Date: Tuesday, 02 January 2018
On the second day of my visit to Mogadishu, within a couple of days of the October 14, 2017 truck bombing, I visited the site of the explosion in the company of Prof Abdullahi Shirwa, the chairman of the National Emergency Operation Centre.
At some point, the man explaining things to me, glanced nervously around, and bent down and picked up "something.” He said to me, "Here,” offering me whatever it was that he had picked up from under a piece of wood.
I didn’t like his bothered look and so I asked, "What is it?”
The local terrorist group Al Shabaab had just served notice on everyone that it was still capable of striking panic into the nation’s heart, despite its territorial loss. As we mourned the dead, we sought answers to the question we have been asking for the past decade.
Now we ask again if this would be the watershed event that would drive the African Mission in Somalia (Amisom) and the Somali National Army towards a decisive final push to rid the country of Al Shabaab once for all.
'Lies have short legs'
The terrorist organisation — masters in the dark arts of stonewalling — did not claim ownership of the attack, fearing a popular backlash.
It is worth remembering that the terrorists did not own up to the December 4, 2009, Hotel Shamo blast in which a male suicide bomber disguised as a woman by wearing a hijab, detonated a device killing three government ministers, two professors of medicine and nine students at a medical school graduation ceremony. But even without taking credit for the killings, everyone suspected them of being the perpetrators.
The analyst claimed that it all began when Gen Mohamed Farah Aideed met Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, at the latter’s retreat in Soba, an ancient Nubian city about 20 kilometres away from Khartoum. In 1997, bin Laden would later tell two CNN journalists that his men had trained the Somalis in downing the US military helicopters Black Hawks by aiming at the tail rotors.
Bin Laden dispatched Abu Hafs Al Masri, the Egyptian, to provide on-the-ground training to Aideed’s militiamen on downing a helicopter. When the two met, bin Laden was living openly in Khartoum and putting together a plan to launch the twin attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. A few years later his men carried out the game-changing 9/11 assaults on the Twin Towers in New York.
A lot has happened in Somalia since the Black Hawk Down days caused the US to withdraw its army. It seemed as if Somalis were left to their own devices to deal with the nefarious interference in the country’s affairs by Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea, Uganda, the US, the EU and a handful of Arab states, each having its own self-serving design, some in an underhand way, others with worrying blatancy.
A rap sheet of crimes was committed against Somalia: The country’s wealth looted, its seas emptied of fish, its shores polluted with nuclear and chemical waste and the chance of it putting a government together continuously sabotaged by one foreign party or another.
When I visited Mogadishu in 1996 after a 22-year exile, I found a divided city run by two warlords, each claiming a half as his fiefdom. And with no government to provide civic amenities and no functioning state-run schools, the Qataris, the Saudis and the Emiratis entered Somalia especially in the education sector, as if to bring bin Laden’s plans finally into fruition.
Under Siad Barre, Somalia had been a secular state, quite unlike any other Muslim nation. Now the Arabs had a free rein to impose their language, harden the Somalis’ moderate way of worship and change the traditional manner in which our people dressed.
Unchallenged, the Saudis, the Qataris and the Emiratis introduced their own school curricula, which was adopted by the teachers whose salaries they paid. In 10 years, the Islamic Courts Union exerted control over much of southern Somalia. The US awoke to the "dangers” the Courts could present and gave its tacit approval to Ethiopia to invade. And Al Shabaab, as the Court’s offshoot, emerged.
Thus while the Arab states’ threat to Somali sovereignty has its origin in bin Laden’s secret pact with Aideed through a series of permutations, the snake ended up biting its tail — morphing into Al Shabaab. Now with the appearance of Turkey on the scene, the Arab subversion of Somalia as a self-governing state has become more sinister and may lead to civil war.
The country today
Without a federal government statement on the truck bombing and with Al Shabaab also keeping mum, Somalis can only speculate about the perpetrators. The Guardian ascribed a clan motive to the bombing and in reaction to this, the elders from the fingered community condemned the newspaper, stating that this made no sense, since this clan claimed to have lost 180 of their kith and kin in the explosion.
The Doha-based network Al Jazeera entered the fray, speculating that the Turkish Military Academy was the bombers’ intended target. But the rumour that the UAE was behind the bombing gained more currency by the day among Mogadishians, with many Somalis describing the Emirates as the agent of destruction, because of connections to the heads of the regional governments. It is no secret that the Saudi and UAE governments view Turkey with suspicion, a threat to their political designs.
The truck bombing of October 14 was followed a fortnight later by another, albeit less disastrous, assault on Hotel Naasa Hablood. This attack bore all Al Shabaab’s signature traits: A small vehicle smashed the gate of the hotel open creating panic and confusion, then a group armed with assault rifles and wearing suicide vests walked in and finished the job.
That Al Shabaab could stage yet another attack so soon after the massacre at Zoobe Junction shocked the nation and further deflated the earlier sense of optimism about the country.
A sense of hopelessness and defeat spread to the government, with politicians rebuking state security for failing to protect the nation, some asking for the president’s and the prime minister’s heads. So the president went on a whistle-stop tour of the troop-contributing countries; Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi, Kenya and Djibouti, seeking their assistance.
Amisom is anathema
Not for the first time, Amisom came in for some serious blame, because both its top officers and foot soldiers have been accused of blatant corruption as well as indifference to the job at hand.
In an article published in The EastAfrican on November 7, 2017, Charles Onyango-Obbo wrote, "There is a higher level of consensus between the Amisom and Al Shabaab than between the leaders of the contributing countries.” This is because "Amisom does business with A Shabaab,” to whom the troops sell arms.
I can attest to the thick-as-thieves-closeness between the Ugandans at the airport and some of the Somalis they have dealings with. The UN Monitoring Unit has accused the Kismayu-based Kenyan contingent of making money from the sale of charcoal. And there is a feeling that Ethiopia is in Somalia for its strategic reasons. This is why the presence of Amisom is anathema to national self-esteem.
Matt Bryden, the Canadian security expert on matters Somali noted to me that the charitable view, which is not entirely incorrect, is that Amisom has "secured” major Somali towns, especially Mogadishu and regional/state capitals, and therefore established adequate physical space for Somali political processes and institutions to evolve. Without them, it’s hard to imagine the existence of the federal government, state governments, or parliaments, whatever their shortcomings.
He goes on; "On the other hand, Amisom forces have failed to achieve in 10 years what Ethiopian troops achieved in less than a week: domination of Somali territory between Gaalkacyo and Ras Kamboni. Which is not to say that the Ethiopian intervention was either desirable or a success: simply that from the perspective of military effectiveness, Amisom leaves much to be desired.”
I pressed him some more, and he wrote, "We probably still need Amisom to protect major towns until Somali forces are able to relieve them. But it’s unrealistic to expect them to do so, because they are ill equipped in all respects to take the fight to Al Shabaab and to pursue them into rural areas or embark on some kind of counter-insurgency campaign. If they leave now, this would almost certainly make things worse and end in disaster. Apart from taking the remaining Al Shabaab strongholds of Jilib, Jamame and Sakow, Amisom has probably reached the limits of its utility.”
Confusion reigns supreme when it comes to finding the panacea for Somalia’s security frailties. Upward of 500 US Special Forces are in the country, tasked with targeting Al Shabaab training camps and also to help train Amisom and the Somali National Army.
On top of this, thousands of Somali army units are receiving their training in Uganda, the Sudan as well as Djibouti and thrown into the mix are a Mogadishu-based UAE military facility and a Turkish military academy. The worry is that, with Amisom’s withdrawal ongoing, there is no uniformity or cohesion in the national army of the country.
Time and again, the work of the security apparatus in Somalia has been found wanting and the quality and efficacy of detection has been questioned. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Mr Sanbalolshe, however, points a finger away from his men and women, explaining that the country does not have forensic labs and lacks the necessary expertise to deal with the investigative challenges arising from the explosions.
He laments the dearth of technical skill in the security structures, all the more made worse by the fact that when the intelligence at the crime scene — explosive residues, the detonators, the sim cards, the DNA of the perpetrators and fingerprints — is gathered and removed by Somalia’s US, British and UN partners, the results of the investigation are neither returned nor is the information shared with Somalia intelligence.
Describing the nation’s partners as unscrupulous carpetbaggers with unconscionable meanness, he argues that this lack of information sharing is hampering the decision-making of the security structures.
With the Somali National Army not equipped to take over from Amisom, and Amisom engaged in corruption and selling weapons to Al Shabaab, Kenya accused of exporting charcoal, Ethiopia suspected of having its own designs, the US, Britain and the UN’s information-sharing not forthcoming, is there any wonder why there has been no tangible progress in the fight against the terrorists in Somalia?
Unless the arms embargo is lifted and there is cohesion in the way Somalia’s partners collaborate with its security apparatus, my fear is that we will witness an attack a lot worse than the one on October 14, at Zoobe junction.