Terror in Mogadishu: Notes on the Public Response and Counterterrorism

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The deadliest terrorist attack in over a decade just occurred in Somalia. What happen to our solidarity hashtag? Where is the empathy for Somalia?

Mogadishu truck bomb attack and public response
Were these people’s tragedies too marginal to grieve? The lack of public empathy for Somalia was startling but not surprising. (Photo: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images)


Last week, in the heart of Mogadishu, one of the most devastating terrorist attacks anywhere in the world for many years took place. The death toll from the twin explosions in Somalia’s capital, which represent the worst attack the country has ever seen, stands at more than 300, with many still missing or unidentified and hundreds more severely injured.

While there has been no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, it has been blamed on al-Shabaab, the local violent Islamist group which is an affiliate of al-Qaida and stages regular attacks in the capital, other parts of the country, and neighbouring Kenya.

As Somalis continue to mourn the victims, the deadly attack arouses important questions about the general public response and international counterterrorism and counterinsurgency policies in the region.

First, in addition to its sheer barbarity and devastation, the attack is notable because it has failed to garner the high levels of collective outrage, public support for victims, and extensive, in-depth media coverage that have typically arisen after similar terrorist attacks in Europe or North America.

For example, after horrific terror attacks in various cities across the Western world, Twitter hashtags and Facebook profile pictures reflecting solidarity quickly go viral, large public rallies may be organized, entertainers and prominent figures tweet messages of support, and sporting events display large banners or hold a minute of silence.

However, in stark contrast, the public response to the tragedy in Somalia has been relatively muted. The apparent double standard is not restricted to Somalia, as similar tragedies occurring in other locations within the Global South and Middle East – in Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Kenya, and other countries – have likewise often failed to generate large, widespread public expressions of support and solidarity.

To a certain extent, the disparity in coverage and public grief may be influenced by geography, with “proximity and personal connection to events [dictating] how widely events impact people and both media and social media coverage” (Hopkins 2017).

Additionally, it may just be that many media outlets do not have reporters based in these locations, although the funnelling of resources to particular locations is itself quite indicative of prioritization.

While these factors are certainly plausible and likely influential, there is more going on. According to American philosopher Judith Butler, we approach certain forms of violence with horror, and other forms of violence with acceptance. This rupture in moral evaluations occurs because certain lives are regarded as liveable, worthy of protection and worthy fighting for.

In contrast, other lives are seen as unworthy of protection, not quite lives, and at the limits of humanity. They are disposable. Think of “collateral damage,” the international community’s failure in Rwanda in 1994, or how when an American reporter asked Madeleine Albright, US Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), about whether the 500,000 young Iraqi children’s lives lost due to the harsh international blockade imposed on Iraq between 1991 and 1998 was “Worth it,” Albright sternly replied, “We think the price is worth it.” It would seem then, that Somali lives, or the lives of the peoples of the Global South, do not merit the same attention and sympathy as the lives of Europeans or North Americans.

This mindset and perspective is also common among those in the Global South. For example, consider the response to tragedy by many leaders from the region. Several years ago, after terror attacks in Paris, many African leaders were (rightly) quick to express support for the victims, condemn the perpetrators, and head to France to march in a public show of solidarity. What about now? Why has there been no African-led march for solidarity with the victims in Somalia?

It is interesting to note that several days ago, the President of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, announced that “Turkey is the only country that has helped [Somalia] after the deadly terrorist bombing which targeted the Somali capital Mogadishu.”

While Turkey deserves credit, it is rather disappointing that African states have failed to respond similarly. Of course, it is true that many of the countries may be burdened by various resource challenges. However, that factor should not preclude them extending some type of support. For example, after the recent series of devastating hurricanes which hit the US and Caribbean, Cuba – far from the wealthiest country, and itself facing significant humanitarian challenges due to the hurricane – offered neighbours considerable aid and support.

Ultimately, although the stark contrast in public responses to tragedies from different parts of the world is not new and hardly surprising, it remains highly frustrating, extremely unfortunate, and simply wrong. Innocent victims – be they in Brussels or Beirut, Manchester or Mogadishu – equally deserve our thoughts, sympathy, mourning, and solidarity.

Second, the devastating attack raises important questions about regional and international counterterrorism efforts and policies toward Somalia. The group widely blamed for the recent attack, al-Shabaab, is an outgrowth of Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion of Somalia, undertaken with the tacit support of the US and approval of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the East African regional bloc.

Ethiopia’s illegal invasion of and general involvement within Somalia, its historical, bitter rival, have actually increased and spread terror and instability throughout the region, rather than stem it.

Al-Shabaab flourished in the midst and aftermath of the brutal invasion, morphing from a small, “non-player” in Somalia, with weak links to al-Qaida, to become one of the most devastating terror groups in the region.

Despite years of international efforts – which have involved the Somali government, Kenya, the US, AMISOM, and Ethiopia, among others – to counter terror in Somalia, al-Shabaab, which has forged strong links with al-Qaida, retains the ability to mount large, complex attacks.

Over the past three years, the number of civilians killed by insurgent bombings has steadily climbed as the group increases the size of its bombs, even while the territory it has controlled has fluctuated.

After the latest attack, officials in Somalia announced that one of the men involved was a former soldier in Somalia’s army whose home town was raided by local troops and US special forces two months ago. Following the raid, in which 10 civilians were killed, including three children aged between six and 10, local tribal elders called for revenge against the Somali government and its allies.

Notably, according to a recent UN study of extremism, in “a majority of cases, state action appears to be the primary factor finally pushing individuals into violent extremism in Africa.”

Of more than 500 former members of militant organisations interviewed for the report, 71% pointed to “government action,” including the “killing of a family member or friend” or “arrest of a family member or friend” as the incident that prompted them to join a group.