In Somali capital, a jihadist bombing tests a survivor’s limits

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When the explosions hit, Abdirahman Abdillahi Qassim, a street seller of gum, sweets, and cigarettes, was being assisted by his 11-year-old son, Ibrahim, near the Ministry of Education in Mogadishu.

The double suicide car bombing on Oct. 29, carried out by the jihadist Al Shabab, claimed more than 130 lives, so Mr. Abdirahman, pulled alive from the rubble, might be considered a fortunate man. Perhaps even more so because, remarkably, he also survived a massive truck bombing at the same Mogadishu market intersection in October 2017.

Yet that prior Al Shabab attack, which killed nearly 500 people, also took the lives of his wife, Faiza Ali Qassim, and their 14-year-old daughter, Amina. And it cost him a leg.

Why We Wrote This

Not one suicide bombing, but two. That is what one Somali man survived, remarkably. But his losses have been profound, testing his and Somalia’s resilience in the face of sustained attacks by Al Shabab jihadis.

This second attack took still more, robbing Mr. Abdirahman of his remaining leg – and his son.

His brother, Mohamed Abdillahi Qassim, tends to his wounded sibling night and day in a Mogadishu hospital. Tears come to his eyes and his voice cracks when he explains that he has not yet brought himself to tell his brother that Ibrahim did not survive.

Even by the grim standard of Somalia, which has endured 15 years of a heavy-handed and often brutal Al Shabab presence over swaths of its territory – including numerous lethal attacks against civilians – the tragedy experienced by Mr. Abdirahman and his family stands out as an especially horrific example of the costs to those living under the prolonged threat of jihadist violence. It is a national and personal saga that has played out while the world has been distracted by other more visible and accessible crises.

Survival has required personal resilience, but the events this family has endured – alongside the legions of other Somalis whose lives have been violated by the jihadis – are testing that resilience.

Al Shabab on the defensive

Indeed, one of the few things this Somali family says bring them a measure of happiness anymore is news that Al Shabab – often considered Al Qaeda’s most effective local franchise – is facing increasing losses on the battlefield in central Somalia, as the government vows “total war” and presses a new offensive.

Al Shabab has lost more territory in the past four months than in the previous five years, by some estimates, grimly raising expectations of yet more revenge attacks in the capital. On Sunday, for example, Al Shabab gunmen armed with explosives stormed the Villa Rose hotel, prompting overnight gunbattles and a daylong standoff at the downtown hotel frequented by government officials.

Feisal Omar/Reuters/File

Police officers stand guard near Hayat Hotel, the scene of an Al Shabab attack, in Mogadishu, Somalia, Aug. 21, 2022.

“Anything can happen, at any time,” says Mr. Mohamed, a well-known Somali singer with his own Al Shabab tale to tell. “Al Shabab are everywhere. They can be sitting with you like a friend,” he says. “They can be inside your family.”

The latest attack added to the abhorrence Mr. Abdirahman’s family feels toward Al Shabab, which has compounded Somalia’s worst drought in 40 years by destroying water sources and crops in affected areas. The United Nations warns that Somalia is on the cusp of famine, with 1.5 million Somalis facing “acute malnutrition.”

Al Shabab claimed responsibility for the deadly bombing, saying the Education Ministry was at the center of a “war on minds” that taught Somali children with a Christian-based syllabus, Reuters reported.

Now Mr. Abdirahman spends every day in a hospital bed, weeping as he recovers, his leg stumps bandaged.

“He has nothing left,” Mr. Mohamed says. “When he lost his wife and daughter, he tried to live again – and has now lost his son. … The worst thing is that we can’t do anything for our brother.”

Jihadis’ indiscriminate “tools”

In June, a senior Al Shabab leader, Mahad Karate, a former Somali intelligence officer, was asked by U.K. Channel Four’s Jamal Osman how the group justified killing Somali Muslims while claiming to fight for Islam.

“We are battling an enemy and killing each other,” he replied. “But due to the tools we are using to kill, there will be consequences not just for our targets, but for others, who are not our targets.”

The result on the ground is that more civilians have died in Al Shabab attacks so far this year than in any year since 2017, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

“Al Shabab are bad people who know nothing about humanity,” says Mr. Mohamed, adding that the family would leave Somalia “forever,” if the chance arose.

In fact, leaving the country for a time was a path already taken by the singer, who today wears a red “BOSS” baseball hat and a silver ring with a large green stone.

His own trouble with Al Shabab predates his brother’s losses from the 2017 bomb blast, when he started receiving telephone threats from the jihadis. They said his singing was against Islam.

Feisal Omar/Reuters

A deserted stretch along the Maka al-Mukarama street following an attack on the Villa Rose hotel by Al Shabab militants, in Mogadishu, Somalia, Nov. 28, 2022.

“They called me many times and told me, ‘It is haram [forbidden]. What are you doing? Stop,’” he recalls. “So every time I would go to work, I thought it was my last time.”

That was six years ago, and Mr. Mohamed fled to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where he stayed until early this year.

Al Shabab is watching

Then a song he made with his band about love and peace was posted on the internet, and it caught Al Shabab’s attention.

Four months ago, the singer got another call from Al Shabab.

“You came back,” the caller said. “We know your every move.”

“I’m very scared,” Mr. Mohamed acknowledges. He has reduced his singing engagements from five nights a week to just one. But he can’t leave Somalia because of his brother’s dire condition.

“I limit my work,” he says. “I stay in my house, because I fear for myself. I can’t afford bodyguards.”

Because of the threats, Mr. Mohamed did move his wife and children to a new town. His former neighbors, he says, appeared to sympathize with Al Shabab against his singing – and may have been spying for the group.

Breaking his own safety protocol, Mr. Mohamed gave several interviews on Somali television, saying it was a risk worth taking to get support or government action for his brother’s case. In those interviews, he stated clearly that Al Shabab was responsible for the intensity of his family’s grief – and for the suffering of so many Somali citizens.