The terror group al-Shabab, suspected in the weekend attack that killed 79 people in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, has proved resilient in recent years even as it lost territory, suffered high-level defections and faced increasing air strikes by the United States.
Almost a decade since African peacekeeping forces kicked the al-Qaeda-linked group out of Mogadishu, it has become versatile in its guerrilla tactics and adept at manufacturing bombs. Over the past few years, al-Shabab killed hundreds of people in attacks at home and on neighbouring Kenya, assaulted a U.S. military base outside Mogadishu and overran military bases of the African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
To finance itself, the militants have set up an extensive racketeering system that levies fees on sales of agricultural produce in southern and central Somalia – areas that are the stronghold of the group. They also tax imports into the Mogadishu port, according to the UN.
Al-Shabab has also been able to infiltrate federal institutions – Somalia’s Internal Security Ministry said al-Shabab recruited a government employee to kill Mogadishu’s mayor, Abdirahman Omar Osman, in July. The group’s growing assertiveness was in evidence when it declared war last year on pro-Islamic State groups in Somalia in a fight over territory.
“Al-Shabab is still strong and stable,” said Stig Jarle Hansen, the author of Horn, Sahel and Rift: Fault-lines of the African Jihad. The continuing threat it poses, he said, goes to show that the “government still has a lot of work to do when it comes to providing safety and security for its ordinary citizens.”
The government said at least 79 people were killed and 149 injured after a truck bomb detonated at a busy intersection on Saturday – the deadliest attack in the country in more two years. Among the victims were parents going to work, students heading to university, foreign engineers building roads, and shop owners.
While no group has taken responsibility yet, suspicion immediately fell on al-Shabab, which remains a serious threat to peace and stability in Somalia and the wider Horn of Africa region.
The magnitude of the attack was the latest reminder of the deteriorating security situation in Somalia – one of the world’s most fragile states – even as the country takes piecemeal efforts toward recovery from a decades-long civil war. The weak government is afflicted by internal dysfunction and corruption and oversees an ineffective security force.
Just over two years ago, a double truck bombing killed nearly 600 people at a busy crossroads in Mogadishu. While al-Shabab did not take responsibility, it was similar to others carried out by the group that involved packing a vehicle with explosives to breach the perimeter of a target followed by a direct assault by gunmen.
Efforts to rebuild a functional security apparatus to face off against al-Shabab have proven difficult.
The government has a number of external backers, including the AU, the UN and the United States, which are helping it build a functional police force. In 2017, Turkey set up its largest overseas military base in Somalia in a bid to train and equip more than 10,000 Somali soldiers.
But while these entities continue to support the Somali army in taking key towns from the militants, al-Shabab sometimes retakes those towns immediately afterward, because of the federal government’s inability to securely govern them.
“The government has failed to become credible and legitimate in the eyes of the public,” said Rashid Abdi, a Horn of Africa analyst. The country’s security services “are in complete disarray,” he added, undermining efforts to successfully hold off attacks.
Somalia has also become a proxy battleground for Persian Gulf powers looking to expand their economic and political influence in the Horn of Africa, with both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates accused of delivering military training and weapons to various regional security forces.
But where the Somali government continues to seek external support, al-Shabab has learned to be “self-reliant” and “operate on a shoestring budget,” Mr. Abdi said.
“There must be foreign help, but it is very minimal and very negligible,” he said. And where they enlist support, it must be with making and securely posting some of its sophisticated propaganda online.
In November, a group of UN experts said al-Shabab’s use of improvised explosive devices to carry out attacks reached its “greatest extent in Somali history” last year owing to growing bomb-making operations.
But Mr. Abdi said nothing has boosted al-Shabab’s recent rise more than the stagnation of the government in Mogadishu.
While the country has made tremendous political, social and economic progress since the federal government was established in 2012, it still faces poverty, high unemployment and periodic natural disasters. Over the past year, a standoff between the central government and federal states over electoral processes has added to the threats to Somalia’s stability.
Even in areas controlled by the government, the authorities struggle to provide basic services and overcome corruption and mismanagement of state institutions.
Al-Shabab, on the other hand, helps to mediate day-to-day problems – especially land disputes – even in areas it does not control, Mr. Abdi said.
“Al-Shabab feeds on these weaknesses and grows in strength,” he said.
Civilians are bearing the brunt of the growing bloodshed that has gripped major Somali towns and cities in recent years. Tired of the vicious cycle of violence and slow government response, citizens have started taking matters into their own hands during emergencies.
Following Saturday’s attack, a group of 19 young men and women crowded into a room in Mogadishu and came up with a grassroots organization to track and identify dead or missing people, share the names and locations of those injured, appeal for global attention and seek financial support.
During times of crises, the government’s response “is at best tepid and at worst inhumane,” said the group’s co-ordinator, Abdihakim Ainte.
Within hours of their formation on Saturday evening, they raised US$20,000 from people in three countries, Mr. Ainte said. On Sunday, as the group’s membership ballooned, they sent counsellors to hospitals to support families and victims.
“The idea is driven by self-reliance,” Mr. Ainte said. “This is a Somali tragedy and it should have a Somali response.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.