Our Man on the Horn — ‘THE history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball,’ said the Duke of Wellington. ‘Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.’ Equally true would be any attempt to describe a terrorist atrocity.
Saturday’s attempted attack by an al-Shabaab suicide car bomber in Mogadishu targeting – depending upon who your source is – the Somali Police Force Academy or the Presidential motorcade is a prime example. In both versions, the operation went dramatically wrong, with the bomber getting lost and having to ask Somali security forces for directions to the target.
The security forces were on a heightened state of alert anyway, because of the President’s visit to a nearby college. But they were wary of the man anyway: clearly not a resident of the city, his disorientated, dishevelled state and pronounced limp aroused their suspicions. He was identified by a female shopkeeper as the driver of a parked vehicle, but denied it was his. As an officer investigated the vehicle (which was parked some distance away), the explosives in the car were detonated.
It is also unclear at this point if the man himself detonated the device or if an accomplice initiated the bomb by remote control. (Terrorists often deploy a back-up operative with a remote control in case the suicide bomber, as often happens, has a last minute change of heart.)
The driver of the vehicle was immediately taken into custody and a number of arrests were made at a garage in the city where he claimed the attack had been planned and the car bomb assembled.
Putting aside the amateurishness of the attack, which possibly represents al-Shabaab’s difficulty in finding willing, competent attackers from amongst its dwindling ranks, the human tragedy of the attack stands out, even in a city that has suffered regular and horrifying attacks. Many men and women, shopkeepers and customers, the passengers of a crowded mini-bus, a number of children from nearby schools, were killed. (There was a particularly poignant image on Twitter of some shredded jotters – but it could have been taken anywhere, at any time.) The driver of a passing petrol tanker was killed, but fortunately the tanker itself did not explode, otherwise the death toll would have been even greater. The exact numbers are still unclear and it is not the business of this blog to perform al-Shabaab’s Battle Damage Assessment for it anyway. Suffice to say dozens of casualties.
Al-Shabaab rationalises its attacks using the perverted logic of ‘legitimate targets’ – proximity to a target justifies the deaths of the hapless civilians who happen to be nearby. If you hang around with politicians, security forces, foreigners, then you deserve to die along with them, says al-Shabaab. But how can al-Shabaab justify this atrocity? It is unsurprising that their spokesmen have been unusually silent in the aftermath of this attack, despite it clearly being their handiwork.
One positive did come out of the attack: within hours the market was functioning again, albeit with a few sheets of corrugated iron a bit bent here and there. By the next day no sign could be found of the attack. (I would post a photo but the market always looks like a bomb had gone off in it. A lot of markets do.)
Despite its proclamations, Al-Shabaab’s war is not with the government, the security forces or the international community: it is a war on the population. And the population has proven itself to be consistently, unconquerably resilient.