30 August, 2022 Hotel Attacks
The Voice of America (VOA) reports that on 19 August 2022, a seven-man unit from al Shabaab raided and occupied the Hayat Hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia. The tactic applied is what Muir Analytics calls a “Mogadishu special,” which is the use of explosives outside a hotel immediately followed by a light infantry siege. It took 30 hours for Somalian forces to retake the hotel. In the end, 21 people were killed, and 117 were wounded. A final accounting of the attack has yet to be published, but here is what Muir was able to piece together as of 30 August. (Muir will adjust the below datapoints as new information becomes available.)
Al Shabaab, a resilient al Qaeda (AQ) affiliate, has been waging war to overthrow the Somali government and replace it with an Islamist jihadist regime since 2006. It specializes in hotel attacks and has staged some of the world’s most destructive hotel raids and bombings. Muir Analytics has analyzed four of them here.
With help from security partners, the Somali government has successfully fought off al Shabaab, forcing it from Mogadishu and other cities. Those security partners include, but are not limited to, the US, UAE, Qatar, the UK, the European Union, Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya, Djibouti, Turkey, and the African Union (AU.) The US recently deployed 500 troops to Somalia as part of a Foreign Internal Defense mission. These forces are also involved in air/drone strikes and, at times, ground combat, says Garowe Online.
Neither the government nor its allies have been able to degrade al Shabaab significantly, however. It continues to attack Mogadishu, and it controls vast sections of Somalia’s countryside. It has an estimated 7,000-12,000 fighters, and it began with about 6,000. It has run recruiting networks all over the world, including in the US – Minneapolis, to be specific – and it has made threats against its global enemies, including the US. Al Shabaab has staged punishing attacks in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya (the Westgate Mall massacre in 2013 and the dusitD2 hotel attack in 2019, for example – both in Nairobi.) Recently, it staged a light infantry incursion 93 miles (150 kms) into Ethiopia, says Arab News.
Al Shabaab is neither defeated nor on the run. As of August 2022, it has forward momentum. Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who assumed office on 15 May 2022, ran on a policy to end al Shabaab. The Hayat Hotel raid was seen by many as the group’s response to this initiative.
The Hayat Hotel, meaning “life” in Arabic, is one of Mogadishu’s more highly rated and polished hotels – a three-star property, from appearances. It is three stories tall with 30+ rooms and two roof structures. The Hayat’s address is 28J5+CX8, Mogadishu, Somalia, which is about a kilometer from the Mogadishu airport. Surrounded by other hotels and restaurants, it is popular with government personnel and urbanites for socializing and conferences. The Hayat suffered at least one car bomb explosion on 9 November 2018 during an al Shabaab raid on the Sahafi International Hotel, just 50 meters away, so it is no stranger to the dangers of Mogadishu.
The attack began at 7:00 pm on 19 August. Modern Ghana says a suicide bomber detonated at the front gate of the hotel, which cleared out nearby security personnel and tore open the gate. Immediately thereafter, a vehicle suicide bomb exploded at the back of the hotel, possibly as a distraction. Then, as many as five fighters armed with grenades and AK-47s (and/or AK series machineguns) entered the compound through the front gate and began killing people. Eyewitnesses quoted by VOA say they were dressed as policemen.
A survivor who was having tea in one of the hotel’s open spaces said, “The gunmen started firing, and I could hear the shots behind me, but thanks to God…we managed to escape,” reports Modern Ghana. Others were not so lucky. Al Shabaab fighters gunned down scores of people who ran for the front gate. Then they entered the lobby where they continued to shoot people, says The Defense Post. Guests continued fleeing, jumping out of windows, and hiding wherever they could, says VOA. One victim said he and dozens of others ran into a room next to the lobby, where they hid for 40 minutes. Eventually, they were able to break windows, get out of the hotel’s main building, and make a run for safety.
