NAIROBI: A spectacular attack Sunday by Al-Shabab Islamists in Mogadishu, unprecedented in Somalia in terms of its operational complexity, has enabled the extremists to show they remain a serious threat.
Though they are widely described as severely weakened, the attack by the Al-Qaeda-linked militants shows the authorities have not restored security to Mogadishu as they like to claim.
Nine assailants, wearing police or army uniforms and likely all wearing explosive belts, attacked the main courthouse in the Somali capital.
Three of them blew themselves up to clear the way for the six others, who took hostages and started battling the Somali and African Union troops guarding the courthouse. The gunfight lasted for several hours.
Thirty minutes into the attack, as military reinforcements were arriving and the wounded were being evacuated, a car bomb was detonated in the area.
The attack, which left at least 34 people dead, is the bloodiest since October 2011, when more than 80 people were killed some two months after Al-Shabab abandoned fixed positions in Mogadishu.
Experts said the modus operandi of Sunday’s attack was one frequently seen in Afghanistan, but so far unprecedented in Somalia.
“The combined use of suicide bombers, light weapons and car bombs is a first in Somalia,” explained a military source in the African Union force (AMISOM), who like all the other sources questioned, asked to remain anonymous.
“There has not been any attack of this level of complexity in Mogadishu. It’s a first,” confirmed a regional security expert.
A convoy from the Turkish Red Crescent was also hit by a car bomb Sunday. According to the regional security expert there is no evidence the Turks were targeted. The car bomb may have been destined for the attack on the courthouse instead.
This “spectacular attack” demonstrates on the part of Somalia’s Islamists “a will to regain a foothold in Mogadishu and to prove to the outside world that the situation in Mogadishu is not so good, despite the line oft-repeated by the president and the prime minister over the past few months,” the AMISOM source said.
Al-Shabab want to “create a threatening climate and show they’re not finished yet,” though often described as a spent force, the source added.
The AMISOM source went on to say that Sunday’s operation probably took four months of “significant efforts” and that it was likely prepared by Amniat, Al-Shabab’s intelligence cell, which has agents operating in Mogadishu.
According to the expert questioned by AFP, “over the past month or two Al-Shabab has been regaining strength.”
He cited a recent spate of attacks on Kismayo, one of the final bastions of Al-Shabab that they abandoned at the end of September.
“It seems that they got a new lease of life after the failure of the French commando operation [in January, aimed at freeing a French intelligence agent taken hostage]” and from the announcement of the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops.
This type of attack that the Afghan Taliban is known for would seem to confirm the increasing presence of fighters who have operated in Afghanistan and Pakistan in Al-Shabab’s ranks.
The increasing sophistication of the explosive devices used by Al-Shabab, notably the appearance a few months ago of remote-controlled bombs, would tend to confirm this hypothesis.
At least one Pakistani jihadist has been reported in Al-Shabab’s ranks in the past few months, one of the analysts questioned said.
Sunday’s attack did not give Al-Shabab any tactical advantage but it enabled the Islamists to undermine the impression – both locally and internationally – that the new administration and Somali armed forces are up to the task of ensuring security.
“The population (of Mogadishu) – and probably the security forces as well – are in a state of shock,” said another analyst.
But he said only time would tell whether this attack represented a new tactic for Al-Shabab, or whether it was a one-off.
One of his colleagues said Mogadishu is “tremendously more secure than it was” and that Somali soldiers, backed by AMISOM forces, managed to limit the damage Sunday.
But the military source with AMISOM said: “If something like this is repeated, questions will be asked,” on infiltration and on the ability of the Somali forces to maintain security.
“This is clearly a show of force” on the part of Al-Shabab, even if “from a military point of view they are really in a critical situation,” one analyst said.
“It is indeed difficult to organize this sort of attack, but it is still easier than holding a military front,” the expert said.