Africa Report: Al Shabaab steps up bomb attacks amid Somali political crisis

Africa Report: Al Shabaab steps up bomb attacks amid Somali political crisis

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

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Takeaway key: The ongoing political crisis in Somalia will likely bolster al Shabaab, an affiliate of al-Qaeda that is actively planning transnational terrorist attacks. Al Shabaab stepped up suicide attacks in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, in January to further destabilize the Somali Federal Government (SFG) during a stormy election period. The group is likely to continue its bombing sprees in a bid to heighten animosity between rival political factions and encourage fighting between Somalia’s fragmented security forces. The most likely scenario will allow al Shabaab to expand its havens outside of Mogadishu during the political crisis. The worst-case scenario will lead to fighting for control of Mogadishu and could lead to the disintegration of the Somali government.

Figure 1. The Salafist-Jihadist movement in Africa: January 2022

See the full map.

Source: Authors and Kathryn Tyson.

Al Shabaab stepped up suicide attacks in Mogadishu in January 2022. The group has carried out four suicide attacks since January 1, the number of similar attacks in the previous four months.

  • January 1st. A militant drove* A suicide vehicle carried improvised explosive device (SVBIED) at a military checkpoint near Arwo-Idko intersection in Hawl Wadag district, injuring two soldiers.
  • January 12. A militant explode an SVBIED targeting a convoy carrying foreign contractors near a checkpoint outside Aden Adde International Airport, killing at least eight people and injuring nine others.
  • January 16. A militant explode a suicide vest near a car carrying SFG spokesperson Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimuu in Waberi district, sternly wounding* him.
  • January 18. A militant explode a suicide vest targeting off-duty Turkish-trained Somali soldiers at a tea shop near Turk-Som base in Wadajir district, killing at least four soldiers and injuring ten others.

Figure 2: Al Shabaab Suicide Bombings in Mogadishu: January 1-18, 2022

Source: Authors.

Al Shabaab likely timed the mid-January escalation to escalate friction between SFG factions during an already contentious election period. The current crisis began when SFG Chairman Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo” attempted to extend his term beyond his constitutional limits in April 2021, leading to infighting between Somali security forces in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab has taken advantage of the instability and a pause in US airstrikes in Somalia – launching offensives in north-central Somalia in the spring and summer of 2021. Politics* jockey* continued throughout 2021, delaying elections that were scheduled for October.

Tensions erupted again in December when President Farmaajo attempted to to suspend Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble. Somali leaders narrowly avoid a repeat of the April violence and agreed to hold elections by February 25. Many flashpoints remain as rival politicians vie for influence, including placement* allies* in the control of electoral bodies and the positioning of security forces at strategic locations in the capital and elsewhere.[i] The recent spate of al Shabaab attacks could be aimed at undermining security during an already tense period, perhaps aimed at further delaying elections.

Improved road conditions also made it possible to time the attacks. The flooding of the roads, which disturbed travel to Mogadishu from the Lower and Middle Shabelle regions from mid-December, erased in January. Improving conditions likely facilitated al Shabaab’s movement of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) into Mogadishu for the mid-January attack cluster.

The January attacks continue al Shabaab’s efforts to portray itself as the defender of Somalia against foreign and domestic threats. Al Shabaab claimed that the January 12 attack, which hit a convoy carrying foreign contractors, targeted “Western security agents”.[ii] The group regularly targets foreign personnel and their Somali partners and has carried out a similar campaign attack* in November 2021. Al Shabaab also frequently attacks Turkey, which it considers a foreign invader. The January 18 attack hit Somali trainees near the Turkish training base, echoing an attack in June 2021 attack. Al Shabaab also regularly targets Somalia government officials and journalists. The January 16 attack was Al Shabaab’s fourth assassination attempt targeting former BBC journalist and current SFG spokesperson Moalimuu dating back to at least 2016.

