Somalia's Al Shabab: Does suicide attack mark the launch of a new offensive?

Tuesday's suicide attack by Somalia's Al Shabab militants marks the start of a new 'massive war' against 'invaders,' says a spokesman for the Al Qaeda-linked group. But how much of a threat are they?

Abdurashid Abdulle/AP
An Al Qaeda-linked Shabab militant straps ammunition around his waist on Tuesday as fighting rages in Mogadishu, Somalia.

A double suicide bombing against members of Somalia's parliament has raised concern that Somalia's Al Shabab militants - an Al Qaeda-linked Islamist group - are launching a new offensive against the country's weak, Western-funded government.

Al Shabab said it was responsible for Tuesday’s attack, which government officials said killed 32 people including six legislators.

"Our Mujahideen forces carried out an operation at Hotel Muna … which accommodates members of parliament and intelligence officers,” spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told reporters. “Our martyrs succeeded in killing 60 to 70 government officers, MPs, intelligence officers and civil servants.”

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The raid came the day after Mr. Rage said Shabab was launching a “massive war” against “invaders” who would “face larger attacks from now on.”

“Before today’s hotel bombing, you could easily say that Al Shabab was just flexing its muscles as a warning to new troop-contributing nations not to get involved,” said a European diplomat in Nairobi, Kenya who tracks security developments in Somalia. “But with the suicide bombing – which would have taken time to plan – we’re not so sure. It could be that they really are ready to ramp this up.”

New AU troops

The statement came within days of the arrival of hundreds of fresh soldiers to boost the 6,300-strong African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, AMISOM.

These Ugandan reinforcements are likely to be the first of up to 4,000 new troops promised for the mission after the AU last month won pledges from Guinea, Djibouti, and others to send extra soldiers.

Eleven mostly foreign fighters, from Afghanistan, Algeria, India and Pakistan, were found dead at the weekend after blowing themselves up while preparing home-made explosives in a house in northern Mogadishu.

On Monday, Kenyan newspapers reported that Kenyan anti-terror police arrested 12 men on Lamu island, close to the border with Somalia, who had bomb-making equipment and maps of Nairobi. Three were said to have traveled from Somalia.

But is this really a new offensive?

But whether this points to a serious threat to Somalia and the region from Shabab is not yet clear.

Despite the rhetoric about all-out war, Al Shabab may be resorting to terrorist attacks such as this one because it is incapable of launching an offensive that would completely dislodge Somalia's transitional government, says E.J. Hogendoorn, head of the Horn of Africa program at the International Crisis Group’s office in Nairobi.

"Al Shabab is not in a position to pursue their war in a conventional way, because they simply don't have the capability to do so,” he says. "So do you go asymmetrical, with terrorist attacks? Clearly that is what they are doing. They are trying to undermine the support for government by launching terrorist attacks on different government agencies."

Security responsiblity for areas under the control of Somalia's weak transitional government is shared by government forces and AMISOM peacekeepers, with AMISOM guarding high profile locations such as the presidential palace, the airport, and seaport, security experts say.

But the hotel where the parliamentarians were staying may have relied on the poorly trained government soldiers, many of whom receive their salaries sporadically.

In addition, Al Shabab has "gotten better at trying to drive a wedge between the Somali people and AMISOM" by starting mortar exchanges with AMISOM forces in populated areas, luring AMISOM into firing at areas where civilian casualties are likely, says Hogendoorn.

That creates a dillema for AMISOM. If they don't respond with mortars of their own, the other alternative is to go after Shabab forces with ground troops, which leaves them open to ambush and terror-style attacks.

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