Maimed in the war between Somalia’s government and al Qaeda’s affiliate al-Shabaab, the patients of De Martino Hospital prefer not to talk about what happened to them.
“Everybody’s afraid,” the hospital’s director, Abdi Ibrahim Jiya, said as he walked through a ward filled with recent arrivals. “If you complain and are for the government, you’re afraid of the Shabaab. And if you complain and are for the Shabaab, you’re afraid of the government.”
Such is the balance of fear in Somalia’s capital, a bustling city of three million people where, despite years of international military efforts to stamp out Islamic extremists, security remains elusive and government authority fleeting. In October, Mogadishu was hit by Africa’s deadliest terrorist attack—a truck bombing that killed more than 500 people.
Outside Mogadishu, things are worse. Al-Shabaab controls roughly 30% of the country’s territory, Somali government officials estimate. Alongside Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan, that is the world’s largest swath of real estate that remains under jihadist sway since the recent demise of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
It is also one with a coastline that is easily accessible and as vast as the eastern seaboard of the U.S.
“You look at fighters leaving the Levant as ISIS collapses in Iraq and Syria, and the question is: Where do these fighters end up?” said a U.S. military official familiar with Somalia operations. “Al-Shabaab owns a territory in Somalia that may be a place where they go and that’s something that we’re trying to work with the federal government of Somalia to prevent.”
With key global shipping lanes nearby, a tradition of piracy and proximity to Yemen—another al Qaeda stronghold just across the Gulf of Aden—Somalia isn’t attracting nearly enough international attention, warn senior Western officials involved with the country.
“Somalia continues to be a global strategic threat. But, with other international crises, it’s being treated as a sideshow,” said Alexander Rondos, the European Union’s special representative for the Horn of Africa.
That is beginning to change under President Donald Trump’s administration. In recent months, the U.S. military began focusing more on Somalia, which has lived through three decades of war and has haunted American policy makers ever since the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” debacle in Mogadishu.
There are now more than 500 U.S. troops operating in Somalia, according to the Pentagon, many of them special operations forces. The U.S. has also dramatically accelerated the pace of airstrikes against al-Shabaab. In one such recent drone attack on Nov. 21, the U.S. said it killed more than 100 militants after targeting an al-Shabaab camp northwest of Mogadishu.
Operating mostly in central and southern Somalia, al-Shabaab has also launched bloody raids in neighboring Kenya and Uganda. The group, which formally became part of al Qaeda in 2012, can field some 9,000 core fighters on Somalia’s battlefields, according to U.S. military estimates.
Unlike some other major Islamist extremist groups such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram, al-Shabaab refused to reflag itself as a “province” of Islamic State when that movement was ascendant in 2014. A separate Islamic State-linked group in Somalia counts roughly 100-200 men and operates mostly in the northern Puntland region, according to the U.S. military.
Much of the fighting against al-Shabaab is currently done by 22,000 African Union troops from Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. That African force, however, has suffered horrendous casualties at the hands of the militant group and is beginning to pull out.
To the embattled government of Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, widely known as “Farmajo,” the U.S. represents the best hope for stemming extremist advances.
“If we don’t have the support of the Americans, we cannot stand on our own feet,” said Somalia’s state minister of defense, Mohamed Ali Haga. “The Somali security sector is still disorganized. And we need more drone strikes because a drone can strike the snake in the head.”
On paper, the new U.S.-funded Somali National Army counts some 27,000 men—more than enough to tackle al-Shabaab. Only a fraction of that number, however, is combat ready and actually shows up for duty, Western and Somali officials say. With the exception of a small, U.S.-mentored elite unit, the Somali military only has rudimentary weapons and isn’t capable of mounting operations on its own, they say.
“Al-Shabaab are better trained and got whatever they need while the SNA is neither armed nor trained nor paid properly,” said Jawahir Abdi, a lawmaker representing Somalia’s South West state. “At the moment, the government is not winning at all.”
It has been five months since a government supply convoy last managed to reach the South West state’s capital of Baidoa, said the state president’s chief of staff, Ali Ali.
“Al-Shabaab move freely from town to town, from region to region, while the government sits in an open jail. Those with the government can only fly in and fly out. To go by road, you need to have some kind of relationship with al-Shabaab,” Mr. Ali said.
The group’s readiness to kill to enforce its rules means that ordinary Somalis in areas of al-Shabaab influence—including in Mogadishu—are usually reluctant to cooperate with authorities.
“If people want to inform the government about them, they will be slaughtered just to make an example for others,” said Hassan Mo’alim Hussein, Somalia’s state minister of security. “Al-Shabaab are ruthless.”
Challenging the Somali government’s ability to control Mogadishu is al-Shabaab’s key priority—and the group frequently attacks restaurants and hotels that house politicians, government officials and the few foreigners who dare stay in the city.
The likelihood of kidnapping or attack means that Westerners usually move in Mogadishu in armored vehicles and under the escort of several gunmen. Though new buildings and neighborhoods have come up and the international airport has reopened, much of Mogadishu’s city center—built mostly during Italian colonial times—lies in ruins.
A new area of devastation was created on Oct. 14. Even by al-Shabaab’s standards, the truck bombing at a crowded junction outside the capital’s Safari Hotel was particularly gruesome.
The explosion flattened an entire neighborhood with restaurants, part of the hotel and other buildings collapsing onto their patrons. Somali and Western officials say the bomb likely exploded prematurely, which is why al-Shabaab didn’t claim responsibility for the attack.
Somalis are renowned for their resilience and, at the site of the bombing, a temporary tea shop has already sprung up to replace the destroyed parts of the Safari Hotel. On a recent afternoon, a few dozen men sat there in the shade of the gazebo, drinking milky Somali tea. The intersection was busy again.
“Whatever they do, they cannot stop the will of the people,” said the Safari Hotel’s co-owner, Abdelrazzak Ali, who survived the bombing. “Life will continue, we will rebuild and it will be better than before.”
Even in a city used to bloodshed, the October attack has caused an unusual outpouring of anger against al-Shabaab—an emotional wave that the Somali government hopes to capitalize on.
“This has unified people and has become a turning point,” said Mogadishu’s Mayor Thabit Mohamed. “This showed to the people of Mogadishu: Whether you talk or not, whether you give information to the government or not, you are a target.”