It may seem like the media jumped the shark in reporting that the Somali capital of Mogadishu was back from the brink before a female suicide bomber struck at the re-opening of the National Theater on Tuesday. The attack killed six people, including two of Somalia’s senior sports officials. No doubt, the attack is evidence that the campaign against al-Shabaab, which claimed credit for the bombing, is still ongoing, but reports of the demise of a resurgent Somali hope are greatly exaggerated.
The flurry of news stories over the past week reporting that the seaside capital has found a new lease on life after 20 years of violence was a stirring affirmation of an effective counterinsurgency campaign that has helped force al-Shabaab out of the city. Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times wrote a must-read on Mogadishu’s ‘remarkable comeback.’ Gettleman himself has spent more time in the Somali capital than perhaps any other Western journalist and is careful not to be overly sanguine, but writes with a genuine optimism, suggesting that despite the myriad challenges still facing Somalia, Mogadishu itself is showing considerable signs of life.
The attack at the National Theater was indeed a blow to a developing good news plotline, but it should not call Mogadishu’s revival into question. There is a strong argument to be made that the bombing was in fact a sign of al-Shabaab’s weakness. Once the largest and most lethal of Somalia’s Islamist militias, al-Shabaab is now divided and forced to resort to “sporadic, indiscriminate and strategically incoherent attacks,” as The Guardian’s foreign policy expert Simon Tisdall wrote recently.
Of course, militant groups can prove to be the most deadly when they are at their weakest, but al-Shabaab’s own spiritual underpinnings appear to be coming apart, with one of its senior clerics openly challenging the group’s military leadership. Moreover, African Union forces, which have not received remotely enough credit from the international community in waging a gritty, but effective, counterinsurgency campaign against the group, continue to apply severe pressure.
The attack has raised some doubt in the continued leadership abilities of Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, himself a former Islamist militia commander, and his Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, who also has a must-read in Foreign Policy this week. But when it comes to Somalia, “one step at a time” is and ought to be the rule; beyond concerns over its political development, Somalia is still plagued by poverty, unemployment, and widespread famine.
Ridding Mogadishu of al-Shabaab was a good first step; bringing it back to life is another. And if the hundreds of thousands of Somalis flooding back into the capital are determined to build on the fragile progress already made, then desperate al-Shabaab attacks will continue to have less potency.
Then we’re looking at a true rebirth, or as one Somali told Gettleman, “call it Somalia 2.0.”