Another eyewitness told VOA there were explosions and fire inside the hotel. He said, “The hotel area was covered with black smoke and flying flames. I could see people jumping from windows onto the buildings next to the hotel.” From this account, it seems the attackers were setting off explosives or incendiary devices inside the hotel. They were heard shouting, “God is great. Kill whoever you see!”
Another group of guests fled the chaos by running up to the Hayat’s higher floors, where the attackers killed them. Reuters says they then blew up the stairs to prevent guests on the upper floors from escaping and to delay an assault by security forces.
As al Shabaab solidified control of the hotel, they fired at buildings and people all around it, reports VOA. They also appeared to have executed several hotel guests, this according to video posted on Twitter that shows Somali forces inside the hotel discovering multiple men and women who had been shot at point-blank range (WARNING: Video contains sensitive content.)
Multiple reporting streams, including Reuters, indicates that police and other first responders rushed to the scene as the attack unfolded. Some made it into the hotel where they helped dozens escape, says Africa Feeds.
First responders backed off, however, when yet another suicide bomber who was impersonating an injured guest detonated. Among the casualties from that blast was Muhiyaddin Warbac, head of the Mogadishu branch of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), says Modern Ghana.
Outside, police surrounded the hotel and cut off all roads leading to it, says Chimp Reports. They rerouted traffic to other parts of the city and shut down all businesses in the vicinity.
Then, multiple reports say the police and their SWAT unit, the Turkish-trained Haramcad (Cheetah), attempted to retake the hotel by storming the main gate. However, al Shabaab fighters inside the hotel, by now a makeshift fortress, raked the hotel grounds with automatic weapons fire and grenades. They killed 10 police, says Reuters, Modern Ghana, and VOA. Accordingly, it became apparent that heavier security assets would be necessary to retake the hotel. So, the retaking was paused for at least four hours while government security forces regrouped and planned their next move, says VOA.
Police Commissioner Abdi Hassan Mohamed Hijar later said most civilian casualties occurred during this initial phase of the attack, according to The Defense Post.
While all this was going on, al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack via a webpage associated with the group, says the BBC. The statement said, “Our assailants attacked and seized the full control of the hotel and are fighting now inside, we are targeting government officials who are in the hotel,” says Modern Ghana.
As the Hayat Hotel attack was playing out, either Friday night (19 August) or early Saturday morning (20 August), unknown persons fired several mortar rounds at Mogadishu’s Hamar Jajab District, wounding 40 people, says Modern Ghana. Hamar Jajab is about 500 meters from Mogadishu’s harbor and two kilometers from the Hayat Hotel. Security officials suspect al Shabaab was responsible. Firing mortars at the city is a common al Shabaab tactic, and it had done so most recently on 7 August as parliament approved the new cabinet, says The New Arab. The mortar attack during the Hayat seige was most likely designed to further confuse and distract the security forces.
VOA reports that, by 9:00 pm on 19 August, the Somali government had put NISA and its US-trained counterterrorism unit, Gaashaan (Shield), in charge of retaking the hotel. Chimp Reports says it was Gaashaan’s Alpha Force that was slated for the task. Gaashaan reportedly has two teams, Alpha and Bravo.
By late Saturday (20 August), Gaashaan had surrounded the hotel, located al Shabaab firing positions, and engaged them with vehicle-mounted heavy weapons. Modern Ghana says, “Witnesses watching the drama unfold from the rooftop of another building said they saw flames tear through the hotel during the bombardment by security forces, with heavy explosions and gunfire reported.” These heavy weapons were described as “artillery and machine guns.”
The machineguns could have ranged from DShKs to PKs or like Russian variants. Parts of the outside of the hotel were pockmarked with large bullet holes, indicating the use of 7.62 X 54 mm and/or 12.7 mm weapons. Photos and video of the government’s attack demonstrate the “artillery” used was just enough to destroy multiple rooms at the Hayat and punch gaping holes in its outer walls, but not enough to collapse the entire building. These latter weapons could have ranged from 40 mm grenades and RPGs to recoilless rifles and mortars. The VOA says the government’s goal in using these heavy weapons appeared to be to kill the attackers in place or flush them from the hotel where ground forces would neutralize them.
