Last August, the southern Somali rebel movement Al Shabab announced a “tactical withdrawal” from the country’s capital Mogadishu. The move occasioned celebration within the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which supports the government. Many observers, however, predicted that conflict in Mogadishu would not cease, but would simply change character, shifting, in the words of Reuters’ Richard Lough, to “a wave of al Qaeda-style suicide attacks.”
That prediction has proven correct. By my count, there has been at least one suicide attack in Mogadishu per month since October, excepting January (October, November, December, February, March). Targets have included a hotel, government ministries, and the presidential palace. In January, a suicide attack targeted Ethiopian troops in Beledweyne. The latest suicide attack in Mogadishu, moreover, was followed earlier this week by mortar attacks on the presidential palace (see also here).
Mogadishu is not the only theater of conflict in Somalia – or East Africa – right now. Al Shabab has lost territory to Kenyan and Ethiopian forces since Kenya invaded Somalia in October. Kenya itself has seen some spillover from the conflict, with bombings in October and March in Nairobi (possibly linked to Al Shabab or to its sympathizers). Al Shabab has conducted raids into northern Kenya. Attacks in Kenya have real importance for the shape of the overall conflict involving Al Shabab. The bombers – if they are indeed affiliated with Al Shabab – perhaps hope to weaken Kenyan government resolve or turn ordinary Kenyans against the operation in Somalia.
In any case, I am not trying to rank the relative importance of bombings in different locations. But within the context of Somali politics, attacks in Mogadishu convey a particular message, both militarily (they show that military conflict is still ongoing in the capital), and symbolically (they underscore the TFG’s inability to secure the capital, and in some cases to protect its personnel). If the fall and winter provide any indication, more attacks in Mogadishu are yet to come, and al Shabab’s “withdrawal” is less meaningful than many hoped it would be.