A bomb went off Monday outside the Afrik Hotel near the international airport in Mogadishu, Somalia, killing at least 17 and wounding at least 18 others. The blast knocked witnesses to the ground and destroyed multiple buildings nearby. Reports detailed a thick black smoke all throughout the surrounding area after the explosion. Al-Shabab, an Islamist militant group, claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing. According to Al Jazeera, a suicide bomber crashed a car filled with explosives into the hotel as armed gunmen forced their way into the hotel shortly after. The explosion occurred as motorists were heading to work in the morning and others were travelling to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to attend the Hajj pilgrimage, the Associated Press reported.
As part of a statement released after the blast, al-Shabab declared: “The martyrdom operation was carried out using a vehicle loaded with explosives which targeted a checkpoint along the airport road.” Some civilians and police officers spoke with reporters after the blast. “I was not very far away from where the blast occurred, and I could see several people lying [on the ground], some of them dead with a pool of blood,” Abdikarim Mohamed told Agence France-Presse, “I was forced to the ground by the shockwave. I saw nearly ten people lying on the ground, some motionless and others screaming for help.” Regarding the casualties, Ahmed Bashane, a police officer, told Deutsche Press-Agentur: “We have collected and confirmed the bodies of 17, including the suicide bomber.”
The UN Security Council said of al-Shabab in a statement last year, “Al-Shabaab has engaged in acts that directly or indirectly threaten the peace, security, or stability of Somalia […]” In addition to suicide bombings, al-Shabab has engaged in a host of other human rights violations in recent decades. According to Amnesty International, al-Shabab has “severely restricted humanitarian access” in Somalia by banning the UN and other international actors from providing assistance in its strongholds. The group also recruits young boys as child soldiers. Young girls are recruited to cook, clean, and often marry al-Shabab members, and the militants severely limit access to education.
According to the US Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker, al-Shabab harbors an estimated 7000-9000 fighters. The group primarily conducts attacks in Somalia and neighboring Kenya, both of which are defended by African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) soldiers. The group started in 2006 as a radical youth wing in Somalia’s former Union of Islamic Courts, taking advantage of a weak central government and assuming control of vast swaths of land before its peak in 2011. Al-Shabab promised residents security but refused international assistance and lost credibility thereafter when the country entered famine and drought. In 2011, Kenyan troops drove out many al-Shabab soldiers and re-established government control in most territories. Since then, the Somali government has regained control over Mogadishu and other towns, and basic services are now present in these areas. The country is still highly unstable, and democratic elections do not seem feasible soon, according to BBC. The militant group still maintains control in northeast regions of Kenya, along the Ethiopian and Somali borders. While al-Shabab has rejected an alliance with Islamic State, it reportedly maintains links with other militant groups on the African continent, including Boko Haram and al-Qaeda. It has carried out multiple attacks in recent years, killing hundreds.
The United States increasingly provides military assistance, in the form of troops and targeted strikes, to Somalia. Even so, the AMISOM soldiers are dwindling in number as the European Union passed a funding cut after allegations arose of corruption within the African Union forces. While investigation of such allegations would be wise, violence perpetrated by al-Shabab and its allies will likely continue. International assistance in combatting senseless attacks on civilians seems a necessary priority for establishing stability in the region. Assistance could come in the form of additional AMISOM troops, UN peacekeepers, and an increased training and supplying of local defensive forces. International actors would do well to expand humanitarian assistance such as food aid and refugee resources. While the road to substantive democracy in Somalia is long, immediate action can be taken to assist civilians put in harm’s way and bolster defensive forces in the area.