Trend Assessment: Somalia's security paradox

Picture of the circle mogadishu

Islamist terrorism, the perennial problem

On 14 October, unidentified assailants launched an attack using a double vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), killing 358 people and injuring nearly 400 more. This was the deadliest attack ever in Somalia. While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the modus operandi of using VBIEDs in Mogadishu bears the imprint of Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, a Somalia-based Islamist non-state armed group. The first heavy-goods VBIED detonated outside the Safari Hotel building near the busy KM4 junction in the central Hodan district. This suggests the chosen target could have been another building in the area, which houses most offices of international embassies, agencies, and non-governmental organisations. Some theories have highlighted that the VBIED was targeting the Qatari diplomatic mission, while others have suggested the truck was aimed at a recently inaugurated Turkish military base in the city. A second VBIED detonated a little under one hour later in the Wadajir (also known as Medina) district, about 300m west of the first explosion. INDICATORS
  • September: Sub-national government disagree over the country's foreign policy positions
  • July to October: Incidents of fighting between different sections of the security apparatus leave several police and soldiers dead
  • 14 October: Al-Shabaab sympathisers stage deadliest attack in the capital, killing over 350 people
The impact of the explosion was amplified by a loaded fuel-cargo truck which was parked on the opposite side of the road. This explains the unusually high number of casualties in a city where al-Shabaab has claimed over 25 attacks this year. How the driver made it all the way into KM4 junction is less clear. KM4 Junction is one of the most secured and busiest intersections of the city and is adjacent to many businesses offices, shops and hotels. In order to access KM4 junction, the vehicle had to pass a series of security checks; some reports have suggested that the driver had been briefly detained at one of them before accessing KM4. However, the fact that the driver managed to drive a truck laden with over 350kg of mixed explosives, including military-grade and homemade variants made from fertiliser, all the way into KM4 highlights some serious flaws in security checks, or indicates corruption. While no group has formally claimed responsibility for the attack, one of the arrested drivers told police he had conducted an act of jihad (holy war).
al-Shabaab militants have launched several assaults and IED attacks against Amisom or Somali government forces in other parts of the country
The attack caused public outrage with thousands of Mogadishans in an unusual sign of unity taking to the streets of the capital to call for an end to al-Shabaab's attacks and insecurity in the city. President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo Mohamed declared a three-day mourning for the whole country. Moreover, the new mayor of Mogadishu has banned all daytime access to heavy-goods vehicles from 31 October, with those violating the ban being liable to pay fines of up to USD1,000. Many commentators have said the growing public anger with al-Shabaab could mark a turning point in the fight against the group. However, their conclusions are somewhat premature. Also read: Spreading insecurity in Mali increases risks in West Sahel On 28 October, al-Shabaab staged two more VBIED attacks in the city, killing at least 28 people and besieging a hotel for over 12 hours. The group claimed the attack less than one hour after it occurred, indicating that it was not afraid of continuing its campaign in the city despite the mounting public anger. Furthermore, al-Shabaab militants have launched several assaults and IED attacks against Amisom or Somali government forces in other parts of the country since 14 October, including the town of Beledweyne, in the central Hirshabelle State. The recent spate of attacks and the high number of casualties they have produced come against the backdrop of 2016, which was the deadliest year since al-Shabaab formed. Al-Shabaab militants killed almost 4,300 people last year in both Kenya and Somalia, and the group has staged over 45 attacks in Somalia this year alone. In addition, competition over turf between Islamist NSAGs in northern Somalia's semi-autonomous Puntland State is growing. A faction of al-Shabaab as well as a group of Islamic State-affiliated militants loyal to Abdulqadir Mumin  a former al-Shabaab fighter who was ousted from the group in 2015 after expressing sympathy for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamic State's leader are active in the Galgala mountain range south of the port cities of Bosaso and Qandala, where they are fighting for control of territory and transport links. Both groups have staged recent attacks on government positions and have taken temporary control of both Bosaso and Qandala, both with strategic access to the Gulf of Aden, an important trade lane where up-to 20 per cent of global shipping passes. Should any of the Islamist NSAGs gain control to key port infrastructure in the area, this will likely pose a serious threat to international merchant shipping, despite the presence of several international naval missions in the nearby Indian Ocean. Moreover, with Islamic State militants having been pushed out of their strongholds in Iraq and Syria, some intelligence sources have suggested that they could look to exploit the failed-state status of Yemen and attempt to reach the Horn of Africa, and in particular Somalia. Significant arms smuggling is already ongoing between Yemen and Somalia, and it is probable that some of the arms used in the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts will be used in Somalia. This competition over turf in Puntland is therefore only likely to intensify over the next year.

