POST TIME: 22 July, 2019 00:00 00 AM
Al Shabab remains a potent and lethal force in Somalia
Colin Freeman

Al Shabab remains a potent and lethal force in Somalia

The aftermath of an Al Shabab attack on the Medina hotel in Kismayo

Check into any big hotel in Somalia, and it’s not unusual to meet a government minister in the dining room, an ex-warlord in the lift, and a presidential candidate and his campaign team in the lobby. This is not because of the quality of the hospitality. The average hotel in Mogadishu, for example, is no Burj Al Arab. But after nearly 30 years of war, car bombs and targeted assassinations, many VIPs feel safer in an anonymous, heavily guarded block than they do in their own home or office. Some live as guests for years.

Yet, as last weekend's carnage at the Medina Hotel in Kismayo proved, the sense of security is sometimes illusory. In a combined suicide bomb and gun attack that lasted 14 hours, Al Shabab militants stormed the hotel compound and killed 26 people, including several foreigners and a number of local politicians and elders.

"Somalis have long used hotels as homes and meeting places, and some of them almost feel like government ministries," says Mary Harper, the BBC's Africa Editor and a regular visitor to Somalia. "But often it's a false sense of security, as Al Shabab now knows exactly who is in these hotels and targets them almost constantly."

Most big hotels in Mogadishu have been hit by the militant group at least two or three times, as have many supposedly secure government compounds. All too often, Al Shabab finds gaps in the defences of such establishments via its formidable networks of spies, who range from street hawkers and security guards up to high-level sources in Somalia's intelligence services.

As Ms Harper reveals in Everything You Have told Me is True, her new book on Al Shabab, the group delights in ringing up journalists and politicians to tell them that it knows exactly what they have been doing each day, which hotels they have been seen at, and even what they had for lunch. Sometimes this Stasi-like tactic is just for intimidation; sometimes it is a prelude to assassination.

All of which provides a gloomy answer to the blunt question posed by the newly elected President Donald Trump in 2016, when a memo his aides sent to the US State Department asked: “We’ve been fighting Al Shabab for a decade, why haven’t we won?”.

It was typical of Mr Trump's crude, offhand approach to foreign affairs, but it was a fair point.

For the previous five years, the accepted wisdom had been that Al Shabab was fast withering. In 2011, African Union forces finally kicked the group out of Mogadishu, which it previously controlled half of. A year later, Al Shabab was also forced out of Kismayo, the southern port city that was its main stronghold. Not only was it losing territory, it was also losing popularity. When Al Shabab banned foreign aid agencies from its turf during Somalia's 2011 famine, it was blamed for the deaths of more than 250,000 people.

Yet with its "caliphate" now somewhat diminished, the group has been free to concentrate more on its guerrilla warfare campaign. Even today, its black flag still flies over large tracts of rural southern Somalia, the taxes it raises there freeing it from the need for external or international support. No other major jihadist group, be it ISIS, Al Qaeda or the Taliban, has controlled so much territory, uninterrupted, for so long. It has also proved powerful enough to have stopped a takeover attempt by ISIS, whose presence in Somalia is restricted to a few dozen followers in remote caves in the Puntland region.

True, Al Shabab's brutality is matched only by its duplicity. It denies religious brainwashing, but grooms children into its ranks with offers of smartphones. It frowns on letting people watch the World Cup, but organises public execution days and Quranic poetry reading classes, with weapons as prizes. In 2018, not long after slaughtering 500 Somalis in Mogadishu with a truck bomb, it announced a new "environmental" program banning single-use plastic carrier bags.

Yet, like the Afghan Taliban, the basic security Al Shabab provides is still often seen as preferable to rule by warlords or a corrupt and distant central government.

The writer is a British journalist

specializing on international affairs