Somalia: Terrorists Adopt Al-Qaeda Tactics – Analysis


By Rajeh Said

Bashar Abdullahi Nur, the Somali suicide truck bomber who recently targeted students in Mogadishu, knew exactly what group he wanted to attack.

The bombing took place near a compound housing government buildings including the Ministry of Education, but the bomber was not out to kill government officials opposed to his al-Qaeda-allied group, the Mujahideen al-Shabab Movement.

He sought primarily to kill students who wished to leave their country, which has been devastated by decades of civil war, to study in Turkey on scholarships granted by the Turkish government.

Killing students to ‘please God’

Nur’s issue with those students, as he claimed in a recording attributed to him and reported in the media, is that instead of engaging in jihad to defend Somali Muslims, they were leaving their country to study in foreign lands where they would be influenced by those who he referred to as infidels and by secular ideas.

“[The student] wakes up in the morning, goes to college and studies and accepts what the infidels tell him, while they massacre Muslims,” he said, adding that the purpose of his operation is to “please God”.

It is not clear how Nur, a young school dropout, arrived at the conviction that God would be pleased with murdering teenage students seeking education and looking for a better future not available to them in their own country, which has been embroiled in chaos since the early 1990s.

What is perhaps stranger than Nur’s justification for his operation is that the al-Shabab movement he belongs to claimed responsibility for the operation and justified it as being an act of “jihad”, even though it left nearly a hundred people dead, most of them students gathered outside an office on whose walls hung lists of the “fortunate” winners of Turkish scholarships. A spokesman for the movement threatened that attacks would “increase by the day” with the aim of overthrowing Somalia’s transitional administration headed by President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

The attack by Nur was not the first of its kind against students in Mogadishu. A suicide bomber carried out a similar suicide attack that targeted a graduation party for medical students in the Somali capital in 2009, killing 24 people, most of them doctors or medical students in addition to three ministers. The Somali government blamed the attack on al-Shabab, which denied responsibility after the massacre. The attack sparked overwhelming anger among the people of Mogadishu who went out in demonstrations condemning the movement.

But unlike 2009, when it denied responsibility, the al-Shabab movement was unequivocal this time in claiming responsibility for the attack. This indicates that it has legitimised the killing of students seeking scholarships in the name of religion, despite the fact they are civilians with no involvement in the fighting between al-Shabab and the Somali transitional government for control of the capital Mogadishu.

Al-Shabab adopts al-Qaeda’s killing tactics

By taking this stance, the al-Shabab movement appears to have not learned from experiences of other groups who had adopted similar methodologies. Those experiences confirmed that extremist behaviour most often backfires and produces opposite results. Perhaps the actions of al-Qaeda and its various affiliates are the clearest evidence of the futility of this type of action.

Al-Qaeda had “succeeded” in past years in carrying out a series of attacks that caused hundreds of civilian deaths. Among the most infamous of al-Qaeda’s operations that it views as “successful” were the attacks of September 11th, 2001, which involved hijacking airliners and crashing them into the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon near Washington. Other attacks targeted commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004, and the London attacks in July 2005, which targeted subway trains and passenger buses.

All those operations appeared to be bona-fide “successes” for al-Qaeda since they resulted in the killing of hundreds of people, which was what the organisation sought to accomplish.

But with the passage of time, it became evident that al-Qaeda’s operations produce results that are opposite to what it seeks. This is reflected in the lack of any popular support for al-Qaeda’s actions in the Arab and Muslim street, and the declaration by a large segment of jihadi scholars and salafists in various Islamic countries, on whom al-Qaeda has long counted for support, that they condemn its actions, specifically the indiscriminate killings of civilians, even the non-Muslims among them.

The al-Shabab movement apparently did not learn from al-Qaeda’s experiences, specifically that of its branch in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In past years, this group carried out a series of brutal operations that terrorised many Iraqis. But it soon discovered that its actions, which included indiscriminate bombings of public squares and markets and the slaughter of people based on their sectarian affiliation, helped turn Iraqis against it, even compelling a large segment of the “resistance” against foreign intervention in their country to form alliances with the foreign troops and the new Iraqi government in order to get rid of al-Qaeda.

Before those lessons were drawn from al-Qaeda’s actions, Algeria in the 1990s was the scene of a similar experience that confirmed the futility of resorting to “indiscriminate violence” to win popular support. A self-described “jihadi” armed group operating under the name of “the Armed Islamic Group” employed revolting practices and operations that killed and bombed Algerian civilians. Those practices that were attributed to the group led to the alienation of large segments of Algerian society who aligned themselves with the government in its efforts to combat the armed group.

Yet, the claim of responsibility for the recent attacks in Mogadishu by the Somali al-Shabab movement suggests that it has not learned any lesson from those experiences.

The Somali movement may indeed “succeed” in acting on its threat of carrying out additional attacks in the coming days, but what is uncertain is the extent to which it will “succeed” in winning the Somali people to its side, especially if the attacks are modelled on the massacre of the students seeking scholarships to study in Turkey.


The Magharebia web site is sponsored by the United States Africa Command, the military command responsible for supporting and enhancing US efforts to promote stability, co-operation and prosperity in the region.

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