Al-Shabab’s change of strategy

BY: IBRAHIM ABDIRAHMAN MUKHTAR

On Dec. 10, five al-Shabab attackers stormed the SYL hotel near the presidential palace in Mogadishu – a hotel frequented by government officials. The attack left five people dead including two civilians and three soldiers. All five attackers were shot dead as they clashed with security forces while dozens of people, including government officials were rescued.

The last major attack in the capital was on July 24 in which a blind female suicide bomber blew herself inside the mayor’s office killing six people and severely wounding the mayor who a few days later died at a hospital in Qatar.

The attack demonstrated how the group has been trying to adopt new methods of conducting deadly attacks targeting senior government officials. The attack, which was carried by a blind woman working at the municipal government facilitated by another female colleague, showed that the group was adapting to strict security measures deployed in the city.

By radicalizing vulnerable individuals who are overlooked by security forces as not posing security threats, they are exploited by the group to carry out terrorist attacks.

Similarly, the way in which the SYL attack was orchestrated indicated al-Shabab’s change of strategy in terms of attacking hotels and other complex buildings.

Instead of starting the attack with suicide bombers blowing off explosives-laden vehicles, as usual, the militant group stormed the building with grenade attacks and opening fire at the security personnel before entering the hotel.

The assailants were frequently clothed in Somali military uniforms. This shift might have been caused by the increase in security checkpoints in the city.

Lessons from the attack

First, the attack indicates that the checkpoints have not only limited major attacks by al-Shabab militants for months, it has also forced the group to change its strategy.

The attack, which claimed the lives of five people as well as the lives of the attackers, was a failure by al-Shabab standards who would previously fight for several hours killing scores of people in the process.

Secondly, the swift response by security personnel should be praised for minimizing the damage.

Thirdly, reports that people were safely evacuated through the hotel’s backdoor indicate the increase of security measures taken by hotel owners such as creating emergency exits in case of attacks by militants.

Persisting Challenges

Despite the success in repelling the attacks, the continued presence of security checkpoints that affect daily business still persists and is likely to continue in the near future. While the government can rightly justify that, other alternatives should also be explored to allow people to go on smoothly with their daily activities.

In addition, the government should also devise measures to ensure that military uniforms belonging to government soldiers shouldn’t reach al-Shabab, who like in previous attacks, camouflaged in the Somali army uniform, disguising themselves as Somali government soldiers. Turkey, which is already training hundreds of Somali soldiers at its Turksom military academy in the outskirts of Mogadishu, is also building a factory in the country which will produce military uniforms.

Currently, Somalia imports its military uniforms to meet its military demands, however, al-Shabab militants are also able to acquire the same uniforms and have frequently used them when attacking hotels or government buildings. Once the factory starts functioning, it is expected to solve this problem.

The Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) under its current president Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo has made several military gains against the terrorist group. On Dec. 20, Anadolu Agency (AA) reported that the Somali armed forces killed 15 al-Shabab militants in the country’s Lower Juba region. However, the recent escalation in divisions between FGS and some of its Federal Member States (FMS) threatens undermining gains made against the militant group. The FGS and FMS should find a means to solve their disputes and focus their efforts on defeating the extremist group.

In sum, while al-Shabab still poses a huge threat to the country, there is hope that their influence is on the decline.

Ibrahim is Graduate in international security (Master of Science) from the Turkish National Police Academy, currently pursuing Ph.D. in international relations at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University

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