Uneasy tension that lurks in the shadows

The Times of London
Mogadishu, Somalia

Every night soldiers on Mogadishu’s front line take incoming fire. At a camp for thousands of famine refugees, two men are arrested wearing suicide vests. On a busy street, an explosion kills three civilians, and in a warehouse a bomb factory is discovered.

Somalia’s Islamist insurgents, al-Shabaab, withdrew from Mogadishu two weeks ago but they have not gone.

In freshly vacated parts of the capital African Union (AU) soldiers and government troops are warily moving in, occupying territory that has been off-limits for years. But as they struggle to fill the security vacuum there is an uneasy tension and expectation that large-scale attacks may resume again soon. “It’s still a very fluid situation. Security is a very difficult issue. We’re all trying to understand what is going to happen,” said Mark Bowden, the UN’s top humanitarian official for Somalia who is struggling to bring food and aid into the city.

“Even if we occupy all of the city there will still be elements of al-Shabaab inside; there is no total security in Mogadishu,” said Brigadier General Audace Nduwumunsi, the deputy commander of the 9,000 AU force, known as Amisom.

Officials expect an increase in suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, roadside bombs, hit-and-run attacks and sniper shootings.

It is a question of when, not if, they say, fearing that suicide bombers will seek to infiltrate the makeshift camps where more than 100,000 people have made their home after fleeing the famine in southern Somalia. The Transitional Federal Government, backed by the United Nations and paid for by Western donors including the US and Britain, greeted al-Shabaab’s withdrawal as a military victory. Analysts say the group was also squeezed financially, unable to levy taxes on crops and herds that have withered in the drought.

But the Islamist’s spokesman insisted that it was merely a new approach in their fight. “We aren’t leaving you, but we have changed our tactics,” Ali Mohamed Rage told local radio stations. “Every one of you will feel the change in every corner and every street in Mogadishu. We will defend you and continue the fighting,” he promised.

During the four-year rebellion, al-Shabaab extremists have increasingly employed the guerrilla methods of Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, launching “asymmetric” attacks against a better-equipped opponent.

This week Amisom discovered a cache of tons of artillery shells in Bakara market as well as a bomb-making factory with boxes of fuses, wires and ready home-made devices packed with ball-bearings and bolts.

The front lines in the war have shifted dramatically. The old Ministry of Defence headquarters in northern Mogadishu was taken by Amisom six months ago in fighting that killed dozens of soldiers. Al-Shabaab fighters moved down the road to an abandoned cigarette factory which is just metres from the new front line, demarcated by a wall of sandbags and gun placements.

“We are convinced Shabaab has not given up,” said the commander at a new support base called Exit Control, five miles (8km) outside Mogadishu.

Yesterday insurgents greeted a state visit by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, with a volley of poorly aimed mortars.

Despite the threats, Mogadishu is busier, and more peaceful, than for years. The streets of Medina district are crowded with minibus taxis, stalls, donkey carts and pharmacies.

Mustafa Ahmed, a teacher living in Wardhigley district in a house with bougainvillea cascading over the bullet-pocked garden wall, said the city was more peaceful than in years.

“Now Shabaab is gone we have to learn to live together; all of us must accept each other as Somalis,” he said.