Seemingly by Saturday, and certainly by Saturday night, Gaashaan’s firepower had neutralized at least some of the attackers because, as VOA reports, Alpha Group was able to penetrate the hotel’s ground floor. There was also copious written reporting and video of Somali security forces rescuing guests from various parts of the hotel and surrounding areas, says Modern Ghana. The Defense Post says security forces rescued people “individually and room by room.” At one point, says VOA, Somali forces used a crane to deliver assault forces to various floors and to the roof of the hotel. It appears that most or all the fighting were over at this stage.
Gaashaan then handed command and control of the operation back to Haramcad, which finished the last phase of the operation, says VOA. This included the final evacuation of all hostages and ensuring all attackers were neutralized.
When combat ceased, three al Shabaab fighters lay dead from the main firefight. Reuters says one more was killed Sunday morning “as he attempted to melt into the civilian population.” Rumors abound that some fighters might have escaped, but there is no factual reporting on this so far.
As of 30 August, three al Shabaab suicide bombers and four fighters were dead, 106 hotel guests were rescued, 21 were killed, and 117 were wounded. Member of Parliament Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimuu told Bloomberg he lost 11 family members in the attack. Hayat Hotel owner Abdulkadir Mohamud lost two brothers.
Security forces spent hours combing through the carnage looking for explosives al Shabaab reportedly left planted around the property, says Chimp Reports. A photo shows these devices were plastic, five-gallon (18.9 liters) jugs, likely filled with explosives or flammable liquids.
Photos of the hotel show extensive structural damage to internal concrete and steel support columns, floors, and ceilings. At least one part of the hotel collapsed, and many internal walls were gone. While the overall structural integrity of the hotel appears intact, parts of the inside are gutted, and the hotel might have to be razed. Modern Ghana says the hotel was destroyed. It is likely that most of this destruction resulted from Gaashaan’s heavy firepower.
Government officials say they are analyzing what security measures failed, and that they would punish those who shirked their responsibilities. Early investigations say the attackers reconnoitered the hotel before the attack. Citing anonymous government sources, Modern Ghana says al Shabaab operatives videoed the entrance to the hotel and the building’s interior, specifically its rooms. The same outlet says there were command and control, planning, and clumsy response issues between the police and NISA. These problems caused confusion and delays in the government’s response, which allowed the attack to linger. There is some speculation that a hotel employee or employees helped al Shabaab with its attack, but the hotel owner rejects such claims.
Immediately after the hotel was secure, the government declared all-out war on al Shabaab. Arab News quoted President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as saying, “Al-Shabab is like a deadly snake in your clothes, there is no solution but to kill it before it kills you.” Al Jazeera quoted PM Hamza Abdi Barre as saying, “There is only one of two choices here: We either allow al-Shabab – the children of hell – to live; or we live. We cannot live together.”
Not long after these statements, on 29 August, All Africa says al Shabaab threatened to expand attacks in Kenya if Nairobi did not cease supporting Somalia militarily.
There are eight takeaways. First, tactically, the al Shabaab attack on the Hayat Hotel was highly effective. The attackers applied the right tactics – the Mogadishu special – and brought enough manpower and firepower to take over the hotel and turn it into a temporary fortress from which to fight security forces. They also achieved a high body count and severely damaged the hotel.
Second, al Shabaab made this particular Mogadishu special more effective with three tactics applied once they had gained a foothold inside the hotel:
These actions allowed al Shabaab to maintain the initiative, and they gave security forces pause, thereby delaying the operation to retake the property.
As a related aside, the security impact of the mortar attack while government forces fought to take back the hotel is unknown, but it likely clogged Mogadishu hospital’s emergency room.
Third, these tactics also demonstrate al Shabaab well understood:
Simply put, al Shabaab did its homework for this operation, and it paid off.
