The deadliest terror attack in Somalia’s history hit the capital, Mogadishu, on 14 October 2017. At least 358 people were killed, while more than 400 were injured when militants detonated a truck bomb laden with 350 kilograms of explosives. The blast occurred outside the Safari Hotel in Hodan district, diagonally opposite the Somali Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Within 30 minutes, a second blast hit the nearby Medina district, injuring scores more. Two weeks later, a suicide bombing and siege at the Nasa-Hablod hotel left another 27 people dead. These are the latest in a string of increasingly deadly attacks linked to al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab were driven from Mogadishu by African Union (AMISOM) troops six years ago, but the cycle of violence has continued. The insurgent group hold large tracts of territory in south-central Somalia and eastern Kenya, as well as a command centre in the northern Galgala Mountains from where assaults are planned and launched. In addition to localised violence that has killed 4,200 civilians in 2017 alone, major international attacks include Westgate Mall (in 2013, killing 67), Garissa University (in 2015, killing 147) and the laptop bombing of an airliner in 2016, as well as foiled plots in 2016 and 2017.
The al-Qaeda affiliate’s domestic and international activities have resulted in a growing presence of foreign forces in Somalia. In addition to 22,000 AMISOM troops, approximately 50 US soldiers were deployed throughout 2016. In May 2017, the US lost its first soldier on Somali soil since “Black Hawk Down”. By late 2017, the US presence had multiplied by 1000%. Over the same period, the US carried out an estimated 28 drone strikes, targeting al-Shabaab training camps, command centres and strongholds, in support of AMISOM objectives.
US operational specifics are rarely publicly available. However, troops are said to be primarily tasked with training Somali forces to ‘better fight al-Shabaab’. There are also recent reports of a growing Islamic State presence in semi-autonomous Puntland, which the US began targeting with airstrikes in early November. Northern Somalia’s physical proximity to Yemen poses additional challenges, with shipments of weapons—destined for both al-Shabaab and Islamic State—being intercepted on a regular basis.
Despite the ongoing attempts to train, equip and unify Somalia’s military, a cohesive and effective national army remains many years away. Observers note the Somali government has not established effective control of its security services. For example, whether through ineptitude or collusion, the truck used in the 14 October bombing passed two security checkpoints without being searched. Furthermore, the Nasa-Hablod hotel attackers gained access to the site with government identification cards (which are allegedly purchasable from the official issuing authority for US$400). These examples are of critical importance, considering the AMISOM force is scheduled to withdraw in 2020, leaving the Somali authorities solely responsible for national security.
Earlier this year, the security situation was deemed too volatile to conduct an election. Subsequently, Somalia’s parliamentarians held a ballot and selected Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo as president, with hopes to implement a nationwide one-person, one-vote system by 2020. In contrast, the self-declared state of Somaliland has enjoyed relative stability and economic growth. The territory remains diplomatically isolated, but has established a national government, army and currency. Furthermore, Somaliland conducted its fourth successful democratic election on 14 November 2017, electing Musa Bihi Abdi as its fifth president.
Somalia has been plagued by civil war for almost three decades and without an effective government since Siad Barre was toppled by rebels in 1991. With the recent appointments of Farmajo and Abdi, there may now be an opportunity for Somalia to learn from Somaliland’s approach to peace. As unequivocal neighbours, it is in the interests of both state and de facto state to develop a collaborative approach to stability. Political effectiveness cannot be achieved without a major improvement in the security situation, but resolution remains elusive.
Remy Tanner is the International Security Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.