed “Farmaajo” because of his love of cheese. Unlike the many warlords and thugs who have fought over Somalia for the past 20 years, Farmaajo is a technocrat with a demonstrated record of fighting corruption. His unexpected election victory gave Somalis hope that the country was turning a new leaf.
On the ground, the results have been striking. “There are no checkpoints from Afgooye to Mogadishu now; only 1-2 security stops, but no harassment,” said Dr. Mohamed, whose medical teams travel these roads regularly. “And Mogadishu is much easier. Business is booming. People are out on the streets, even at night.” Despite many challenges, Somalia has been on an upward trajectory towards political stabilization and economic growth.
The Mogadishu attack aimed at crushing that momentum, pushing out businesses, scaring off investors, and forcing people back into the shadows. Through a combination of malicious planning and dumb luck, the bombers pulled off an attack with a larger casualty rate than usual. Their plan to shatter the new Somalia, however, has completely backfired. Rather, the attack appears to be fanning the flames of a national unity movement.
Street protests erupted against the terrorists in Mogadishu, bringing together members of historically rival clan factions. Solidarity protests emerged in the city of Kismayo and elsewhere. Youth have even flown in from the northern city of Hargeisa in separatist Somaliland, in a surprising display of goodwill. President Farmaajo has galvanized public support, lining up to donate blood to the victims of the attacks. He also organized the new Somali national military to help with the rescue mission, digging survivors out of the rubble.
For a country that has long seen its armed men as symbols of death and division, this virtuous display of military power has had a profound effect on public opinion. “For the first time, we love and respect our military,” said Dr. Mohamed. “We are standing with our mayor, our parliament, and our president. It is a revolution of unity.”
This unity revolution could signal a new era of hard-won peace in Somalia, and presents a tremendous opportunity for the international community to finally stabilize a troubled region. After the disastrous 1992-95 UN mission, Canada and the rest of the international community have been shy to engage with a Somalia led by warlords, criminals, or Islamists. This new unity movement in Somalia is changing the game. But the international community must rally.
“Now is the time to back the legitimate government,” urged Dr. Mohamed. “It has to happen now.”
In the fight against terrorism, state failure, and political unrest, hopeful moments such as these are rare. And so, this is a chance for the international community to finally make it right. If the tragedy of the Mogadishu attack can be turned to supporting the momentum of a new Somalia, the lives lost will not have been in vain. The end of the long war is in sight.