Over 300 people were killed this weekend when a massive truck bomb detonated in Hodan – a bustling district in Somalia’s capital city of Mogadishu.
The unprecedented attack takes Mogadishu back to the worst years of the civil war that has ravaged the country since 1991.
The blast consumed an area larger than two football fields, consuming people and cars and causing a nearby hotel to collapse. Mogadishu’s hospitals are struggling to accommodate the 300+ victims, many of whom are burned beyond recognition.
The death toll is expected to increase as authorities sift through the wreckage. As of Monday, nearly 70 people were still missing.
“What happened yesterday was incredible, I have never seen such a thing before, and countless people lost their lives,” said Mohamed Yusuf Hassan director of the Medina Hospital. “Corpses were burned beyond recognition.” The government has already buried more than 150 bodies burned too badly to be identified.
Al-Shabaab has largely been blamed for the attack, although no group has officially claimed responsibility.
“No other group in Somalia has the capacity to put together a bomb of this size, in this nature,” said Matt Bryden, a security consultant on the Horn of Africa.
Small-scale bombings have become almost commonplace in Somalia, but the sheer scale of Saturday’s attack is unprecedented.
“Everyone is shocked that Shabaab can conduct such a ferocious attack in the heart of a government-controlled district,” said Rashid Abdi, a director at the International Crisis Group. “Shabaab has shown no concern for civilians. It sees the population as being on the government’s side, so an attack in the bustling heart of the city is not a problem for them.”
The attack not only showcases al-Shabaab’s willingness to cause mass civilian casualties, but also its increasing sophistication in bomb-making and the failure of the Somali government to provide basic security.
“The message is clear: Shabaab is still in business,” said Bryden. “The scale is out of the ordinary, but the method is familiar.”
Saturday’s attack comes amid a renewed US offensive against al-Shabaab. In March, President Trump declared Somalia a “zone of active hostilities.” In April, US troops were deployed to Somalia for the first time in 13 years.
The White House called the attack “cowardly” and has promised to “reinvigorate the commitment of the United States to assist our Somali and African Union partners to combat the scourge of terrorism.”
Al-Shabaab (which means “the Youth”) grew out of the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist alliance that overthrew the clan warlords who fought over Somalia when dictator Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991.
The insurgency claims it is the true defender of Somali nationalism and has grown more powerful – and more extreme – in recent years.
Al-Shabaab’s signature attack is a suicide car bomber supported by small squads of gunmen. Until this weekend, the group’s deadliest attack was in 2011 when it bombed a throng of students that were lining up to apply for scholarships.
The strength of al-Shabaab tends to increase when the central government is weak (and vice versa). Saturday’s attack follows President Farmajo’s controversial decision to extradite a commander of the Somali separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front to Ethiopia.
President Farmajo’s government is also struggling with internal divisions.
“We have seen weeks of internal schisms in government, especially in the security sector,” said Abdi. “Shabaab exploits these situations.”
Last week, the Army chief and defense minister resigned after rival units within the Somali military engaged in a deadly gunfight.
Editor’s note: Having traveled to Somalia in the 1990’s I can tell you Somalia is one of the poorest and least capable countries on earth. What little government there is, is under the influence of the various warlords, who care little for the people. The attack may be more a grudge against a particular faction as it is a statemeny by radical Islamists.