News & Media
Why does al-Shabab target hotels?
On 1 November, al-Shabab militants attacked a hotel in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, killing 15 people. It was the latest in a series of attacks on hotels by the Islamist group. The BBC’s Mary Harper explains why hotels are so important to doing business in the Somali capital and how al-Shabab targets them.
New Year’s Day in Mogadishu was drawing to a close. I was having supper with friends when an enormous blast thundered through the night air.
This was not the usual “Mogadishu music” – as the locals call it – of grenade explosions and gunfire. Everybody, including the senior military advisers, who were eating at a table next to mine, looked frightened.
After the first shock, people got on their phones. “It’s the Jazeera Palace Hotel,” said a friend who looks after my security when I’m in town and has contacts all over the city.
Some of us ran up on to the roof, and there, just a few hundred metres away, were flames shooting out into the darkness, the remains of a suicide vehicle, which had been driven at high speed towards the thick, high perimeter wall of the hotel.
Ambulances and military vehicles raced down the street, lights flashing, sirens screaming. Shortly after they arrived at the Jazeera Palace, there was another massive explosion.
Like many other insurgent groups, al-Shabab often conducts double suicide attacks, waiting for the emergency services and onlookers to gather at the scene before sending in another vehicle to ensure maximum casualties.
Then it sends in the foot soldiers, to occupy the building, usually until all of them are killed by the security forces, and sent, they believe, on their way to Jannah (paradise) as martyrs.
About 10 minutes after the second blast, a senior Somali security official and his entourage entered the place where I was. He had been the target of the attack.
We collected plastic chairs and put them out in a circle in the courtyard. The men sat there in stunned silence. At least 10 people had been blown up at the hotel, including members of their team.
General Abdikarim Dhagabadan was not so lucky. Last week, he and at least 14 others were killed in an al-Shabab attack on another high-end hotel, the Sahafi.
A militant contacted me by phone while the siege, which lasted for several hours, was still going on.
“We have been after the apostate general since August 2011 because he commanded the operation that forced us out of Mogadishu. We consider as legitimate targets five, six or seven hotels in the capital, I forget the exact number. They know who they are because they provide lodging for members of the apostate government, certain members of the diaspora, foreigners and other infidels.”
Some Mogadishu hotels are like fortresses, with high surrounding walls, two sets of giant metal gates, private security and scanners. This is to try to protect government officials and other al-Shabab targets, who often live there for years.
Hotels have long been a central part of Somalis’ urban culture, wherever they are in the world, as so many of them move around a lot, in the same way the traditional Somali nomads do.
Al-Shabab has a highly sophisticated intelligence network, so it knows who is in which hotel and when. Security officials say the militants usually have sympathisers working inside the hotels, who can inform on key details such as which room a particular individual is staying in. When Central Hotel was attacked on 20 February this year, one of the suicide bombers was Luul Dahir, who worked at the reception.
Every time I have been in the city at the time of a big attack, I am astonished at how quickly the damage is cleared.
I visited the site of an attack on a UN convoy near the airport in December 2014.
Even though it was only about an hour after the blast, the road had been cleared, the carcasses of vehicles moved to one side. Women in masks were hosing down the street, but only after Western men in camouflage and dark glasses had sifted through the wreckage, collecting evidence in plastic bags.
Suicide attacks have generated business for Somalis. Some move in quickly after a car bombing, trying to retrieve any surviving spare parts and other scraps before the security forces shoo them away.