October 21, 2021


At least 500 people were killed in either the blast, the fireball or in collapsing buildings

More by Kenya Forum Somalia Correspondent

Africa’s Deadliest Terrorist Attack 4 Years On – What Really Happened

Africa’s Deadliest Terrorist Attack 4 Years On – What Really Happened

To paraphrase the Duke of Wellington, trying to tell the story of a battle is a pointless exercise, like trying to tell the story of a party. (He knew what he was talking about – he went to a party the night before the battle of Waterloo in 1815.) Everyone involved has a different perspective, a different experience and different biases – and therefore a different story. In the case of the October 14th 2017 Mogadishu terrorist attack, this combines with the rumour and cynicism infused environment of Somalia to make telling the story of October 14th extremely difficult . But what follows is what this most knowledgeable commentators think happened.

What Happened On October 14, 2017?

At about 1530 hours on Saturday, October 14th, a 500kg truck bomb detonated near Mogadishu’s Km 5, known locally as Zobe (‘Zooby’) Junction. The general consensus is that the bomb was part of a planned attack targeting a newly opened Turkish military training base in the city’s sprawling airport complex, with a parallel car bomb dispatched by a different route to blast an entry point in the airport’s perimeter for the larger truck bomb. A member of the car bomb team was detained, which allows a deeper insight into the background of the attack than is usually the case.

The truck bomb driver, meanwhile, managed to pass by at least one police check point on the road into the city, apparently calling upon a Elder to vouch for him when he was stopped at an earlier checkpoint (the Elder was subsequently detained). However, as the truck bomb approached Km 5 the driver ran the next police checkpoint, prompting the security forces to open fire on him and also to radio ahead to warn other checkpoints on the route into town.

Bomb Detonates Near Mosque

Like the incident as a whole, details about what happened next are sketchy. The driver may have decided to detonate in the face of waiting security forces on the road or it may have been set off by gun fire from the security forces. Either way, the truck bomb detonated.

In the area where the bomb went off was a busy hotel, a mosque, numerous shops and the headquarters of the Somali Red Crescent. Also nearby was the Shamo Hotel, incidentally the scene of the December 2009 suicide bombing by a member of al-Shabaab (dressed as a woman) on a graduation of medical students which also killed two government ministers. At that time of day on October 14th the junction was tremendously busy: schools were releasing their pupils, workers were heading home and the call to afternoon prayer had just gone out.

When the device detonated a fuel tanker or a truck laden with sugar (both act as accelerants for explosives, adding fuel to the fire if you will) happened to be passing by as was a minibus full of school children, just to compound the human tragedy of the incident. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, two columns of smoke could be seen across the city – a white column (from the explosives) and a black column (from the accelerant, be it sugar or fuel).

Over 500 Killed in Fireball

At least 500 people were killed in either the blast, the fireball or in collapsing buildings- the then Mayor of Mogadishu put the final figure for those killed as being over 600 with 500 injured (which goes against the normal balance of casualties, which is generally about a quarter killed to three quarters injured). It is unlikely that a conclusive figure will ever be provided because some bodies were removed for immediate burial, as is the Islamic tradition, some were vapourised by the devastating blast and some were probably buried under rubble and never exhumed.

What Happened Next?

The general avoidance in Somalia of accurate casualty figures in the aftermath of major terrorist incidents was in this instance circumvented by two factors: the sheer volume of deaths (EVERYONE in the city knew someone who was killed) and accurate casualty reporting by a local charity, Aamin Ambulance, who ferried victims – and bodies – to nearby hospitals. The numbers could not be avoided.

The Somali government itself was overwhelmed, albeit understandably – countries with considerably more developed infrastructure would have struggled with an atrocity on this scale.

The inevitably confused nature of any incident on this scale, combined with the nature of the Somali information environment and the Somali government’s lack of clear and consistent communications – as well as al-Shabaab’s canny avoidance of claiming the attack – added to the fog.

Various preposterous conspiracy theories sprang up, such as African Union forces, seeking to extend their (apparently) lucrative commitment in Somalia, had planted the bomb. Excuses such as ‘the bomb wasn’t actually meant for Zoope Junction, it was an accident’ (little consolation for the victims and their families) pervaded. An unhelpful interpretation of unfolding events sprang up on social media, noting how the international media was failing to cover events with the same degree of focus an attack in a western capital would attract. But this was unfair and distracted from the true villains of the piece, al-Shabaab. At the time there were no international journalists on the ground so it took time for news crews to arrive. Local journalists on the ground were themselves caught up in the human tragedy.

Al-Shabaab: Still There and Still Fighting

In spite of their silence, al-Shabaabdid suffer though – EVERYONE knew deep down who had planted the bomb and many members of the group, commanders and foot-soldiers, defected from the group. A senior defector from the group, Mukhtar Robow, symbolically donated blood for the victims.

But, four years on, al-Shabaab is still there, still bombing restaurants and government buildings in Mogadishu or attacking Somali army positions in the hinterland. How did this happen? How have the perpetrators of the third largest terrorist attack in history (after 9/11 and the Rex Cinema attack in Iran in 1978) and the largest on the African continent survived virtually unscathed? Why didn’t hundreds of thousands of foreign troops flood into Somalia as they did in Afghanistan and Iraq?

This is partly because the rest of the world is tired of bloody, costly interventions. The seemingly intractable nature of Somalia is another reason: if Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, Somalia is worse still, a Hades that only the foolhardy will ever enter in the first place.

Al-Shabaab itself, like many terrorist groups, is built to be flexible and survivable. But, equally, the inability of the Somali political elite to avoid at any point the endemic corruption, the vicious infighting and the paralysing levels of incompetence that characterise the nation in the global popular consciousness has given al-Shabaab the space to breathe and continue its campaign of bloody terror. Four years on, only one al-Shabaab member has been executed for his part in the attack – and there is a monument at Km4. Poor consolation for the hundreds of victims and the even larger number of injured, traumatised, widowed and orphaned.


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