Mogadishu’s violent history
Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city, has a violent history. Warring clans, international military interventions, and failed attempts to establish government order dating back to the early ’90s engulfed the city for nearly two decades of chaos and eventually gave rise to al-Shabaab, an armed Islamic insurgency that swept through the Horn of Africa country.
Though the terror group largely avoided international attention and headlines before its large-scale assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013, it had already left a deadly imprint on Mogadishu. Now, because of increased efforts from African Union Troops and largely secretive U.S.-led offenses, al-Shabaab, which not long ago held much of the city under its brutal control, appears diminished.
“The people who started al-Shabaab, most of them are either dead… and some of the key folks are now in custody,“ Abdi Aynte, the Somali minister of planning, told VICE News in July 2015 from inside a heavily fortified government compound in Mogadishu. “Without a doubt, the organization is down, but not done.”
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Aynte’s latter point ran like a current throughout our time in Mogadishu, where we were filming for our documentary series TERROR, and highlighted the paradoxical state of daily life in the Somali capital. Somali government efforts with support from U.N.-backed African Union troops and U.S. assistance have allowed another side of Mogadishu to emerge in recent years. The beaches, once the site of gun battles, are often packed with families and young children. Crowded seaside restaurants serve fresh fish from the Indian Ocean alongside cappuccinos and Italian-inspired cuisine.
Mogadishu may be showing some signs of recovery, but the terror group is never far from conversation, or from striking terror in the city.
Al-Shabaab’s rise to power and its recent history
The al-Qaeda-affiliated terror group temporarily gained influence in Mogadishu in 2006 when an alliance of Sharia courts managed to gain control of the city. But almost immediately, Ethiopia invaded Somalia with tacit support from the U.S., and recaptured the city for Somalia’s transitional federal government. But it was a pyrrhic victory: Al-Shabaab used Ethiopia’s unpopular and haphazard operation in the Somali capital to ride a wave of public resentment that helped rapidly grow its power and influence.
Despite losing key territories and towns in recent years, the terror group maintains a presence throughout much of Somalia’s rural areas, and increasingly, parts of neighboring Kenya.
Increased U.S. involvement
Though the U.S. assisted in the fight against al-Shabaab since 2007, it had largely avoided direct military engagement in the country, appearing to learn from previous, disastrous attempts in the early ’90s. But the 2013 attack in Kenya proved to be a turning point. Since then, increased — if covert — U.S. operations in Somalia, along with African Union troops, have done significant damage to the terror group. U.S.-operated drone strikes and secretive ground operations have claimed a handful of the group’s key leaders and delivered serious blows to its bases in the past year alone.
Today, the U.S. has its heaviest military presence on the ground in Somalia since the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 and shows no signs of letting up.
Counterattacks and expanding its international reach
For years, al-Shabaab has shown resiliency and an ability to strike back, often targeting civilian targets and in countries outside of Somalia.
Historically, the group has staged many of its deadliest attacks just as it seemed to be losing key territory. That was the case in 2010 when al-Shabaab attackers bombed a crowded rugby club in Kampala, Uganda. They followed a similar pattern in 2013 when its gunmen laid siege to the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya killing at least 67 people. A similar attack on a Kenyan university last year left 147 people dead, making it the group’s deadliest attack in the country to date. In June, gunmen stormed a hotel in Mogadishu, killing 15 people and injuring 25 others. And earlier this month, al Shabaab stormed a Kenyan border town and began executing Christians.
Beyond the battle
Military offensives led by African Union troops and U.S. forces have taken a toll on the terror group. And after years of brutalizing the local population, al Shabaab today is a deeply unpopular movement in Somalia.
But defeating the terror group on the ground is only one part of the effort to eradicate their influence and restore control throughout the country. As long as social conditions enable it, al Shabaab will survive.
“We have abject poverty in this country,” Aynte told us. “You know some 80 percent of the population is unemployed and so there’s still fertile ground for [al-Shabaab] to operate.”
Al-Shabaab translates from Arabic as “the youth,” and fittingly, Somalia’s vulnerable population remains one of the group’s most enduring assets. Fartuun Adan, a Somali-Canadian activist who founded an NGO that helps rehabilitate former child soldiers, told us that poverty and lack of opportunity continue to drive young men to al-Shabaab.
“You can see where the problem is,” she said. “It’s no education, it’s no hope.”