Hotel Attacks

1 June 2016, Mogadishu, Somalia

On 1 June 2016 at 5:45 pm, al Shabaab fighters attacked the Ambassador Hotel in Mogadishu, killing 13 and wounding 40, reports CNN. Al Shabaab used a car bomb at the hotel’s front gate to initiate the attack, followed by two or three gunmen armed with AK-47s that penetrated the hotel’s interior. Muir Analytics refers to this tactic as the “Mogadishu special.” Once inside, they continued fighting for 12 hours until the next morning on 2 June when Somali Special Forces (Gashan) engaged with and killed the fighters, reports the BBC.

Scores of Somali lawmakers and investors were in the hotel at the time. The Ambassador is a popular socializing spot for these type personnel.

The government was holding a conference at the hotel at the time of the attack, says The Guardian, in part to provide an update on the status of the war against al Shabaab. The government stated that counter terror units had recently tracked down and killed al Shabaab’s intelligence chief, known only as “Daud,” who also planned the massacre of 148 people at Garissa University College in Garissa, Kenya on 2 April 2015. The government further said it had engaged with and killed 16 al Shabaab fighters in Bulagadud, 18 miles north of Kismayu.

Al Jazeera says that the attack occurred just before a visit from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In claiming responsibility for the attack, The Guardian reports that al Shabaab stated: “We targeted the members of the apostate government…We killed many of them inside and we shall give details later. Our mujahideen are on the top floor of the hotel building.”

Photographer Mohamed Abdiwahab, with AFP, posted photos of the carnage here, along with a detailed narrative of the carnage in an essay titled, “Our Turn to Die.” Abdiwahab’s coverage shows that most objects within 200 yards of the blast center on Maka Al Mukaram Road (aka Jidka Makkah Almukarramah Road) – cars, trees, and buildings – were severely damaged by the blast. The debris field was littered with glass, green leaves, mangled metal, and people. The International Business Times has additional photos of the damage here.

There are five takeaways from this hotel attack.

First, the al-Qaeda-linked al Shabaab, since being driven out of Mogadishu on 10 October 2011, remains highly active and dangerous. Just because an insurgent force is driven out of a particular town does not mean they are defanged or nearly defanged, as many pundits have suggested. Al Shabaab is first and foremost driven by Islamist jihadist ideology, not real estate. It is nowhere near being a defeated force.

Second, the attack on the Ambassador Hotel is a deadly reminder that al Shabaab specializes in hotel attacks. Since and including 2010, al Shabaab has attacked more than 20 hotels to further its ideological and war aims. Hotels in Somalia are attractive targets for al Shabaab not just because of the shock value of attacking civilian targets – which is indeed one of its motivational drivers – but because Somalia politicians use hotels as government meeting venues. When they coagulate in hotels, al Shabaab sees them as “enemy lambs gathered for slaughter.”

Third, while it is not yet clear what type and how much explosives were used in the car bomb, it is clear that it was one of the most destructive car bombs ever detonated in Mogadishu. The mushroom cloud from the explosion towered over the entire city and could be seen from miles around. The blast sheered off the face of the hotel and caused extensive structural damage, possibly terminal damage. The debris field was vast and littered with shards and rubble. With this very large bomb, al Shabaab wanted the hotel destroyed, its staff and patrons dead, and it wanted to send a message that it is still a force to be reckoned with.

Fourth, al Shabaab demonstrated with this attack that it is a tactically nimble and ideologically motivated organization that can adapt to a changing security situation and keep fighting. Before 2009, for example, al Shabaab used hit and run and terror tactics coupled with Islamist jihadist preaching to take over vast tracts of the country. By 2009, it had taken over Mogadishu, and its operations consisted of fortifying, occupying, and administering its territory via an intolerant sharia court system. Since 2011, when AMISOM forces drove al Shabaab out of Mogadishu, it has reverted back to its pre-2009 tactics, which were effective. It is important to note here that these tactics also included attacking hotels.

Ultimately, al Shabbab, even if it is one day fractured and reduced to 100 fighters in scattered cells throughout the country, will still, in all likelihood, target hotels. They are one of the group’s main target sets. Accordingly, the Somalia government needs to work with the hotel sector to dramatically increase hotel security regarding vehicle setback, increased armed manpower, and surveillance detection, just for starters. Better securing the city with enhanced physical security and patrol similar to the British response to the 1992 IRA Christmas bombings in London needs to be applied as well.

A lasting hotel security solution in Somalia, however, is inexorably tethered to the defeat of al Shabaab, which requires a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign with a counter religious-political warfare program in the van.

Sources and further reading:

Our Turn to Die,” AFP, 6 June 2016.

Somalia hotel siege: Three gunmen killed as attack declared over,” BBC, 2 June .2016

Mogadishu attack: 13 dead after gunmen storm hotel,” CNN, 1 June 2016.

Gunmen kill at least 15 in attack on Mogadishu hotel,” The Guardian, 1 June 2016.

Al-Shabab hits Hotel Ambassador in Somalia’s Mogadishu,” Al Jazeera, 1 June 2016.

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