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Somalia: Not Only a Somali Tragedy

AfricaFocus Bulletin
October 19, 2017 (171019)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"I think it's really quite tragic that a strategy run from Washington, D.C., and from the European headquarters in Brussels pays so little attention when over 300 people are killed, massacred, and another 500 people are struggling for their lives, and that very little support comes from the United States and the European Union to help the Somali government clean up this, help the people who have been injured or people who have lost their parents or their children." - Dr. Abdi Samatar

The disproportion in global attention, even in other African countries, paid to the truck bombing in Mogadishu, as compared to other horrific terrorist actions carried out in Europe or the United States, is shocking but not surprising, since it is part of a familiar scenario. But it is particularly egregious given the high level of responsibility of outsiders in crafting the failed counter-terrorist strategies in Somalia over decades. That responsibility iw widely shared, including not only powers and international organizations outside Africa, but also the African Union and Somalia's immediate neighbors.

This AfricaFocus features excerpts from a Democracy Now program on October 17, including the interview quoted above, as well as links to other relevant articles highlighting both insights into the massacre itself as well as the counterproductive effects of failed counter-terrorism strategies.

If you are able to contribute funds, please see the GoFundMe campaign posted by Sadia Aden for families of the victims of the Mogadishu Massacre.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Somalia, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

The Mogadishu Massacre: Selected Articles Worth Noting

Jason Burke, "Thousands march in Somalia after attack that killed more than 300," The Guardian, October 18, 2017

"Thousands of Somalis have demonstrated against those behind the bombing that killed more than 300 people at the weekend, defying police who opened fire to keep them away from the site of the attack. Wearing red headbands, the crowd of mostly young men and women marched through Mogadishu amid tight security. They answered a call to unity by the mayor, Thabit Abdi, who said: 'We must liberate this city, which is awash with graves.'The attack in the heart of Mogadishu on Saturday has been blamed on alShabaab, the local violent Islamist group, and was one of the most lethal terrorist operations anywhere in the world in recent years."

Dr.Maryam Abdullah, among more than 300 killed in the    
Mogadishu truck bombing, was due to graduate that same day    
as a medical doctor after 6 yrs studying medicine.    

Ibrahim Hirsi, "How Minnesota's Somali community is mobilizing to help Mogadishu bombing victims," Minnpost, October 18, 2017
"Minneapolis resident Ahmed Hirsi was only a few miles away from the powerful blast that killed hundreds of people in Mogadishu last Saturday. When he arrived on the scene, where a truck filled with explosives was detonated, Hirsi saw pavement covered in blood; bodies decapitated and shattered, burned beyond recognition. As the deadliest single attack in Somalia’s history, the explosions killed more than 300 people, including a Bloomington man — a death toll that’s expected to rise as crews continue to dig into the rubble for signs of life. Just hours before that fateful afternoon, Hirsi had posted smiling photos of himself on Facebook, urging young Somalis in the U.S., Europe and Canada to return to the East African country and get involved in efforts to rebuild it. On Monday, however, Hirsi returned to Minneapolis, still reeling from the shock of the bloody attacks that rocked Mogadishu, where he spent 10 days with a group invited by the Somali government to review parts of the country’s new constitution.

Alexis Okeowo, "Where is the Empathy for Somalia," New Yorker, October 17, 2017
"And so it was with a familiar disappointment that Somalis, within the country and among the diaspora, along with other concerned observers, watched as details of the attack failed to headline broadcast news or resonate globally on social media. There was no impromptu hashtag of solidarity, no deluge of television coverage. It was as if the bombing were just another incident in the daily life of Somalis—a burst of violence that would fade into all the other bursts of violence. The lack of public empathy was startling but not surprising."

Jason Burke, "Mogadishu bombing: parents' grief for medical student killed in blast," The Guardian, October 16, 2017
"On Saturday morning, Maryam Abdullahi Gedi made breakfast for her family, packed her books and laptop and set out across Mogadishu, the battered capital of Somalia, to see her supervisor at Banadir University about her thesis. She was excited about the prospect of her graduation as a medical doctor this week. Her father – who flew in from the UK to attend the ceremony – found himself at her funeral instead. Gedi, 24, was among more than 300 people killed in a massive bombing in the centre of the city on Saturday afternoon."

Amanda Sperber, "Shock and revulsion over Mogadishu bombing," IRIN, October 16, 2017
"The bomb was as enormous as the flecks of torn skin smudging the ground are miniscule. Entire overcrowded buses were blown up, every passenger killed. No one in the vicinity was spared: shopkeepers at the side of the road selling khat; office managers; children fooling around or running errands for parents; a medical student about to graduate; mothers; fathers; sisters; brothers. At approximately 3:30 on Saturday afternoon, a truck bomb was detonated in the middle of the traffic in Mogadishu's Hodan district, next to the landmark Safari hotel, frequented by politicians and other Somali movers and shakers."

