Al-Shabaab Maintains Large-Scale Attack Capabilities Despite Somalia Military Offensive
At least 14 were killed in a nearly 24-hour-long attack on the Villa Rose hotel near the presidential palace in the Somali capital of Mogadishu on November 27. Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, an al-Qaeda branch operating in the country, claimed responsibility for the attack in an official statement shortly after its occurrence.
Much of the media coverage of the attack came from sources inside the presidential palace where the attackers sent audio transmissions. “We give good news to the Muslims that we are still fighting inside the presidential palace, and by the grace of Allah, we have repelled all the attempts by the enemy to regain control over it,” said one transmission. “We have carried out an attack on the presidential palace in which the head of the apostate government, ‘Hasan Gargute’ (sic.) resides, who declared war on Muslims,” the transmission continued. “We were shaken by a huge blast, followed by a heavy exchange of gunfire,” said Ahmed Abdullahi, who lives close to the scene.
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After some 14 hours of fighting, attackers inside the hotel sent a second recording. “Several times the enemy attacked us and several times we have defeated them…We have seized their weapons and are using those to fight them. We have also the resident (sic.) of the head of the apostate government,” said a voice in the recording. Somali state broadcaster SNTV reported on Twitter that security forces responded to the attack and were able to rescue some of the officials and civilians trapped in the building.
An Escalating Conflict
This attack comes on the heels of a November 9 US air strike on an al-Shabaab holdout some 285 kilometers northeast of Mogadishu that killed 17. This is part of the latest US efforts to target the group which include President Biden’s approval of a Pentagon request to redeploy to the country in May. “Al-Shabaab is the largest and most deadly al-Qaeda network in the world and has proven both its will and capacity to attack Somali, East African, and American civilians,” said a statement from US Africa Command.
President Hasan Sheikh Mohamud has vowed to wage war on al-Shabaab since being elected in May. The country has been gripped by an ongoing food crisis and the UN estimates that some 6.7 million people in the country could be faced with crisis-level food insecurity by the end of this year. Al-Shabaab controls some of Somalia’s most fertile southern regions, and the government has been working with local militias to target lands controlled by the group. Al-Shabaab has lost ground in central Somalia as a result, prompting increasingly intense attacks by the group.
Prior to this most recent attack, al-Shabaab engaged in a 30-hour siege of the Hayat Hotel in Mogadishu, the longest such siege in the group’s history. At least 21 were killed during the assault and more casualties are believed to have occurred thereafter: a spokesman for al-Shabaab claimed the attack killed at least 40 “apostates”. The siege was only lifted following the intervention of Somali troops, including US and Turkish-trained special forces. Another six-hour hotel siege occurred on October 23 in the southern city of Kismayo wherein three gunmen murdered nine civilians and left many others wounded, including schoolchildren.
Al-Shabaab is the world’s largest and wealthiest al-Qaeda affiliate, and a 2022 report by the Council of Foreign relations estimates the group has as many as 12,000 members. A September 17 video shows the graduation of dozens of new recruits and includes images of the group’s expansive arsenal that includes Chinese AK 103 assault rifles, a Turkish G3A3 pattern assault rifle that was likely seized from the Somali Security Forces, several other AKM-type rifles, and several RPG launchers. Unlike other militant groups, these are not seen as ‘status weapons’, but are rather highly common in East Africa. “The group is showing its enemies that it has the men, materials, and weaponry to continue waging a protracted insurgency in East Africa,” said MW’s War Noir in a September 20 article.
A Force to be Reckoned With
Despite the recent offensive and territorial losses, al-Shabaab remains a highly capable force capable of carrying out devastating attacks on hard and soft targets in Somalia, Kenya, and beyond. These attacks are likely to continue as tensions and stakes rise amid greater international concern and a severe food crisis that continues to grip decision-making in the country.