Rumors of growing Islamic State-Somalia (IS-S) influence in Mogadishu could prompt al Shabaab to step up its efforts in and around the capital. IS-S, a rival of Al Shabaab, would carry out a extortion campaign* in Bakara market in Mogadishu and possibly orchestrated two attacks using improvised explosive devices in the area in January 18 and 24.* Local information about the rumored attacks is limited and Islamic State media has not claimed it. Neighborhood merchants firm their storefronts in response on January 26. A sustained ISIS campaign in Mogadishu, if confirmed, presents an additional threat to overstretched and harassed security forces. Al Shabaab will also have to increase its activity in the city to counter the IS-S challenge.

Alternatively, the lack of reports and the absence of an Islamic State claim may indicate that the IS-S is not responsible for the extortion campaign. Another group, perhaps a security or paramilitary unit, could be responsible, indicating increased instability and fragmentation of security forces in Mogadishu.

Al Shabaab will carry out further waves of VBIED attacks in February. Al Shabaab tends to carry out VBIED attacks in Mogadishu in clusters. An alleged leaked UN memo warned* VBIED threat personnel at several locations in Mogadishu on January 24.

Continued shelling by Al Shabaab increases the likelihood of infighting in Mogadishu. Tensions between rival political factions will remain high as they try to strengthen their influence in the ongoing elections. Security concerns have already become politicized during recent negotiations on the number* and location of election sites. Security operations in Mogadishu will also become politicized, especially as President Farmaajo faces accusations of using* paramilitary forces to shape the elections. Farmaajo’s opponents will also view al Shabaab activity as potentially linked to political machinations, given reports connections between Allies of Farmaajo and al Shabaab.

In the worst-case scenario, political agreements will break down and fragmented security forces will clash for control of strategic locations in Mogadishu. Because of In progress* politicization Somali security forces, this fighting would likely be worse than the April 2021 infighting. Fighting would likely be concentrated in and around Mogadishu, but a wider civil war is possible if the battle for the capital were to drag on. Al Shabaab probably wouldn’t become a main fighter but could help trigger this scenario, especially if they committed a high profile assassination.

Any serious security crisis in Mogadishu will distract forces from the fight against Al Shabaab. Politicization has already disturbed anti–al Shabaab forces, including US-trained units.

In a more likely scenario, the SFG will muddle through the current political crisis while al Shabaab makes gains outside the capital. The agreement of Somali stakeholders in January indicates the possibility of a new compromise. International pressure* will also encourage compliance with the new electoral calendar. Al Shabaab will wage a campaign of attacks but fail to raise tensions enough to derail a deal.

Rival security forces may still deploy to Mogadishu in a scenario where negotiations avoid full-scale fighting. These mobilizations would benefit al Shabaab by creating opportunities for it to expand into areas vacated by security forces, such as in April 2021. The politicization of security forces will remain a long-term threat to the functioning of the SFG and the stability of the country.

Al Shabaab will likely capitalize on the SFG’s preoccupation to advance elsewhere, likely in north-central Somalia. Al Shabaab has already launched a offensive* in the Galguduud region of central Somalia in December which intensified* until January.[iii]

Al Shabaab uses its safe haven in Somalia to plan transnational terrorist attacks. Commander of US Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend noted al Shabaab remains al-Qaeda’s “largest, wealthiest and most kinetically active arm” in a January 2022 interview. Townsend said the instability of the SFG has slowed efforts to combat terrorism and allowed al Shabaab to grow, increasing the risks of significant and destabilizing attacks from al Shabaab in Somalia. Al Shabaab actively pursues transnational terrorist capabilities alongside its objectives in Somalia. The FBI discovered a plot by Al Shabaab to carry out a 9/11 type attack in 2020.


[i] See the deployment of troops in Mogadishu international* airport* and the course contestation* in central* Somalia.*

[ii] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Claims Suicide Bombing on Western Security Officers in Somali Capital”, 12 January 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[iii] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Claims Taking Control over 2 Additional Areas Without Resistance, Assassinations of Officials and Parliamentary Electoral Committee Members”, December 27, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

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