Tula Connell, "75+ Union Members Among Those Killed in Somalia," Solidarity Center, October 17, 2017
"More than 75 union members are among the dead. Among them, at least 50 transport union members and more than 25 hotel workers. Condemning the attack, Mohamed Osman Haji, chairman of the Somali Congress of Trade Unions (SOCOTU), pledged SOCOTU’s support to the injured people and called on the workers and the people of Somalia to remain calm and exercise restraint."

Selected Related Sources on Violent Extremism

Obi Anyadike, "Unfair cop – why African police forces make violent extremism worse," IRIN, September 28, 2017

"Undermanned, underfunded, underwhelming: African police forces struggle to contain regular crime, and they are even further out of their depth when it comes to tackling violent extremism. The best way to identify threats to public safety is a policing model that promotes trust and collaboration with the community, say the policy manuals on preventing violent extremism, better known as PVE. A positive relationship is believed to help build resilience to radicalisation. But the reality in much of the world is that the police are viewed as corrupt, violent, and people best avoided."

UNDP, Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment. 2017. 128-page research report, based primarily on data from Nigeria, Kenya, and Somalia. - Direct URL:

"The research specifically set out to discover what pushed a handful of individuals to join violent extremist groups, when many others facing similar sets of circumstances did not. This specific moment or factor is referred to as the 'tipping point'. The idea of a transformative trigger that pushes individuals decisively from the 'at-risk' category to actually taking the step of joining is substantiated by the Journey to Extremism data. A striking 71 percent pointed to 'government action', including 'killing of a family member or friend' or 'arrest of a family member or friend', as the incident that prompted them to join. These findings throw into stark relief the question of how counter-terrorism and wider security functions of governments in at-risk environments conduct themselves with regard to human rights and due process. State security-actor conduct is revealed as a prominent accelerator of recruitment, rather than the reverse."

Alexis Okeowo, A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women Fighting Extremism in Africa. 2017.

From publisher's description: "Okeowo weaves together four narratives that form a powerful tapestry of modern Africa: a young couple, kidnap victims of Joseph Kony's LRA; a Mauritanian waging a lonely campaign against modern-day slavery; a women's basketball team flourishing amid war-torn Somalia; and a vigilante who takes up arms against the extremist group Boko Haram."

The Mogadishu Massacre in Somalia

Democracy Now, October 17, 2017 – Direct URL:

[Excerpts from transcript are below. Note that video and audio of the broadcast are also available at the link above.]

Rescue operations continue in Mogadishu, Somalia, after two massive truck bombs exploded Saturday, killing at least 300 in the country's deadliest attack since the rise of the al-Shabab militant group a decade ago. The disaster is being referred to as the "Mogadishu massacre," and some are calling it "the 9/11 of the Somali people." The explosions came after the Trump administration stepped up a U.S. campaign against al-Shabab in Somalia. We speak with Somali scholar Abdi Samatar and journalist Amanda Sperber, who splits her time between Nairobi, Kenya, and Mogadishu, Somalia.


For more, we're joined by Democracy Now! video stream by the Somali scholar and writer Abdi Samatar. He's a professor of the Department of Geography, Environment & Society at the University of Minnesota, the author of Africa's First Democrats: Somalia's Aden A. Osman and Abdirazak H. Hussen. And joining us from Nairobi, Amanda Sperber, freelance journalist who splits her time between Nairobi, Kenya, and Mogadishu, Somalia. Her new article for IRIN News is headlined "Shock and revulsion over Mogadishu bombing."

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Amanda, let's begin with you in Nairobi, Kenya. Can you explain what you understand took place, the horrific attack that killed more than 300 people and injured roughly that same number?

AMANDA SPERBER: Yeah. I mean, it's pretty much what you said. The attacks were horrific. The outcome has been devastating. To me, what I think I've seen that's been the most upsetting aftereffect is the—is really the lack of capacity that the country has to deal with this. People are still being pulled from the rubble. The hospitals are running out of blood. The hospitals don't have enough supplies. So, I think, to me, what's really devastating about this is—beyond what happened, it's what happens next. And, I mean, I talked to one of the ministers who says there aren't enough sheets, there aren't enough water—there isn't enough water, there isn't enough antibiotics. So I think that's where the real focus needs to be now.


AMY GOODMAN: Abdi Samatar, you're a Somali scholar and writer. Can you talk about your thoughts on what has taken place, how unusual this is, if you feel it has anything to do with the increased U.S. military push in Africa?