Small wins, offset by institutional instability

When President Mohamed took office in February 2017, he pledged to defeat al-Shabaab and declared war on the group in April, calling on militants to defect within 60 days. Several key al-Shabaab fighters did so in August. This included Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansur, a former spokesperson of the group who has been in hiding with a small contingent of fighters and bodyguards since 2013 after falling out with al-Shabaab's leader, Ahmed Umar (a.k.a Abu Ubaidah). In addition to his declaration of war, Mohamed replaced the commander of the military, the director of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (Nisa), the commander of police and the head of the prison forces. In the same move, Mohamed also named a new mayor for Mogadishu and Governor of Benadir Administrative Region, which includes the capital.
Several deadly altercations have erupted in the city between different agencies of Somalia's security apparatus
The leadership reshuffling of security and governance structures is likely to have caused some friction between different groups in Mogadishu. Since the end of July, several deadly altercations have erupted in the city between different agencies of Somalia's security apparatus, including Nisa and the military. While these contacts do not necessarily suggest inter-agency animosity, they do highlight poor co-ordination and communication deficiencies between them. The lack of co-ordination could be exacerbated by the recent resignation by the minister of defence and the chief-of-staff of the Somali Armed Forces in early October, as well as the replacement of the police commissioner and the head of intelligence following the 14 October attack. Relatedly, institutional animosity was brought to the fore in response to the Saudi-led embargo on Qatar. Several of the countries involved in the embargo are historical investors in Somalia, and have increased their investments in the country in recent years. Turkey, for instance, opened its largest overseas military base in Mogadishu at the end of September. While the central government  the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS)  has pursued a neutral stance in the fallout, several regional state authorities have demanded that the government side with the Saudi-led coalition. Instead, Mohamed has maintained a neutral position and has allowed Qatari aircraft to use its national airspace; without that access Qatar viation industry would be highly challenged as most neighbouring countries have closed their airspace to Qatari flights.

The security paradox

The mounting insecurity in Mogadishu comes after a period of relatively strong growth. The African Economic Outlook  a multi-stakeholder project by the African Development Bank (AfDB), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)  estimates that Somalia's economy grew by 3.7 per cent in 2016, and that growth will increase again in 2018 by 4.5 per cent after decelerating to 2.5 per cent this year. The economic rebound comes amid improved climatic conditions which will favour agricultural output following two years of severe drought. Investors, most of whom are from the diaspora, are returning to the country amid what they see as an ostensibly improving security situation. Although such returns would be good for the country's economic outlook and peace-building exercise, with an increased influx of capital, the centrality of Mogadishu to Somalia  emphasised by a series of civil conflicts  is posing a growing security risk due to increased competition over urban land. This is where the money is. Mogadishu is the main entry-point for the vast majority of goods, capital and people that enter Somalia, and it is among the most secured areas in the country. It is home to most diplomatic missions, military bases  including the main base of the African Union Mission in Somalia (also known as Amisom) and government institutions, meaning Mogadishu's strategic importance will be recognised both by investors and al-Shabaab.
The growing fiduciary pressures in the city centre amid a weak legal framework have led to the proliferation of local powerbrokers or gatekeepers
The growing fiduciary pressures in the city centre amid a weak legal framework have led to the proliferation of local powerbrokers or gatekeepers informal agents who are able to navigate a complex network of landowners, district officials and local businesspersons who have become important players in Mogadishu's housing market. Many of these gatekeepers have become essential for transporting goods outside the capital, as they are able to negotiate with local actors. However, competition over land tends to increase during post-conflict times amid improved security. During such periods of time, returning refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and returning expatriate Somalis compete for urban land with incoming aid and development agencies and private real-estate developers. This influx of capital, goods and people is driving real-estate prices upwards, and the urban poor and IDPs to peri-urban, less secure, areas of the city where security provisions are poor. While the number of refugees is clear, the number of IDPs is less so. A recent estimate by the U.N Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) put the number of people living in emergency and crisis in Mogadishu at 1.4 million. With a total population of 3 million, this is likely increasing the pressure on public services and land. The competition is made more uncertain given the lack of effective processes in place to settle land-ownership disputes. In addition, traditional and customary processes to settle disputes are competing with more formalised methods, as recommended by international actors. For example, in the Somali cultural context, land right discussions are frequently expressed as a debate between three normative claims: rights by blood, rights by birth and rights by citizenship, the authors explain. These uncertainties mean that strong social networks on the ground, specifically clan affiliations or organised crime groups, have supplanted some service-delivery functions and have led to increased antagonism between the city's major clans. Before al-Shabaab was ousted from Mogadishu along with the Islamic Courts Union in 2011, the militants also controlled significant areas in the south of the city. It is highly probable, given the intensifying tempo of attacks, that the group has infiltrated local social networks. To what extent the group is able to exercise influence is less clear.


Despite widely held perceptions that security in Mogadishu has improved in recent years, al-Shabaab continues to pose a daily threat there and elsewhere in Somalia. The centrality of the city and poor co-ordination and...