Somalia’s al-Shabaab recently attacked a hotel in central Mogadishu and held onto it for 40 hours, killing at least 35 people in the process. How did it manage this?
The attack on Mogadishu’s Hayat Hotel started with a car bomb explosion at the front gate just after dusk on Friday, August 19th – the detonation was so close to the gate it seems likely that the vehicle was driven by a suicide attacker (this is the usual way to get a car bomb into or as close as possible to heavily guarded places since they usually ban parking around their perimeters). Armed gunmen wearing suicide vests and something akin to security forces uniforms then rushed into the building.
The hotel was popular with the Somali security forces and politicians, in spite of the many-times proven risk of their congregating together in such places (restaurants are another favourite target of al-Shabaab). Carnage followed as the attackers fought their way into the building, killing guests and staff alike (including the owner). They then holed up in various strategic positions within to wait for the security forces to try to regain control, planning to kill as many of them as well before they too met their deaths.
Standard Practice for a Terrorist Attack
So far, so much standard practice for a terrorist attack on a public building. While this is the first time al-Shabaab has attacked a hotel in Mogadishu since early 2021, any hotel frequented by the government and the security forces is considered a ‘legitimate’ target for the terrorists, as are the staff and anyone else who chooses to frequent these places. For example, an al-Shabaab suicide attacker dressed as a woman killed three government ministers at a medical school graduation in the Shaamo Hotel in December 2009. A Somali-Dutch woman killed many politicians as they fled a bomb in the prayer room of the City Hotel in May 2015: the first bomb was a diversion planted by her husband (who fled): she then set off her suicide vest. Some hotels like the Sahafi, the SYL and the Makka al Mukarama have been attacked repeatedly over the years. But the politicians and police and army commanders still go to these venues. And so, then, will al-Shabaab.
But What’s Different?
But there were many worrying differences to this particular atrocity. It seems that there was not just one car bomb: there were a number, and some seem to have been placed within the hotel car park to be detonated as people fled and the security and emergency services arrived. That means al-Shabaab had spent time infiltrating those vehicles – and their deadly loads – into the hotel. It also meant the guards and the security systems the hotel had in place missed them. More fighters than the ones who rushed the gate after the initial suicide car bomb and significant quantities of ammunition also appear to have been in place before the attack started. This was why the resultant siege lasted until Sunday morning, 40 hours after the first blast. It is undoubtedly Somalia’s longest siege.
Another reason that it took so long to clear the hotel of the attackers was the performance of the security forces. At least three different elements of the security forces had a shot at ending the rampage going on inside the hotel before, apparently, US trained Somali National Army Special Forces finally killed the last attacker. (Well, the last attacker remaining in the building – some may well have escaped to die another day.) They then demolished the building. Safety reasons? Or hiding the evidence?
Big questions are now being asked about why the Somali President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, declared he would take the battle to the al-Qa’ida linked group in its strongholds in the hinterland when the government cannot protect its own capital and seat of government.
Why We Should Be Worried
If the name Westgate springs to mind, then your thinking is right. While the 2014 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi was much bloodier (68 killed), longer (four days) but did not involve car bombs, there are many worrying similarities. If al-Shabaab is revisiting the tactic and the Hayat Hotel attack was a rehearsal to check that it still works, we should all be worried, especially since al-Shabaab has a nasty habit of remembering dates and places.