Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa, claimed credit for today’s bombing at the national theater that killed 10 people, including the presidents of Somalia’s Olympic committee and soccer federations.
The blast took place at an event that was attended by senior Somali officials, including Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, Al Jazeera reported. More than 30 people were wounded, including four members of parliament and two Somali reporters, according to Sunatimes.
Somalia’s defense minister said the attack was carried out by a female suicide bomber who was “less than 16 years old,” according to The Telegraph. She was denied entry to the event three times before being allowed in, he said. “We are already investigating how she came to be refused to enter three times, but was allowed in the fourth time,” Defense Minister Hassan Arab Isse said.
Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab claimed credit for the attack but did not indicate if it was carried out by a female suicide bomber.
“We were behind the theatre blast. We targeted the infidel ministers and legislators, and they were the casualties of today,” he told Reuters.
Shabaab also claimed the attack in three statements released on its Twitter account, HSM Press Office (or Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen). But Shabaab denied that the attack had been carried out by a female suicide bomber, and instead said a bomb that had been planted earlier was the cause of the explosion.
“This operation wasn’t carried out by female as they allege but everything was carefully planned & orchestrated by specially trained unit,” HSM Press Office said in one tweet.
“The Mujahideen successfully planted the explosives before the gathering, prompting the ineffective TFG [Transitional Federal Government] intel to speculate on how it occurred,” HSM Press Office continued in another tweet.
Shabaab has used female suicide bombers in the past. On June 10, 2011, a female suicide bomber killed Somalia’s interior minister in his home in a secured area of Mogadishu. Shabaab claimed credit for that attack and touted the fact that the interior minister’s niece executed it.
Today’s attack is the latest in a secured location in Mogadishu. The last such attack took place on March 14, when a Shabaab suicide bomber killed five people in a bombing inside the presidential palace compound in the Somali capital.
Shabaab and its predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union, have carried out more than 30 suicide attacks in Somalia since they sought to control the country in 2006 (the Islamic Courts Union was ousted from power a few months later, in an invasion by Ethiopian forces in December 2006). At least two of those suicide attacks were carried out by American citizens.
Shabaab has also executed a suicide attack outside Somalia’s borders: the July 11, 2010 double suicide attack in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 74 people. It was carried out by a suicide cell called the Saleh ali Nabhan Brigade, which is named after the al Qaeda leader who served as Shabaab’s military commander before he was killed in a US special operations raid in September 2009.
Shabaab and its Kenyan branch, the Muslim Youth Center, formally joined al Qaeda in February of this year. The east African terror groups were closely tied to al Qaeda for years prior, however; Shabaab leaders had openly proclaimed their allegiance to al Qaeda long before the official merger.
Today’s attack takes place as the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, is pressing the terror group on three fronts. Ethiopian troops have advanced from the west, seizing the cities of Baidoa, Beledweyne, and Hudur over the past several months. The African Union stated that Ethiopian forces would withdraw from Baidoa and Beledweyne in April, and will be replaced by 2,500 peacekeepers from Burundi, Uganda, and Djibouti.
Burundian and Ugandan forces have taken control of Mogadishu after Shabaab abandoned much of the city last summer, and are slowly pressing westward to Afgoye, a Shabaab stronghold just 15 miles outside of the capital.
In the south, Kenyan forces have established a buffer zone but have stopped short of taking control of the Shabaab strongholds of Afmadow and the port city of Kismayo. Kenyan troops have been fighting in Somalia since mid-October, and have only advanced to about 40 miles inside the country.
Shabaab still controls other major towns and cities along the coast between Kismayo and Mogadishu, including Jilib, Baraawe, and Merca.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.