Last Saturday, the same day that a truck bomb obliterated several city blocks in Mogadishu, al-Shabab retook the town of Bariire, just 50km to the south of the capital.
It had been captured by Somali government forces in August but, just two months later, the government soldiers pulled out, supposedly for “tactical reasons”, leaving al-Shabab in control once again.
The incident underscored al-Shabab’s resilience. Despite years of conflict, it remains a potent military and political force, able to occupy territory and launch terror attacks in the heart of government-held areas.
But the latest terror attack — which al-Shabab has yet to claim credit for, although there is little doubt among government officials and terrorism experts about its complicity — may have been a strategic error. What was intended to be a show of strength may turn into a new weakness.
For years, al-Shabab’s sophisticated propaganda has positioned it as the protector of Somali people against the evils of foreign agents and a corrupt government. But as the death toll from Saturday’s attack continues to rise — at least 276 people were killed — that argument becomes difficult to sustain.
On Wednesday, thousands participated in huge demonstrations in Mogadishu staged in solidarity with the victims of the attack. “We are demonstrating against the terrorists that massacred our people,” said Halima Abdullahi, who lost six of her relatives in the attacks.
The demonstration was described by some observers as the largest-ever public protest against al-Shabab, and a sign that, this time, al-Shabab has gone too far.
“Al-Shabab has as yet not claimed credit for the attack and is also not likely to claim credit due to the mass casualties,” said Jasmine Opperman, Africa director at the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium. “Current demonstrations in Mogadishu against the devastation will also reflect negatively on al-Shabab, countering attempts to expand its support base and create shadow government structures supported by local clan leaders and civilians.”
This analysis is supported by statistics in a forthcoming report by the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point, the United States military academy. In it, Jason Warner and co-authors track every al-Shabab suicide bombing between April 2006 and September 2017. Their research indicates that Saturday’s attack was an outlier, an aberration and that, instead of encouraging sympathisers, it might alienate them.
“From that data, we can track that — according to available reporting — the average al-Shabab suicide bomber has killed approximately 8.1 people, oftentimes primarily targeting high-value, anti-al-Shabab individuals in the Somali government or the African Union Mission in Somalia, or the places that they congregate, with civilians as secondary casualties,” Warner told the Mail & Guardian.
“In regards to Saturday, the death toll … is exponentially larger, having killed more than 34 times more people than its previous, ‘normal’ suicide attacks. In short, the wanton destruction, which apparently had no discernible high-value target in mind, has caused ire for crossing the line of appropriateness from would-be sympathisers.”
Not that al-Shabab necessarily intended to cross that line. The reason Saturday’s blast was so powerful was that the truck bomb exploded near a fuel tanker, exponentially increasing its force.
But this may not have been deliberate. In fact, the sudden change in al-Shabab’s modus operandi suggests that the group may have made a mistake on Saturday — a horrific, devastating, tragic mistake, for which hundreds of people paid the ultimate price.
If so — and this is scant consolation — it is a mistake for which the perpetrators are likely also to pay. Could this tragedy signal the beginning of the end of al-Shabab’s enduring appeal in Somalia??