Having been in Mogadishu for three weeks and living outside of the green zone in a guesthouse near Villa Somalia, I have had the opportunity to meet and talk with a wide variety of people—from top-ranking generals to local businessmen to owners of hotels and security companies. The one question I brought up with them all was, “How is Al-Shabaab (AS) still able to pull off these large-scale attacks in the city and conduct kidnappings and high-profile assassinations?”

What I have been told by a number of sources here in Mogadishu is that AS militants get used as local hit-men—other business have been known to facilitate these attacks. Now, having been here a while, I can understand this and have no doubt that it is true. If a rival business is doing well and they become your competitor, what better way to bring them down than to hire Al-Shabaab to kill them for you? No one will know, much less be able to prove, that Al-Shabaab was simply a proxy. Now I know what you are thinking: Who would do this and why? Let me give an example.

If you own what most outsiders need here—for example, a hotel—it is big business. Everyone who comes needs somewhere to stay. This brings big money if you are getting outside business from foreigners who are staying at your hotel. This is not so good if you own a nearby hotel that isn’t getting that business. But still, it is not worth killing over, right? But if that person is from a different clan, well…that’s worth fighting over here in Somalia.

So the answer is simple: Hire the local gunmen. In this case, it’s Al-Shabaab, because they are a terror group and want to make a point. They don’t just kill the one man they were hired to kill because that would look too suspicious. But they are a terror group, so they kill everyone, and the rest of the world can sleep easy at night knowing that it’s just another terrorist strike. The other business owner can sleep easy knowing that people will now take their business to him. This situation sounds like the drug cartel violence down in Mexico, and that is exactly what it is like here. In Somalia, you have corruption like nowhere else—a failed state, a ragtag police force and army, these things help cultivate the perfect environment for assholes like those in Al-Shabaab to grow.

(Image courtesy of Al Jazeera)

Now I know you’re still not convinced, but if you look at the last two big attacks here in Mogadishu, they are hotels. Those get quite a lot of business, and specifically, a lot of outside business. Not so much from Westerners, but from outsiders from Kenya and so on. My main contact here in Mogadishu tells me time and time again that Al-Shabaab does not really aim to just kill foreigners. I know what you are thinking: “Of course they do. They are a terrorist group!” Here in Somalia, if you are white, they won’t kill you because you are worth too much. In this place, it’s about survival, and money is surviving. So let’s take a look at this last attack on the 1st of November, 2015, in Mogadishu.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, I remember hearing some gunfire in the distance. Nothing new here; you often hear the odd shot or 10 through the night, so for me it’s nothing surprising. When I woke up at 0700, I heard there had been some big attack on a hotel in Mogadishu. So straightaway, I get on the phone with as many people as I can reach to find out what has happened. Here’s the way it went down.

In the early hours of the morning, Al-Shabaab infiltrated the city disguised as AMISOM soldiers and made their way to the heart of Mogadishu. Their target was the Sahafi hotel, where some MPs and General Adbikarim Yusuf Dhagabadam was staying. The hotel is also home to a few foreign journalists. They used a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) to breach the perimeter, and then 10-15 gunmen stormed the building. A local source reports that they went room to room, killing everyone. SOFREP spoke with a source close to the wife of the owner of that hotel, and this what she said:

“I was hiding in the wardrobe and my husband was hiding in the bathroom. They came into the room and looked around and under the bed, then they left the room. But something made them come back into the room and see my husband, where they shot him on sight.”

Then they continued to go from room to room killing civilians. SOFREP was also told of a high-ranking general that they killed—a hero here in Mogadishu. He helped liberate the city in 2012 from Al-Shabaab, but he did not go down without a fight. Police say he died with an AK in his hands. Once the police were on the scene, they had a shootout with the terrorists and then they called in backup. Alpha Group, Somalia’s CIA-trained counterterrorist unit, was called in and the area was shut down. It turned into a hostage-rescue mission from there out. By the afternoon, it was over. Twelve people died, with as many as 15 wounded. The area has been on lockdown since then, with forensic teams piecing it together.

Alpha Group
Somalian Alpha Group

The word on the street is that a rival hotel boss made this happen, and my guys here tell me that Al-Shabaab had no reason to kill the owner. No one can understand why he is dead, but with what his wife said about them clearing the hotel, searching for their room, and then coming back, I’m led to believe they were looking for someone in particular. I am also not really surprised that they got so far into the city, because the country’s checkpoints are nothing more than a joke. All of this just proves one thing: Mogadishu is far from safe. The local police need a good kick in the ass and professional training on a massive scale.

The hotels in Mogadishu also pay money for protection from Al-Shabaab. So the question is, why did they attack the Sahafi? Perhaps someone offered Al-Shabaab more money for the hit than they were getting from their protection racket. “Al-Shabaab is nothing more than an organized criminal unit that hijacked a religion,” a member of Alpha Group told me.

This just proves what they are: a criminal unit, mercenaries selling out to the highest bidder. There are many similarities between these guys and narco-traffickers. Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Abdiaziz Abu-Musab claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on Sunday.

(Featured image courtesy of agenciabrasil.ebc.com)