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Thirty hour long hotel siege emblematic of Somalia’s remaining security challenges

MOGADISHU, Somalia: Security officers patrol near the destroyed Hayat Hotel after a deadly 30-hour siege by Al-Shabaab jihadists in Mogadishu. – AFP

On Friday, Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, launched a coordinated suicide assault on the Hayat Hotel in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu. Almost 30 hours later it was ended by Somali security forces, constituting the longest hotel siege in the jihadist group’s history. More worrying, however, is that the assault acts a deadly symbol for Mogadishu’s continued lack of security.

Somali outlets have reported that at least 21 people were killed in the siege, though this number is expected to rise. It is also unclear if this number includes security personnel or just civilians. At least 117 other people were wounded in the long assault.

Local sources and Shabaab itself reported on Friday that the group began the assault on the Hayat Hotel, a popular hotel with Somalia’s security establishment, with two suicide car bombs before an assault team breached the perimeter and entered the hotel. This modus operandi of a suicide assault is a common tactic used by Shabaab, as well as other jihadist groups around the globe.

The gunmen then laid siege to the building, where the militants holed up for over 30 hours, exchanging gunfire with security services between floors. As security and emergency personnel arrived on the scene, a third suicide bomber then struck at the emergency services.

Somali troops, including US and Turkish-trained special forces units, quickly started a rescue operation, saving several civilians from the jihadists’ onslought. Video reportedly from the hotel documents almost two dozen civilians fleeing the perimeter after being freed by Somali forces.

Additional explosions, identified as grenades, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or additional possible suicide bombings were recorded throughout the long gunfight as security forces slowly advanced throughout the hotel.

Shabaab was quick to claim credit for the siege, additionally contending earlier yesterday, Aug. 20, that its rampage has “eliminated dozens of officials, officers, and security personnel” and that “bodies of the dead are strewn through the rooms and courtyard of the three story hotel.”

For his part, Shabaab’s military spokesman, Abdulaziz Abu Musab, claimed the militants killed at least 40 “apostates.”

At least two prominent Somali security officials, including the chief of Mogadishu’s intelligence apparatus and one of Mogadishu’s top police officers, were wounded in the assault. It is unclear if the intelligence chief was the specific target or if his presence was a coincidence. The owner of the Hayat Hotel was also reportedly among the killed victims.

Further Shabaab statements also allege that the militants inside the hotel remained in contact with the group’s senior leadership and media apparatus throughout the siege.

For instance, a statement released on Saturday around the 24 hour mark of the siege stated that “Jaabir, one of the inghamasi’s [commandos] inside the Hayat Hotel, informed through an audio recording that he and his brethren are well and the attack continues.” Gunshots can additionally be heard in the short audio recording released by the group.

The fact that the militants involved in the attack remained in contact with Shabaab’s leadership during the siege is not surprising. This was also the case in the group’s infamous 2013 attack at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. Other terrorist groups, such at the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, have used the same tactic. It allows a group’s leadership to remain in the know regarding the progress of the assault, while also allowing for the relaying of tactical knowledge to the attackers.

Before Somali troops officially ended the siege, Shabaab claimed that some of the fighters involved in the assault were able to escape the hotel perimeter and reach the group’s safehouses in Mogadishu. This reporting, however, is unconfirmed and likely propaganda. Somali officials reported that all gunmen were killed inside the hotel.

Hotel siege as a deadly symbol of Somalia’s hefty security challenges

Shabaab routinely conducts attacks, both large and small-scale, inside Mogadishu. However, this is the group’s first hotel assault in the capital since Jan. 2021. That attack, which involved a similar modus operandi of suicide car bombs followed by gunmen, left at least nine people dead at the Afrik Hotel, a hotel also near the Hayat in Mogadishu’s K-4 junction.

Moreover, the siege on the Hayat Hotel, lasting for over 30 hours, is the group’s longest hotel siege in its history of attacks inside the Somali capital. That the jihadist group was able to not only penetrate a highly-secured area of Mogadishu, but remain fighting in the hotel for that long demonstrates Shabaab’s strength and capabilities.

Over the past several years, Shabaab has also raided Mogadishu’s SYL Hotel on multiple occasionsElite HotelMaka al Mukarama HotelDayah HotelBeach View HotelAmbassador’s HotelCentral HotelAl Sahafi Hotel, and Jazeera Hotel.

Elsewhere, Shabaab has also struck hotels in Kismayo and in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi.

Friday’s three bombings brings the total number of suicide bombings conducted by Shabaab this year to 27, according to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal. The group has carried out at least 82 suicide bombings inside Somalia since 2020.

This number could rise if additional suicide bombings are confirmed to have taken place inside the Hayat Hotel.

Newly elected Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who is serving a second non-consecutive term, faces a severe challenge from Shabaab and to a relatively lesser extent Islamic State.

Regarding the former, President Mohamud recently stated he intended to combat Shabaab through both military and non-military means, while opening the door for any potential talks with the group. These comments, that the door for negotiations and President Mohamud’s desire to wage “economic and ideological war” against the group, were reiterated during the siege.

However, Shabaab itself appears to have shot the idea of negotiations down. The group’s aforementioned spokesman, Abdulaziz Abu Musab, stated that the siege on the Hayat Hotel was a direct response to President Mohamud’s statements about his administration’s plan for Shabaab. The jihadi spokesman stated in a message posted to Shabaab’s Radio al Andalus website:

“This operation came while the apostates, especially the leader of the group Hassan Gurguurte [a derogatory name for Hassan Sheikh], shouted to his Crusader allies saying that he will destroy and end the Mujahideen. Today, it has changed that the members of the government and government employees will be killed and mourned there [at the Hayat Hotel]. We know that Gurguurte is a stupid fool, who declared war against us and is not ready for it.”

The hotel siege also further showcases the severe challenges that remain in the United States’ effort to curtail the al Qaeda branch. The hotel assault comes as the United States has increased its tempo of airstrikes against the al Qaeda branch. The US military has conducted at least 6 strikes against the group since June 3.

At least two of those airstrikes are related to ongoing operations conducted by the Somali National Army in Somalia’s central Hiraan Region. Those operations are in-turn a response to Shabaab’s recent major incursions into Ethiopian territory mounted from Hiraan and nearby Bakool.

And while the US has launched hundreds of airstrikes against Shabaab since 2007, the group continues to effectively wage its jihad throughout most of Somalia, including the heavily fortified capital.

The Biden Administration returned US troops to Somalia earlier this year, reversing the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw US forces in late 2020. The Biden Administration argued it was necessary to return US troops to combat Shabaab as it was growing in strength following the initial US withdrawal.

Some 500 US special operations forces have since returned to Somalia, though their mission remains limited to training and advising the Somali National Army. US-trained units, including the Alpha Group, one of Somalia’s top counter-terrorism units, were involved in ending the recent hotel siege. It is unclear, however, if any US personnel played any direct advisory role during the counter-assault.

Despite some setbacks in recent years, Shabaab continues to be one of al Qaeda’s most effective branches. Though its fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the past decade, it has shown the capacity to weather numerous offensives from an array of local, regional, and international actors, including the United States.

Shabaab’s hotel siege, and the slow progress made by Somali security forces to end it, thus acts as a microcosm for the conflict against the group writ large. Mogadishu, and by extension Washington, continue to struggle in efforts to effectively contain al Qaeda’s largest branch while progressing with the status quo.

Caleb Weiss is a research analyst at FDD’s Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa. Follow him on Twitter @caleb_weiss7. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.