A fierce gunbattle that began after Islamist militants bombed a hotel in the heart of Somalia’s capital Thursday night was raging as dusk neared Friday, and the number of confirmed deaths rose to 29. Somali special forces were engaging al-Shabaab terrorists holed up in a building adjacent to the bombed Hotel Maka Al-Mukarama in central Mogadishu. A second bomb had later exploded about a kilometre from the hotel, the death toll from the bombings was expected to rise.
Who are the al-Shabaab, and what do they want?
Al-Shabaab, which translates as ‘The Youth’ in Arabic, started as the extremist youth wing of the now-defunct Islamic Courts Union, a grouping of sharia courts that seized control of a large portion of Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu, for some months in 2006. When the ICU retreated in the face of a pushback by Somali and Ethiopian troops, the hardline Islamists banded together in groups such as al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam to keep fighting. Over the years, foreign jihadists, including those from Western countries, have travelled to East Africa to join the al-Shabaab. The group, which was estimated at the end of 2017 to have 7,000-9,000 fighters, has been banned by the United States and United Kingdom.
Al-Shabaab has imposed a strict Wahhabi version of Islam in the areas under its control, and its fighters have stoned to death women accused of adultery, and punished alleged thieves by cut off their limbs. In a video message released in February 2012, al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane had “pledged obedience” to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the emir of al-Qaeda. The group is believed to have also established links with Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is active in the Sahara. Al-Shabaab had considered offering allegiance to the Islamic State at the height of the terrorist group’s power in 2014-15, but only a small splinter group ultimately took the plunge. Al-Shabaab is currently led by Ahmed Umar alias Abu Ubaidah, on whom the US has put a bounty of $6 million.
Somalia has blamed al-Shabaab for the massive truck bombing that killed at least 500 in Mogadishu in October 2017. The group claimed responsibility for the attack on a Kenyan military base in January 2016, in which close to 200 soldiers are thought to have been killed. In 2015, al-Shabaab terrorists stormed a university campus in Kenya and targeted Christians, killing nearly 150. In 2013, it killed almost 70 people in a Nairobi shopping mall, and about the same number in an attack in the Ugandan capital Kampala in 2010.
The attack on the Mogadishu hotel on Thursday was in line with the al-Shabaab tactic of assaulting high-profile targets in East African countries. Days earlier, US forces in Somalia had intensified airstrikes against al-Shabaab, which is trying to take back control of the capital from a Western-backed government.
Somalia descended into chaos in the early 1990s, and the cycle of violence and terrorism has been relentless. The tightening of the screws by the Americans have seen the killing of over 50 al-Shabaab fighters in at least six airstrikes over the past week.