On Aug. 16, 2020, al Shabaab attacked a popular seaside hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia, leading to over a dozen deaths and a rampant gun battle.[i] “Abdirizak, who was in the middle of the storm, was hit by the explosion. Our chairs collided. I remember grabbing his hand and he ran away. I hadn’t run before, but I was amazed at how it went when my heartbeat like a drum. I grabbed my two cell phones and decided to jump off the beach wall near us, but bullets were everywhere. We met some fleeing elders on the beach, including former TFG agriculture minister, former MP, and may God save us,” secretary of the Somali Journalists Association Mohamed Moalimmu recalled after the deadly attack.[ii] While comparably less lethal than the 2017 and the 2019 attacks in Mogadishu that killed in the hundreds,[iii] the most recent attack demonstrated al Shabaab’s unrelenting surge capacity and intent for violence.
Al Shabaab has in recent months escalated its attacks throughout the Horn of Africa,[iv] with increasing sophistication in target selection and ability to exploit security gaps. According to the sources on the ground, 42 people were killed in al Shabaab attacks in the 24 hours following the Mogadishu hotel attack.[v] Speaking on security challenges in Somalia only a few days prior to the recent Mogadishu hotel attack, former president of Somalia Sharif Sheikh Ahmed highlighted al Shabaab’s military capabilities and the ability to plan and execute mass-casualty attacks in the heart of Somali cities, including in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.[vi] “Despite intensive efforts to defeat this group, they have proven, time and again, that they are capable of adapting to the realities on the ground, from their peak between 2008-2011, when they controlled nearly half of the country,” Sharif noted.[vii]
Somalia has made historical progress from no government to having a transitional government that has opened the door and paved a path toward an internationally recognized government. Despite important progress made through more than a decade of international assistance around counterterrorism and humanitarian, state-building, and peace and stability efforts, Somalia remains a vulnerable and fragile country that can easily find its way back to civil war and anarchy.
Former president Sharif stressed al Shabaab’s ability to thrive in such socio-politically fragile environments: “Al-Shabaab thrives in contexts of poor governance, state fragility, political dysfunction, absence of strong institutions, lack of education, civic education in particular, as well as other socio-economic factors, and most importantly, the growing political grievances. Al-Shabaab knows this very well and it capitalizes on these vulnerabilities. We need to emphasize that al Shabaab is becoming more economically powerful as it started to collect taxes on all products on arrival at the seaport for the first time in its history. No financial transaction takes place without al Shabaab’s share of illegal extortion money is put to a side.”[viii]
The current government has often been criticized over failure to recognize and decisively respond to the growing al Shabaab threat in Somalia, making the fight against the group “more challenging, more complex, and more intractable endeavor.”[ix] Former U.S. Ambassador to Somalia Stephen Schwartz described the current situation in Somalia as a “symptom of decades of inadequate governance and legitimacy of state institutions,” which has allowed al Shabaab to thrive and fill the security and governing gap.[x] To reconstitute social trust and revitalize declining international support, the country needs significant investments in the way of reconciliation, public services provision, public security, rule of law, and anti-corruption efforts, remarked the ambassador. The deep roots of prevailing corruption and its effect on undermining the country’s national security became apparent in the recent arrest of 27 individuals, officials included, responsible for smuggling weapons into a Somali prison that led to the killings of several prison guards. At least 19 prison guards, inmates, and al Shabaab members were killed in the attack.[xi]
The current government has achieved significant progress toward revitalizing the nation’s foreign policy and other key areas such as debt relief. However, many Somalis and members of parliament continue to render the current government’s attempt at defeating al Shabaab a failure. Criticisms are often also directed at the current administration for failing to hold democratic elections, including by international actors and partners, and create a platform for unifying the country. Somalia has also seen some of the fiercest contentions between the federal government and federal member states. Ambassador Schwartz referred to such contentions as “the biggest impediment to progress in Somalia,”[xii] specifically underscoring the federal government’s failure to forge “effective, respectful, and productive working relationships with the federal member states.”[xiii] Federal member states allege the leadership at the federal government has unleashed a campaign to undermine the stability of member states by meddling with regional government elections to forcefully and unconstitutionally install politicians who are loyal to them in Galmudug, Hirshabelle, South West State, Puntland, and Jubbaland.[xiv] Other often criticized actions by the federal government include assertions of diverting critical military personnel away from fighting al Shabaab and into militarizing regional states, creating a security volatility with severe consequences in the long run.[xv]
Major internal political challenges are standing in the way of building a peaceful environment in Somalia. Despite significant counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization and disengagement efforts,[xvi] al Shabaab remains very much active and pervasive, while Kenya’s interference – particularly in Somaliland – Egypt and Ethiopia’s dispute over the dam, and the Gulf crisis with Somalia being seen on the side of that dispute underscore international dimensions to Somalia’s political and safety conundrum.[xvii] With heightened security concerns levied by the recent attacks in Mogadishu, the Somali government is likely to intensify its efforts against al Shabaab. The security landscape on the ground remains complex, given the dominance of a range political and ideological viewpoints.[xviii] Once instrumental in expelling al Shabaab from the capital Mogadishu and other strategic Somali cities, former president Sharif remains confident in the defeat of al Shabaab, though cognizant of the effort and support, both local and international, needed to do so.