Fourth, strategically, al Shabaab succeeded in enhancing its brand by:
Al Shabaab remains smart, resourceful, dedicated, and willing to sacrifice its fighters to slaughter civilians.
Fifth, al Shabaab’s strategic failure here, however, was thinking that another hotel massacre was going to force the government and country one step closer to embracing Islamofascism. In its SecureHotel Threat Portal database, Muir Analytics has over 40 hotel attacks by al Shabaab in Mogadishu alone. None of them have caused the government or people of Somalia to accept the ideology of al Shabaab/AQ. Like other Islamofascist groups, al Shabaab is blinded by its extremism and bloodlust. There is a gray area between dedication to a revolutionary cause and failure to adapt. Ideologically, al Shabaab is failing to adapt.
Sixth, regarding targeting, based on, a) al Shabaab’s Hayat attack press release, b) its actions at the hotel, and c) its hotel attack track record, the group aimed its violence at:
This is typical of al Shabaab, AQ, ISIS, and similar groups ranging from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Islamist jihadist hotel attackers across the spectrum have made statements about how sinful (haram) hotels are – that they are dens of alcohol, prostitution, and spies. These groups moreover achieve high body counts through hotel attacks, which they perceive as being good for their brands. Muir’s hotel attack statistics say over 80% of the world’s hotel attacks carried out by insurgent/terror groups are done by Islamist jihadists, a trend that will not abate in the future. Hotel companies need to realize this fact and act on it from a security and insurance perspective.
Seventh, to retake the hotel, the government of Somalia took highly aggressive and destructive action via NISA and its use of heavy weaponry, which was new. Instead of a Close Quarters Battle-focused operation (in layman’s terms, security forces fighting room-by-room,) the government simply destroyed parts of the hotel occupied by al Shabaab. Property damage was not an issue. While part of this approach might have stemmed from al Shabaab blowing up the Hayat’s stairwell, government forces did have alternate methods of getting into the hotel by ladders and cranes, both of which security forces used in the latter stages of the operation (evident in video and photos.) So, in this case, it seems the government applied the new tactic of overwhelming standoff firepower to neutralize the hotel attackers. Time will tell if this tactic will be applied more judiciously to other engagements with al Shabaab in the coming months.
Eighth, looking ahead, if the Somali government takes the fight to al Shabaab with increased operations as indicated by the president’s and PM’s verbiage, then the risk of more terror attacks on civilian targets in Somalia, including hotels, will increase. This is especially true if al Shabaab suffers losses. It will lash out to protect its brand, remain relevant, and recoup lost recruits.
In keeping with this threat warning, since al Shabaab sees Somali government security allies such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and the US as critical threats, these and all other Somalia support countries should consider themselves on al Shabaab’s target list. As previously stated, al Shabaab has already attacked Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda. This trend will continue. Hotels in all these countries should be considered at risk.
Although an attack on the US or other faraway nations would be well beyond al Shabaab’s typical kinetic reach, the group could exploit its overseas recruiting networks and/or AQ contacts to lash out. Targets would most likely include civilian venues where high casualty counts were likely, such as, but not limited to, hotels. The possibility of this happening will increase if the US and other foreign nations are perceived as helping the Somali government significantly degrade al Shabaab.
A worst case scenario for Somalia’s allies would be a Mogadishu special and a drawn out siege at one of their more posh hotels. Al Shabaab did this at Nairobi’s dusitD2 hotel in 2019, so there is precedent for such an attack, especially in East Africa, and possibly in faraway countries. The war in Somalia, then, merits watching.
Muir Analytics runs the world’s largest, most sophisticated hotel violence database – the SecureHotel Threat Portal – with over 2,346 hotel attacks (and growing.) We can provide the hospitality sector with intelligence that facilitates full-spectrum risk reduction, which helps hotels protect guests, staff, buildings, brands, and revenues. Contact us for a consultation: 1-833-DATA-444.
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