Monday, October 18, 2021

October 14 tragedy: Why Somalia needs a national biometric system

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By Thabit Mohamed
Former Mayor of Mogadishu and Governor of Benadir Region

On October 14, 2017, a terrorist operative belonging to Al-Shabaab drove off from Somalia’s breadbasket region of Lower Shabelle. 

Steering a truck rigged with explosive material, he headed to Mogadishu to execute one of the most deadly attacks in Somali history, in the process successfully bypassing a number of security checkpoints designed to stop these types of attacks. 

Relying on antiquated traditional identification systems ill-suited for modern threats, Somalia’s security planners had neither the capacity nor the will to seriously confront Al-Shabaab and the governance gaps that allow the terrorist group to execute mass murders on a regular basis.

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The third anniversary of one of the world’s worst terrorist attacks, which killed over 600 people, is a good time to reflect on both the existential threats posed by terror groups and also, more importantly, to reflect on the institutional and governance dysfunctions that allow Al-Shabaab to operate with impunity.

Biometric system

The October 14 terror attack deeply scarred the psyche of the Somali people, leaving behind a traumatic impact and exposing, in a glaring way, subsequent leadership failures to implement multiple governance reforms, including on security and disaster preparedness. 

The centrepiece of these reforms is an urgent need for a comprehensive national biometric registration system in the country.

As the Mayor of Mogadishu and Governor of Benadir Regional Administration at the time of the devastating truck bombs at the busy Zoobe inter-section, I argue that such a system, alongside other measures, would not only help security agencies better prevent/investigate future terrorist attacks and improve disaster response, but also accelerate the country’s socio-economic reconstruction.

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A robust biometric registration system that includes fingerprints and other unique identification markers would be the basis for an integrated national ID that can be used in everything from registering phone lines and plate numbers, remittances, mobile money transfers, purchasing/renting property, and opening businesses to voting in future national or local elections.

Such biometric information in a unified, secure database, would provide significant support to security agencies to identify security threats, disrupt terrorist networks, and conduct effective investigations after attacks. It’s not easy to build one but it’s not impossible. Neither is it the magic bullet for securing the country but it is an essential ingredient.

For instance, investigations regarding the Zoobe attack would have made tangible progress, and the likelihood of the culprits, including the individual who let the truck bomb pass through the checkpoint from the outskirts of Mogadishu, being traced would have been significantly higher if a functional biometric database in Mogadishu was in place.

Just last week, a court in Nairobi found two suspects guilty of the horrific Westgate Shopping Mall attack seven years ago after being identified through their mobile phone communication. 

In Kenya, phone lines are registered and linked to the country’s national ID. Similarly, some of the attackers of Dusit hotel complex in Nairobi early last year were identified through the registration plates of their cars, that are also linked to the country’s ID.

Taking advantage of weaknesses

Currently, Al-Shabaab and other terrorist groups in Somalia are taking advantage of the weak, disjointed, and antiquated identification system to plot terrorist attacks, engage in extortion, carry out illegal taxation, and infiltrate not only security agencies but the justice system as well, therefore defeating the criminal justice system, where conclusive identification and tracking of suspects remains a huge challenge.

Last year, almost two years after the October 14 terror attacks; Al-Shabaab executed another major attack in Mogadishu, killing my successor and his team at the Benadir Region headquarters. 

The suicide attack, executed by an Al-Shabaab sleeper agent employed by the government and who had access to both the President and the Prime Minister; showed in a tragic way Al-Shabaab’s capacity to operate in plain sight, exploiting non-existent identification systems to vet government employees.

With no national ID system in place, “Somali nationals rely on a patchwork of documents to prove their identity, most of which are non-robust with coverage limited to specific municipalities, states, or programme beneficiaries,” as described by a recent publication by the World Bank, UNDP, International Migration Organisation (IMO).

Investment in a biometric identification system may initially seem relatively high in cost or unnecessary in a country still recovering from decades of conflict, but the returns on the  investment would far outweigh the costs.

Following the October 14,  2017 attack, I submitted a list of recommendations to reform the security and disaster response architecture, to reduce the likelihood of future terror attacks and to minimise the casualties in case they happen. 

Included in the recommendations was a proposal to build a national biometric identification system.
The recommendations included decentralising parts of the security function from the Federal to local authorities in Mogadishu, which is the focal point of terror attacks, and strengthening the relationship between security agencies through community policing to improve information sharing. 

Other recommendations were setting up a fully-equipped disaster response team and a national blood bank among others.

Unfortunately, the administration of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo has demonstrated little interest in learning the many painful lessons of the Zoobe terrorist attack and implementing the required reforms. 

Morally wrong

One would have expected that an attack of Zoobe’s magnitude would have served as a turning point in how security policies are formulated. But it remains business as usual. At the same time, the government should have used available international platforms and local solidarity to raise awareness and mobilise greater support in tackling terrorism.

In addition, compensation to victims and taking of responsibility for security failures are still not forthcoming from the government, three years after the attack. It amounts to saying Somalia’s equivalent of the US 9/11 wasn’t a big deal.

This neglect is not only morally wrong but amounts to trivialising the horrific loss of lives and injuries; it also saps the long-term legitimacy that a state rebuilding from conflict needs to function in the face of existential threats.

Reality is, the tragic Zoobe terrorist attack remains a defining moment in the country’s history and a true litmus test for evaluating the kind of leadership the country needs as Somalia heads to vitally-important elections.

As the country gravitates towards federal and parliamentary elections in the coming months, it is crucial that the country elects a leadership that will actively implement measures that minimise risks for terrorist attacks like Zoobe. We owe to the victims of the attack and the country’s future.

The October 14 terrorist attack was a tragic setback, but it also offers the enduring inspiration we need to fix the challenges that Somalia faces and unlock the country’s limitless potential.

Mr Thabit Mohamed is the former Mayor of Mogadishu and Governor of Benadir Region. He’s currently the Leader of the People’s Power Party (Xisbiga Awoodda Shacabka).

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