ABDI SAMATAR: This is more than a massacre. It's carnage. I have absolutely no doubt that this is the work of al-Shabab. The truck came on the road that comes from the west part of the city into the heart of the capital, and that area of the country and that area west of Mogadishu is completely controlled by al-Shabab. There's nobody else. There's no ISIS. There's nobody else there. And so, speculations aside, this is a fact, if you look at the geography of the route that the truck took. So that's the first thing to note.

The second thing to note is that, yes, this is carnage, but Somalis have been bleeding slowly to death in what professor Michael Watts calls "silent violence" over the last two-and-a-half decades or so. So, yeah, the concentration of the death in a small period of time in one place is horrific, but death of this kind has been taking place among the population by terrorists and by African Union forces over the last decade or so. So we should not be really surprised at this, but we should take stock of the sober nature of the calamity that's Somalia.

And then the final thing I would like to say is this, that the United States government and the European Union, who support AMISOM, the African Union force in Somalia, populated by Ugandans, Ethiopians, Kenyans, Djiboutians and whatnot, they spend a billion-and-a-half dollars a year on that force. And that force is a conventional military force that's placed, holed in, in locations outside and inside Mogadishu. If they were to spend a quarter of that sum of money on developing a Somali security force that's mobile, that it can engage in guerrilla tactics and go after al-Shabab, this kind of a carnage would have been easily sort of avoided, and the people would have been saved. I don't think the international community is serious about this. I don't think they are interested in helping the Somali people. I think they are more interested in containing the Somali problem, as they call it, in Somalia, rather than claiming that they are nurturing the development of peace and democracy in that country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Abdi Samatar, I wanted to ask you about that African Union force. And specifically, what are the interests of—because they're basically functioning as a proxy force for the United States and the European Union, that's bankrolling them. What are the interests of specifically Ethiopia and Kenya in the ongoing military operations in Somalia?

ABDI SAMATAR: Well, let's start with Kenya. Kenya invaded southern Somalia in 2011. The claim was that al-Shabab was damaging its economy because of a number of hostage takings along the Indian Ocean coast, the high tourist area of Kenya. Actually, the United States' sort of reports from both the embassy and the Secret Service—I mean, the CIA, demonstrated that Kenya had this lust to occupy parts of Somalia long before those two incidents took place in 2010 and 2011. So, both Kenya and Ethiopia are interested to making sure Somalia never really comes back as a country and as a state that can challenge them in any way or sense.

So, there's a—you have a problem here. Why would the African Union allow two countries who are neighbors, who have conflict of interest, to engage in Somalia? For instance, the Ethiopians control much of the southwest part of the country, and the Somali forces cannot really go there. They are dominated by the Ethiopians. And the Ethiopians and the Kenyans are nurturing what I consider to be tribal fiefdoms, much like apartheid and sort of bantustans, such that the central government never gains full authority across the country so that peace and order can be restored.

So, the United States is an ally of the Ethiopians. That's where we use our drones to bomb places in the region. The Kenyans are close allies of the United Kingdom and the European Union. So, the question is really—Somalia is not the issue for them to save. It's about sort of making sure Kenya and Ethiopia are doing what they do in the region in order to support the United States and the European Union.


AMY GOODMAN: Amanda, can you talk about the response in Somalia when President Trump announced that he was activating forces there? Explain what those forces were.

AMANDA SPERBER: Well, I think President Trump first made an announcement that he was activating offensive drone strikes. I believe that was back in March. And response then was kind of a mixture of skepticism, because, obviously, America is not known for successful drone strikes necessarily, but at the same time, Somalis really revile al-Shabab. There's a sense that they want to move forward. So I think that there was also really a sense of hope and, genuinely, appreciation that they want—you know, like they don't want al-Shabab to be the influential force that it is, so I think that they were—there was also a level of—a level of hope that this could turn things around. But all in all, I mean, that was mixed with a healthy sense of skepticism, given America's reputation in this part of the world.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Amanda, you've written that you were surprised in your visits to Somalia about the extent of the U.S. presence there. Could you talk about that?

AMANDA SPERBER: Sure. I mean, I think when I went to Somalia, my understanding was not that the U.S. was leading—was not that the U.S. was leading the way in the country. My sense was that Turkey, the Gulf states and the United Kingdom were sort of taking the way. But upon getting on the ground, it was pretty clear to me, and made clear both by just the expats that I spoke to as well as the locals, that America is kind of at the forefront of operations and is invested strategically in Somalia's security, both in terms of financial and—both in terms for financial reasons and security reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Professor Abdi Samatar about this question, in April, President Trump signing the directive classifying parts of Somalia as areas of active hostilities, meaning the Pentagon now has more power to carry out airstrikes and ground raids in the region, the classification also meaning the Pentagon will have more permission to kill bystanders.

