TOPICS > World

Somalis ‘Shocked’ at Scale of Deadly al-Shabab Attack in Mogadishu

October 4, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Al-Shabab took responsibility for a truck bomb that rammed a checkpoint Tuesday near the education ministry in Mogadishu, Somalia, as students and parents were crowding in to learn about scholarships. Ray Suarez discusses that attack that killed at least 70 people with Reuters' David Clarke, reporting from Nairobi, Kenya.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: For more, we’re joined by David Clarke, East Africa bureau chief for Reuters, who’s in Nairobi, Kenya.

David, welcome. Tell us more about the attack near the Ministry of Education in Mogadishu.

DAVID CLARKE, Reuters: Earlier this morning, a young Somali man got in a truck laden with fuel and explosives and drove into a busy intersection in the center of Somalia, the Somali capital, Mogadishu — into parts of Mogadishu that is ostensibly controlled by African Union troops and government troops. He rammed a gate at the compound where there are quite a few ministry buildings and detonated the truck, killing scores and wounding many.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this one of the worst attacks in terms of damage and loss of life?

DAVID CLARKE: Since al-Shabaab launched its insurgency in 2007 to fight the U.N. and Western-backed transitional governments, this is probably the worst attack in Mogadishu itself.

Now, of course, al-Shabaab did strike in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, last year when suicide bombers killed 79 people watching the soccer World Cup final. But in terms of devastation from a single attack in Mogadishu, this must be one of the worst in the past four years. And while an attack was expected, residents say they’re shocked by the scale of the carnage today.

RAY SUAREZ: Didn’t Shabaab pull out of Mogadishu, leave the city in the recent past.

DAVID CLARKE: Yes, al-Shabaab pulled out in the beginning of August. Now, this — at the time, they controlled large chunks of Mogadishu. They controlled the Bakara market, which is sort of the heart of the city where a lot of business goes on.

They pulled out in August. It wasn’t quite clear why they pulled out. There have been various reasons — divisions between the hard-liners, some of the foreign fighters, the foreign jihadists, if you will, and the local Somali members.

Perhaps there was some funding problems as well. And also, the AMISOM troops within Mogadishu– this is the African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi — had been taking the fight far more to al-Shabaab over the previous few months.

But, of course, when they pulled out in August, they said — well, maybe that was their spin covering over their internal problems — they said this is just our tactics, and we will be back and we will strike. We will strike government institutions and we will carry out bombing attacks.

RAY SUAREZ: Does it appear that today’s target and method were chosen for maximum damage and loss of life?

DAVID CLARKE: Well, it does appear so. I mean, they made it clear that they would attack government billings and military bases. And that’s what they’ve done today.

I mean, while the prime minister and the presidency were some distance away, this is a building where quite a lot of the cabinet do work from day to day. They say they didn’t want to target students. They say they were trying to target foreign spies and government soldiers. But certainly, the attack has had a major impact, because at the Education Ministry, there were a number of students and parents who were waiting to hear about whether they had got scholarships to study overseas.

So, in a sense, you know, this has really struck at the heart of the Mogadishu community and killed a lot of youths who had been hoping for a better future.

RAY SUAREZ: Does Shabaab talk openly about what it wants, what its long-term objective is?

DAVID CLARKE: Well, it’s always said its long-term objective is to oust what it sees as a puppet Western government and to impose its own harsh version of Sharia law. Though — and while it has taken large chunks of southern and central Somalia, and was in control of large parts of Mogadishu, it was never able to topple the government, partly because of the presence of the African Union troops.

Now, certainly in the areas it controls it does mete out these harsh punishments, be the amputations, be they stonings, be they beheadings. You know, stopping people listening to music, watching soccer matches, having mobile ring tones which answer Quranic verses.

So, in the areas they control, they are pretty rigorous about imposing their views. But they haven’t been able to take control of Mogadishu, and so one wonders whether they’re now resorting to the spectacular attacks which will keep their cause going. Because at the end of the day, they don’t necessarily need to defeat to keep the cause going. But as long as they’re not defeated themselves, they can.

RAY SUAREZ: David, you’re based in Kenya, bordering the Shabaab-controlled area of Somalia. Is that border sealed off? Is it threatening or destabilizing to its neighbor, Kenya?

DAVID CLARKE: Absolutely. I mean, the border is a long, porous border, a lot of desert region. It’s very hard to police.

I mean, al-Shabaab attacked a town which is just a few kilometers across the Kenyan border earlier — late last week. The Kenyan security forces are there, and they are trying to stop incursions across the border, but there have been incursions. There have been kidnappings of Western aid workers.

And what we’ve seen also in the recent weeks is the ability of gunmen, be they al-Shabaab or other militia from the area, to board speed boats, go to popular tourist destinations in northern Kenya, and kidnap Westerners.

RAY SUAREZ: David Clarke is the East Africa Bureau chief for Reuters.

David, thanks for joining us.

DAVID CLARKE: Thanks very much.