The death toll from Sunday’s attack on the Elite Hotel in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu has increased to 16. In a tweet late Sunday, government spokesman Ismail Mukhtar Omar declared one security guard dead, and 18 injured. Militant group Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack. It started when assailants activated a car bomb that destroyed the gates, allowing entry to the hotel, where they fought incoming security. Omar said all the attackers were killed. Soldiers rescued over 200 people, including the hotel’s owner, Abdullahi Mohamed Nor. A lawmaker and former finance minister, he is popular among government officials and people of the Somali diaspora. Given Nor’s status and ownership of the hotel, head of the Somali journalists’ union, Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimuu, who witnessed the attack, told Reuters the security presence was “extremely tight,” with two checkpoints inside and outside the establishment. Since 2008, Al Shabaab has waged war through bombings and assaults on civilian and military targets. Initially controlling most of the country, they were removed from the capital in 2011, losing more territory since. They seek to replace the U.N. supported government with one based on strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law.
Moalimuu was dining with his friend, Abdirazak Abdi Abdullahi, a worker for the state controlled radio station, when the attack began. He recalled the car explosion as a “blanket of flames hovering” above, that the hotel was “like hell,” with “clouds of smoke,” and a “terrible exchange of gunfire.” Footage shared with Reuters by a security source showed Somali soldiers helping guests climb down ropes strung from the hotel window. While Moalimuu climbed over a wall and escaped, Abdullahi was killed. Dr. Abdikadir Abdirahman, director of Aamon Ambulance Services, told Reuters that they transported at least 43 injured people to hospitals. When speaking with U.S. News and World Report, an unidentified individual observed many people dead and wounded, many “unaccounted for,” and that there were “more who were taken as hostages.” When discussing the security presence with Reuters, Moalimuu added that anyone without a government ID could not enter the area, deeming it “impossible for car bombs or even civilian cars to just go in there.”
Given the high security, limited entry, and multiple checkpoints, Sunday’s attack is puzzling. Ultimately, these initiatives were unable to deter it. Al Shabaab are resentful and obdurate as they have lost territory, with little impetus for considering alternatives to violence. Since Nor is an influential politician and esteemed by people in the diaspora, perhaps he can persuade them to negotiate. When writing for War On The Rocks, to end conflict, Jason Hartwig proposed allowing Al Shabaab’s participation in government. While past atrocities may legitimize deep distrust of integrating Al Shabaab, continued fighting has proven ineffective. Perhaps empowering their participation in government can help de-escalate conflict. There should also be appropriate punishment for defectors. A former Al Shabaab spokesman was arrested for violating conditions of surrender by entering a regional election. While this was a transgression, his arrest may have been excessive. Such treatment could further strain relations. The implications of every action must be carefully considered, to mitigate the risk of increasing conflict.
Violence in Somalia has escalated since the start of civil war in 1991, when members of rebel clans removed President Siad Barre from power. After, they betrayed each other, creating more turmoil. Henceforth lacking a central government, Somalia became a “failed state.” In 2006, Kenyan troops captured the southern part of Somalia, then owned by the Islamic Courts Union, from which al Shabaab and other radical groups formed. The Federal Government of Somalia, the first central government since the civil war, was established in 2012. Continued fighting has displaced almost two million citizens. By 2014, refugee numbers exceeded one million. Over half inhabit camps outside Somalia, some having resided in neighboring countries like Kenya and Ethiopia for decades. Approximately 500,000 people have been killed since the outbreak of war.
Sunday’s attack is among many of al Shabaab’s attempts to resist the government. The inability to prevent perpetual attacks indicates need for a new strategy. To reduce violence and prevent further displacement, the government should allow al Shabaab’s participation. In exchange, they should disarm. While trust between factions may begin faulty, they need to respect the situation’s sensitivity by acting and communicating accordingly. If the government shows respect for al Shabaab’s autonomy by allowing participation and avoiding excessive punishment, perhaps they will reciprocate by rejecting violence and embracing diplomacy for future resolutions.
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