ABDI SAMATAR: Well, I mean, the president did sign that, and that's what it has meant. But as Amy suggested, we are not known, as Americans, particularly, I mean, our forces, to do the kind of surgical targets that can take terrorists out. I think if President Trump and his team were interested in reducing the level of tyranny and the, if you like, terrorism in the country, what they would have done is use the Somali security forces and spend maybe a couple of hundred million dollars on that rather than a billion dollars on the operations, and develop a mobile force that will act as a sort of a counter-guerrilla tactics—use counter-guerrilla tactics to go after al-Shabab, without involving Americans and anybody else, and, in that process, help Somalis rebuild the social and the sort of political infrastructure of their country. What you have, what Trump and his team are doing is doing their dirty work, as another scholar wrote in a book a few years back, and, in the process, not actually helping the Somali people take care of al-Shabab. I think Amanda is correct that Somalis revile al-Shabab, and I think they are capable of taking care of alShabab if they get the kind of resources they need to be able to go after them. So that's one issue about that matter.

The other issue that needs to be brought to the table is that the Somali political class, not so much as the current government cabinet, but the Somali political class, is a rump, corrupt bunch of people who are less interested in their country and in their own people, and who are more interested in corruption and looting whatever little resources the country has, and is remaining in power. If that political class was on the same page as the Somali people in getting rid of Shabab, I am pretty certain the Somali people can raise enough resources to mobilize sufficient number of security forces that can drive al-Shabab into the sea. Unfortunately, you have two forces: the international community, who is not interested in helping Somalis save themselves, and you have a local political class, who are almost on the same page. And in between those two, the folks who are caught are ordinary people who have paid the ultimate price in this latest carnage in Mogadishu.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Samatar, the goal of al-Shabab, if you could talk about that? What is the long-term political goal of al-Shabab? And also, the spread of the U.S. war on terrorism across sub-Saharan Africa—we had the report recently of four U.S. servicemen killed in Niger—could you talk about that, as well?

ABDI SAMATAR: I think the loss of American lives in the form that took place in Niger is quite tragic and not necessary. I think if we—as a government and as a country, if we were serious—that's Americans—if we were serious in developing a mutually beneficial strategy, mutually beneficial for Americans, mutually beneficial for Africans, whether they are Somalis or Nigerians or whatnot, we will do a very different strategy in which local people are mobilized to defend themselves, and we will provide the resources necessary. So, my thinking is that sort of AFRICOM is doing the wrong tactics, much like AMISOM in Somalia is using conventional military resources and strategy to fight al-Shabab. So, it's the wrong strategy, in my opinion. And the American government—not the American people, but the American government—is more interested in this, rather than in helping the local populations at a lower cost to all of us. So that's the first thing.

If we come back to al-Shabab, al-Shabab controls much of the rural areas of southern Somalia, while AMISOM is holed in, in particular locations. And so, when AMISOM, for instance, moves into a town, takes over that town, Shabab just simply melt away into the bush, if you like, into the tropical bush in Somalia. The minute AMISOM withdraws, Shabab comes safely back and controls that territory. What you need here is a 10,000 to 20,000 Somali security forces, military and police forces, that are trained in guerrilla tactics, that are highly mobile. And the cost of that will be literally a fraction of the amount of money the European Union and the American government is spending on AMISOM, $1.5 billion. We can spend less than $200 million and get the job done and help the Somalis put Humpty Dumpty back together in a way that's beneficial to them. But that doesn't seem to be in the gray matter of those who are running the "war on terror" in Washington, D.C.


AMY GOODMAN: A final comment, Professor Samatar, on Niger and Somalia and the connection we should see? In the U.S. media, far more attention is being paid to, of course, the four U.S. Special Forces soldiers dead than the more than 300 people dead in Somalia.

ABDI SAMATAR: I think it's really quite tragic that a strategy run from Washington, D.C., and from the European headquarters in Brussels pays so little attention when over 300 people are killed, massacred, and another 500 people are struggling for their lives, and that very little support comes from the United States and the European Union to help the Somali government clean up this, help the people who have been injured or people who have lost their parents or their children. By contrast, the Turkish government, literally immediately, as the explosions took place, sent a military plane with doctors and whatnot. Even the small country of Djibouti did something like that. So, the contrast between the bravado about fighting terrorism and supporting the local people who have become the victims of such terror is quite telling about what our agenda and strategy is in that part of the world.

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