“There is NO silver bullet, but we need to reduce the political, economic, and social grievances that enable terror groups to claim political legitimacy,” he said. “We also need to address issues of extreme poverty, unemployment, political and economic grievances and restore hope for a better Somalia. There is NO single panacea for the security challenges. Our experiences have shown that al Shabaab’s threat can be defeated, but there needs to be a political will to prioritize this fight. During my time in government, we fought al Shabaab with limited resources and capacities, but we were fully committed and determined, and with the support of our friends in the international community, we managed to expel al Shabaab from the capital and other strategic cities. But their ideology remained and their power re-emerged, taking advantage of the vulnerability of the government, still posing eminent threat to our security.”[xix]
[i] Nor., O. (2020). “Somali forces kill attackers to end siege at popular Mogadishu hotel.” CNN, available at https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/16/africa/somalia-attack-elite-hotel-intl/index.html
[ii] ACTRI correspondence with F.M., Mogadishu, Somalia, 8/19/20.
[iii] BBC. (2018). “Mogadishu truck bomber sentenced to death,” available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-42958703?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.com/news/topics/c9z8qel4ed7t/mogadishu-lorry-attack&link_location=live-reporting-story; Nor, O., Razek, R., & Moorhouse, S. (2019). “ Somalia suicide car bomb rocks capital, killing scores,” CNN, available at https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/28/africa/somalia-unrest-bombing-intl/index.html
[iv] Mohamed, H., & Dahir, L. A. (2020). “Attack on beachside Somalia hotel kills at least 16.” The New York Times, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/17/world/africa/elite-hotel-somalia-mogadishu-attack.html
[v] ACTRI correspondence with F.M., Mogadishu, Somalia, 8/19/20; Fikradaha, A. (2020). “Weeraro dhimasho sababay oo ka kala dhacay Gedo iyo Baay.” VOA, available at https://www.voasomali.com/a/5546467.html;
[vi] American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute. (August 2020). “Security Talks Series: Briefing on Somalia’s security situation,” available at https://www.linkedin.com/company/americanctri
[xi] Anadolu Agency. (2020). “ Somalia: Officials arrested over prison attack.” a news, available at http://www.anews.com.tr/world/2020/08/19/somalia-officials-arrested-over-prison-attack
[xii] American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute. “Security Talks Series: Briefing on Somalia’s security situation.”
[xiv] Abdi Sheikh. (2020). “Clashes break out in Somalia, slowing fight against al Qaeda-linked insurgents.” Reuters, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-somalia-security/somali-military-militia-clash-as-fight-against-al-qaeda-linked-insurgents-slows-idUSKCN20M1QU
[xv] Aggrey Mutambo. (2020). “Shabaab raids reignite ambition in Somali ex-President Sharif Ahmed.” Daily Nation, available at https://www.nation.co.ke/kenya/news/africa/shabaab-raids-reignite-ambition-in-somali-ex-president-sharif-ahmed-240168; Michael Rubin. (2020). “The State Department spent $1.5 billion on Somali democracy and built a dictatorship.” Washington Examiner, available at https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/the-state-department-spent-1-5-billion-on-somali-democracy-and-built-a-dictatorship
[xvi] See discussion by Martine Zeuthen on disengagement, American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute. “Security Talks Series: Briefing on Somalia’s security situation.”
[xvii] Former U.S. Ambassador to Somalia, Stephen Schwartz, American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute. “Security Talks Series: Briefing on Somalia’s security situation.”
[xviii] American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute. “Security Talks Series: Briefing on Somalia’s security situation.”
Mohamed Ahmed is the Associate Chief Diversity Officer at San Diego State University and an Adjunct Professor of Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism in the San Diego State Universities Homeland Security Graduate Program. Mohamed is Director of Strategic Initiatives & Community Programming at American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI). He received his bachelor’s in International Security and Conflict Resolution and Master’s in Postsecondary Educational Leadership from San Diego State University and currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Higher Education at Old Dominion University. Past positions include Senior Community Engagement Coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security – Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and positions and consultancies with domestic and international organizations. Mohamed’s research focuses on providing positive counter-narratives to polarizing terrorism recruitment and radicalization.
Allison Mc-Dowell Smith, Ph.D. is co-founder and Deputy Director of American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI). Allison is the Director of the Graduate Counterterrorism Program, Chair of the Undergraduate Criminal Justice Program, and Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Nichols College. She has launched the Nichols Master of Science in Counterterrorism (MSC) Program, the first graduate program in the United States with a focus on Violent Extremism (VE) and leadership for those pursuing careers in the fields of security, intelligence, and public policy.
Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D., is a counter-terrorism researcher, lecturer, and security analyst, with field research experience in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, and Jordan), Western Europe, the Balkans, Kenya, Somalia, and Central Asia. He is co-founder and director of recently initiated American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), a U.S.-based research center predominantly focused on the domestic aspects of terrorism-related threats (@americanctri). Past positions include Research Director and Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and positions and consultancies with domestic and international organizations. Homeland security, disengagement from terrorism, violent extremist and terrorist group media communication strategy and information security, messaging and counter-messaging, and the strengthening of resilience to violent extremism and terrorism through application of the rule of law represent some of the areas of research interest. Ardian obtained his PhD. in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. in Public Policy and Administration, from Northwestern University, and a B.A. in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University.
Abdirizak Ismail, is a Senior Member at Samadoon Institute for Peace & Strategic Studies (SIPSS), Mogadishu, Somalia. Abdirizak also serves as a Senior Advisor & Program Coordinator for the Somali National Women Organization.