Analysis: Al Shabaab steps up attacks in Somalia

Editor's note: A suicide bomber blew himself up at the gates of the presidential palace in the Somali capital Mogadishu on Monday, the latest in the campaign of attacks against the government.

NAIROBI, Kenya — The Somali Islamist extremist group Al Shabaab stepped up its attacks on Mogadishu's interim government during the recent Ramadan period, a violent campaign that highlighted the weakness of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s administration.

The most audacious assault was on Sept. 9 by a suicide squad that raided Mogadishu's airport killing at least five people in a supposedly safe part of the city guarded by some of the 7,200 African Union peacekeepers, known as AMISOM, now deployed in the capital.

The attack was timed to coincide with a visit to the city by senior U.N. officials who were seeking to heal rifts in Ahmed’s government. The timing of the attack revealed the extent of Al Shabaab’s intelligence network.

Ultimately the airport assault was unsuccessful because all four attackers died before reaching the airport terminal building but it was ambitious in scope and technicality.

First a vehicle rigged with a car bomb raced up to the airport gate early in the afternoon and exploded killing two civilians and two AU soldiers. That explosion cleared the way for a second vehicle that followed close behind.

At least two armed men dressed in army uniforms and wearing explosive vests jumped from the second car. They fired assault rifles and ran toward the airport terminal, a few hundred yards away. In the ensuing gun battle with AMISOM troops the attackers blew themselves up.

Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack as it did for an attack on a hotel soon after the start of Ramadan in another well-guarded part of the capital.

In that attack at least 32 people were killed, including half a dozen Somali legislators, when four gunmen invaded the Muna Hotel and went room to room firing bullets and tossing grenades. When cornered they blew themselves up.

In July Al Shabaab, which has been bolstered by the arrival of foreign jihadist fighters and trainers, launched its first attack outside Somalia. Suicide bombers killed 76 people in two separate attacks in Kampala, Uganda, the country that provides around half of the AU peacekeepers.

Somali officials believe that at least one of the militants killed during the Ramadan fighting was an American citizen from the Somali diaspora.

“We are very concerned about Somalis coming to join Al Shabaab from the diaspora, in particular from the U.S. and the U.K.,” said Abdirahman Omar Osman, the information minister in Mogadishu.

“We are struggling to survive against Al Shabaab,” he said.

Despite support from the United Nations, most Western powers and the African Union, the Ahmed's Mogadishu government is weak. It controls only a small portion of the bombed-out capital and that only because of AMISOM’s tanks and troops. The recent Ramadan attacks showed how tenuous that control really is.

The combination of in-fighting and weakness shown by Ahmed’s administration worries its international backers. A joint statement issued last week by the U.N., AU and regional grouping IGAD described the divisions in the government — particularly those between President Ahmed and Prime Minister Omar Shamarke — as “unhelpful and potentially very damaging.”

With the transitional government existing little more than on paper some have called for “constructive disengagement.” This position, as described by the influential Council on Foreign Relations in a March paper, essentially calls for foreign powers to leave Somalia alone to sort out its own problems.

A more acute concern for American officials is ‘blowback’: that American citizens might receive training in Somalia before returning to the U.S. to launch attacks. In August the FBI indicted 14 American citizens, alleging that they were supporters of Al Shabaab while around two-dozen young Somali-Americans have disappeared from Minneapolis in recent years and are believed to have joined Al Shabaab in Somalia.

At least one is known to have died in a suicide bombing in 2008.

It is not just diaspora Somalis who are attracted to Al Shabaab’s growing extremism. A key commander is a young white American man from Alabama known as Omar Hammami or Abu Mansoor al-Amriki. He has featured in Al Shabaab recruitment videos projecting a hip-hop cool and leading squads of fighters.