Somalia bombing points to militants’ grim goals

A suicide truck bombing that killed an estimated 70 people, including students hoping for foreign scholarships, underscores the intent of an Islamic militant group to ensure that Somalia remains ungovernable and a secure base for its global struggle against the West.

U.S. officials say the Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the bombing Tuesday in Mogadishu, the capital, appears to be strengthening its ties with Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. They fear it also is increasing cooperation with an extremist network in Nigeria.

In Somalia, the Shabab has blocked aid to famine victims and is reportedly driving thousands out of aid camps in what experts say may turn into a death march back to their farms. Many are unlikely to survive the effects of hunger and disease, analysts say.

Such tactics are likely to worsen tension between Shabab clan leaders who want to fight Somalia’s weak, internationally backed transitional federal government, or TFG, for territory and influence, and more extreme elements who seek only a base of operations against the West, experts say. The latter faction controls the group’s finances, they say.

The Shabab’s interest in maintaining Somalia as a platform for fighting the West doesn’t require it to control the country, said one expert.


“If all Shabab has to do is prevent the TFG from exercising control over the capital, then these kind of attacks are all they need,” said Ken Menkhaus, an associate professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.

The Shabab abandoned Mogadishu in August, in what some saw as a sign of military weakness. But it has regrouped and is using terrorist tactics to continue destabilizing the capital without the need to hold territory.

It has been implicated in previous bombings. It claimed responsibility last year for suicide attacks in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 76 people. Somali authorities also blamed it for a 2009 attack on a graduation ceremony of medical students, which killed 24 people, including government ministers, doctors and students.

Tuesday’s bombing struck a compound where several government ministries, including half the Cabinet, are based. The blast shattered the front gate and left charred bodies scattered about. People used shawls and blankets to carry away the dead.

“I saw a nursing team putting human limbs onto a sack to carry away,” said Mowliid Abdulkadir, surveying the smoke drifting across a scene of chaos.

“It was a horrific scene. We collected 70 corpses inside and on the road,” said Ali Muse Sheik, an ambulance coordinator.

There were no reports of casualties among senior officials of the transitional government.

But in a country that has lacked a fully functioning government for two decades, the dead and wounded included some of the few people with real prospects: students waiting outside the Education Ministry for exam results. They were hoping for secondary-school scholarships in Turkey.

The commander of the police Criminal Investigations Department, Adullahi Hassan Barise, identified the bomber as a 20-year-old Kenyan, Asad Abdi Saed. He said the truck initially approached the CID building, opposite the government compound, but was turned away by guards.

The transitional government, which is backed by troops from the African Union, recently announced an ambitious 12-month road map leading to presidential and parliamentary elections next year. But few analysts believe the government is capable of sticking to that timetable.

The chaos in Somalia, even that not directly linked to the Shabab, is taking a toll on the region. The famine has sent thousands of starving people fleeing to refugee camps in neighboring Kenya. Pirates operating off the Somali coast have hijacked ships and kidnapped sailors for ransom. Recently, after security was tightened in Indian Ocean shipping lanes, kidnappers based in Somalia have grabbed European hostages from Kenyan beach communities.

Among the hard-line Shabab leaders are Muktar Abdirahman Godane, who trained in Afghanistan and issued a video in 2009 pledging loyalty to Osama bin Laden. Godane and another leader of the hard-line wing of the group, Ibrahim Haji Jamamee’aad, are from northern Somalia and are on a U.S. list of suspected terrorists.

Menkhaus predicted that the attack would deepen divisions in the movement. However, he said it would not necessarily shake the grip of the hard-liners.

“There’s going to be a backlash amongst Somalis that will be pretty fierce, I think,” he said. “For the moment, the hard-liners have been able to keep the other Shabab leaders in tow. They’re indifferent to the costs of their policies on the Somali community.

“They hold the purse strings of the organization, and so far we haven’t seen major defections by whole Shabab groups, or even an internal coup,” he said.

Roger Middleton, a Somalia expert at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said the Shabab didn’t need to be popular inside the country.

“This is not about PR victories,” he said. “This is about causing trouble for the government, and making sure the government is not able to establish itself and AU troops are kept busy with these kinds of issues, rather than launching any kind of concerted attack against Shabab.

“It’s a military tactic, not a hearts-and-minds tactic.”

The Obama administration condemned the bombing.

“This cowardly act of terrorism once again demonstrates Shabab’s complete disregard for human life and Somalia’s future,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement. “Shabab continues to threaten and kill aid workers. They have murdered the very people they claim to want to protect.”

U.S. officials this summer cited intelligence suggesting that Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen had provided weapons, fighters and explosives training to the Shabab in the last year and that they were encouraging the group to attack targets outside Somalia. Text messages found on portable computer drives in Bin Laden’s compound this year indicated he was trying to strengthen ties with the group.

Though the Shabab and the Nigerian network Boko Haram have mainly targeted their own citizens, there is fear that increased cooperation between them, or formation of a pan-African Al Qaeda affiliate, could lead to attacks on Americans and other Westerners.

Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the August car bombing of a United Nations compound in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, that killed 23 people, its first attack on a foreign target.

As bad as Tuesday’s bombing was, worse death tolls could be coming, said Menkhaus, citing reports that with the approach of the rainy season, the Shabab was forcing tens of thousands of displaced people back to their farms.

“In the context of severe malnutrition, when diseases come with the rains, people won’t survive them,” he said.

U.N. agencies have said that as many as three-quarters of a million people could die of starvation or cholera and other diseases.

Times staff writer Dixon reported from Johannesburg and special correspondent Mohammed from Mogadishu.