Despite a growing sense of stability and optimism, after decades of chaos and violence, Somalia has been unable to curb the threat posed by the terrorist group Al Shabab.Jan 6th 2020 · 5 min read
Despite a growing sense of stability and optimism, after decades of chaos and violence, Somalia has been unable to curb the threat posed by the terrorist group Al Shabab.
The site of a truck bomb at a major intersection in Mogadishu, Somalia. Credit...Brian Otieno for The New York TimesJan. 6, 2020, 1:40 p.m. ETMOGADISHU, Somalia — Amran Kasim Ahmed and Abshir Mohamed Abukar were the kind of bright, young people around whom Somalia hoped to build its future: hard-working university students in health sciences, in a battered country with a critical shortage of health workers.
Their aspirations were snuffed out on Dec. 28, when an explosive-laden truck detonated at a busy intersection in Mogadishu, the capital. The terrorist group Al Shabab claimed responsibility for the bombing, which killed 82 people, including Ms. Ahmed and Mr. Abukar, and injured nearly 150 others, according to the government.
Even in the face of increasing American airstrikes and defections, the Shabab, a militant Islamist group linked to Al Qaeda, has grown powerful in recent years, expanding its bomb-making operations and carrying out a string of daring attacks across East Africa. On Sunday, it killed a United States service member and two American military contractors in an attack on a Kenyan military base in Manda Bay, on the Indian Ocean coast.
For almost a decade now, a sense of optimism has taken hold in Somalia after a generation of chaos, as a central government backed by the United Nations took hold, new businesses like swanky coffee stores opened and a budding tech scene rose despite the odds.
Yet the progress has proved fragile, as Al Shabab has continued to get stronger and flex its military might in recent years. The group’s relentless onslaught on both civilian and government establishments in Mogadishu has killed lawmakers, civil servants, business people, journalists and, last July, the mayor of Mogadishu, Abdirahman Omar Osman.
In the Dec. 28 attack, 16 of the dead and 18 others who were critically injured were students at Benadir University — most of them young women studying sciences, in a country where precious few women have access to higher education.
“We are losing the best and the brightest,” said Sahra Mire Mohamed, a lecturer at Benadir. The loss of so much promise, she said, is “a huge tragedy.”
Ms. Ahmed, 22, was at the top of her class and harbored dreams of revamping Somalia’s threadbare health care system. On her 10-mile daily bus ride to school, she and her fellow students would banter and tease each other.
When she learned that Ms. Ahmed was among the victims, Ms. Mohamed said, she went to the hospital and asked to see the body, to ascertain for herself that one of her favorite and most promising students was really gone.
Mr. Abukar, 23, the only one of seven siblings to finish high school and attend university, was described as a genial, dedicated student who loved sports. His family hoped he would one day improve their meager earnings and help relocate them from the three-room metal shack they called home.
“He was the best hope this family had,” said his father, Mohamed Abukar. “But Allah gave him to us first and he took him again.”
All that remains to them is a table full of notebooks filled with his cursive handwriting and certificates celebrating his achievements.
“We know that we will die one day but you never want to believe your own child will be killed in an explosion,” the elder Mr. Abukar said.
It was a week before midsemester exams began, and the students were anxious to reach campus to begin preparation. Traveling in two minibuses during the morning rush hour, they were passing through a busy intersection known as the Ex-Control Junction when the blast ripped through the traffic, blowing out a wall of a police station and tax collection center.
Pieces of the victims’ bodies and blown-up textbooks mixed with the sand, stone and scraps of metal strewn around the intersection. The attack, the worst in Somalia in more than two years, left countless families, friends and colleagues struggling to comprehend how so much could be lost so senselessly — yet again.
Somalia has been at war for nearly three decades, wracked first by combat among clan warlords and then by violent extremism. For most of that time, it effectively had no central government, followed by a government with a tenuous hold and limited power.
To bolster security and prevent attacks, the authorities have resorted to the unusual measure of barricading or entirely closing major roads in Mogadishu. Yet the deadly violence in the city has continued unabated, quashing the spirit of the long-suffering people and leaving them to wonder who will fall victim next.
The Benadir University students who were killed and maimed at the Ex Control intersection were heading to the Dr. Shahid Campus on the outskirts of the city. The campus was named after a Somali doctor and scholar, Mohamed Adam Warsame, popularly known as Shahid, who was among the university’s founders in 2002.
In December 2009, Dr. Warsame was among 25 people killed when a Shabab suicide bomber targeted a Benadir graduation. The doctor’s son Duale who survived that day, was killed in a terrorist attack on a major hotel in Mogadishu in 2016.
“It’s a recurrent tragedy,” said another son of Dr. Warsame, Rage, who is now Benadir’s dean of students. Reflecting on the past and present losses, he said that there was no option but to “be patient, work hard, and produce the next cadre of doctors and leaders.”
Yet his optimism belies the growing frustration with the authorities, who many Somalis say haven’t done enough to learn from the past or improve emergency preparedness and response. The government has come under particular scrutiny recently, as floods have killed dozens of people and a locust plague has ravished crops and grazing land.
With a fleet of 15 vehicles, Aamin Ambulance is the only free ambulance service attending to Mogadishu’s more than 2 million people. Yet its founder, Abdulkadir Adan, said two of its new ambulances have been stuck at Mogadishu’s port for six months because of red tape.
“We’ve reached out to the local government numerous times, but nothing has happened,” Mr. Adan said. “In a city that suffers regular bomb attacks, and has many medical emergencies, we need to have all the ambulances we can.”
Abdihakim Ainte has spearheaded multiple civilian efforts to help casualties and their families. It was important not to be numbed by the disasters, he said — to recall each victim as a real person, and honor the meaning and context of their lives.
“We have to say: ‘Enough is enough. If you kill another student, you kill all of us,’” said Mr. Ainte, who is now working on a campaign to commemorate the Benadir students. “We can’t have the same tragedy happening to students from the same university after a decade. We can’t remain silent.”
At the scene of the attack, amid the rubble and the mangled frame of a vehicle, a police officer echoed Mr. Ainte’s concerns. “I have lost so many officers fighting the terrorists, but no one remembers them,” he said. “Everyone just moves on.”
For Benadir students who lost their classmates, however, carrying on as usual will be hard. A week after the attack, Salma Ali Hashi says she still cannot believe that she won’t share jokes with Ms. Ahmed on the daily commute.
“We were two people united by education,” Ms. Hashi said. “I still cannot believe she’s dead.”