10 January 2020
Al-Shabaab militants in East Africa tend to follow a set pattern in choosing their attack routes, Photo: Bloomberg
Al-Shabaab militants in East Africa tend to follow a set pattern in choosing their attack routes, Photo: Bloomberg

How al-Shabaab militants operate in Mogadishu

During a recent trip to Somaliland in East Africa, I had a chance to engage with some international contractors who are undertaking projects there or in neighboring Somalia.

Those foreigners are always under heavy protection, having their own bodyguards or employing local soldiers, whenever they go outdoors.

I would probably have visited Mogadishu as well, the capital city of Somalia, which, according to these foreign contractors, is the truly dangerous place in the entire region, if I had managed to get my visa approved on time.

But that didn’t happen and the plan had to be shelved. Still, I picked up something pretty useful and enlightening, which is, as the foreign friends have taught me, “how to tell whether a person is a terrorist in Mogadishu”.

At present, the most active terrorist group in Somalia is the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, or “al-Shabaab” for short, meaning “the Youth Party”.

The “al-Shabaab” once occupied the entire Mogadishu at the height of its power, only to be defeated and driven out of the city later by government forces.

Today even though al-Shabaab militants are no longer in control of the capital, they remain a force to be reckoned with, and continue to mount terrorist strikes almost on a weekly basis.

And the reason why they still keep on doing this over the years is quite simple: to generate fear among the local population, to make their presence felt, and, perhaps most importantly, to prove to the government that they remain destructive enough to be worth negotiating with.

As such, whenever the al-Shabaab has launched a successful attack, it will always claim responsibility immediately afterwards to make sure everybody learns about it, otherwise it would be a waste of their resources and efforts.

It is also for the same reason that under most circumstances, members of the al-Shabaab wouldn’t even bother to hide their identity in public, nor would they mount an attack at all costs, because it is simply against their principle of “cost-effectiveness”.

One of the foreign contractors that I met showed me a stack of photos, and drew my attention to one of them, which he said, based on his observations, is very likely to be a portrait of a bunch of al-Shabaab insurgents.

According to him, one of the most distinguishing features of al-Shabaab militants is that they always wear a keffiyeh and put on a pair of sandals, as opposed to most average young Somali men, who are pretty western when it comes to clothing styles and rarely wear the keffiyeh.

Another dead giveaway is that, as the contractor pointed out, the men in the photo were putting both of their hands in their trouser pockets.

For people who have been raised under western culture, this small habit has become so common and spontaneous that people often aren’t aware of it when they are doing this.

Nevertheless, interestingly though, I was told that the average Somalis actually rarely do this.

If a Somali man who wears traditional clothing puts his hands in his trouser pockets, chances are, he may have a concealed gun and be ready to draw it if necessary, the contractor said.

I asked my friend if he would put himself in danger by openly taking a picture of a suspected al-Shabaab insurgent. His answer was: “not really”.

It is because, he explained, these militants have a very calculating mind, and are very careful in choosing their targets: in most cases they would only go after easy prey in a hit-and-run fashion, namely, foreigners who are either alone or only slightly guarded when walking on the open streets.

My contractor friend also said al-Shabaab militants normally don’t “work” on weekdays, and mostly strike during weekends, when there are usually more vulnerable targets, so that they can maximize the “cost-effectiveness” of their attacks.

Besides, these al-Shabaab terrorists tend to follow a set pattern in choosing their attack routes, and therefore most locals and expats in Mogadishu are pretty well-versed on how to avoid dangers.

My friend, in fact, told me that despite being ruthless, al-Shabaab militants do understand the importance of exercising a certain degree of restraint when launching attacks, as they try to avoid antagonizing?the local population too much.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 22

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal