Last weekend’s truck bombing in Mogadishu killed at least 358 people, making it the deadliest in Somalia’s history, an attack that analysts say underscores the fragility of the internationally-backed government.
With Somalia’s security forces disorganised and riddled with corruption, and deepening suspicion between central and regional governments, the October 14 blast highlights the al Qaeda-aligned Shabaab’s ability to exploit state weakness and prosecute asymmetric war to deadly effect.
— Shabaab gains? —
Militarily, the situation has been largely static in recent months.
Evicted from the capital in 2011, the Shabaab has maintained its control in many rural parts of central and southern Somalia. “There have been no recent strategic gains” on either side, says Roland Marchal, a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris — neither for the Shabaab nor the Somali army, backed by African Union troops and an increasingly active US military.
“On the surface at least, what we see is stagnation,” says Matt Bryden, founder of the Nairobi-based Sahan Research thinktank, who points out that the Shabaab has proven resilient, able to replace commanders and fighters killed by US air strikes.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), however, said Friday that Shabaab has recently regained control of several areas outside Mogadishu, including Barire, a strategically significant town on a major road 45 kilometres (28 miles) from the capital.
“Averting attacks in Mogadishu is ever harder when surrounding districts revert back to Shabaab control,” the ICG says.
— Weak security —
The Shabaab’s intelligence network allows it to exploit flaws and weakness in the security apparatus.
For example, the recent Shabaab gains around Mogadishu were, the ICG says, permitted by the withdrawal of government forces in a row over unpaid salaries.
Attempts to establish new security checkpoints at the city’s gateways have also been subverted, as happened last Saturday, when the truck, though packed with explosives, was waved through by officers.
“We know from past experience that they’ve been able to infiltrate security forces, or to put their own people in government uniforms,” says Bryden.
Also significant: the bombing last weekend came days after both the country’s defence minister and army chief resigned, without explanation. The simultaneous departure weakened President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a situation used by Shabaab to its advantage.
“It is not that the Shabaab is very strong, it is that the others are really weak,” Marchal says.
— Fractured government —
Federalism in Somalia has existed on paper since 2004, but only began to take shape five years ago. There are now five federal regional states, not including Somaliland which claims independence and does not recognise the central government.
Relations between Mogadishu and the regions are fraught, as each struggles for a greater share of power and seeks foreign allies.
Security stakes are high because if the embryonic national army is only deployed in and around the capital, and the 22,000 AU troops secure outlying urban centres, then it is left to regional militias to fight the Shabaab in the bulk of the country.
Recently, the diplomatic crisis pitting the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia against Qatar “has aggravated such friction”, says ICG.
Some federal regional states have taken sides with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to the dismay of Mogadishu, which has sought to remain neutral in a bid to maintain the substantial it receives from both sides.
Marchal deplores the “chaos brought by the Gulf crisis, where any federal president, under the pretext of receiving funding, makes ill-judged foreign policy declarations.”
— What next? —
“Unless the government shifts its posture and engages with the federal member states so they become partners in fighting Shabaab, instead of trying to fight both Shabaab and the federal member states, I don’t think we’re going to see very much progress,” says Bryden.
ICG says political opponents could seek to take advantage of the latest crisis to bring down the president. It urges him to “work quickly to improve relations with federal states” and resolve quarrels over distribution of resources. Otherwise, analysts warn, the only winner will be the Shabaab.