Somalia suffers worst month on record for suicide bombings

In September 2023, Somalia suffered the most suicide bombings (and attempts) in a single month since Shabaab began utilizing the tactic in 2006. At least 14 attempted and successful suicide bombings were reported in September, accounting for the single highest monthly total for deployed suicide bombers in Somalia in seventeen years. 

Somali officials managed to thwart three suicide bombing attempts. All but one of the successful suicide bombings used suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs), or suicide car bombs, with just one instance of an explosive vest or belt. The tactic was used in a multitude of ways, including as part of wider assaults, attempted assassinations, and as part of terror attacks against civilians. And roughly half took place in central Somalia, the current scene of the heaviest fighting against Shabaab. 

All but two of the suicide bombings were targeting either the Somali government and officials, Somali troops, or Somali civilians themselves. The additional two suicide bombings targeted Ethiopian troops in two separate convoys in southern Somalia. 

At least 70 people were killed in these suicide bombings, though this number represents a conservative estimate and the realistic number is likely much higher. Somali and Ethiopian officials have downplayed or obfuscated fatality numbers for several of the blasts, making it challenging to record accurate numbers. 

Explaining this record high is likely a two-fold answer. First, though sporadic clashes and battles continue in central Somalia, the large-scale counter-offensive against Shabaab does not carry the same momentum it once did. This has allowed space for Shabaab to reconsolidate its forces and have a degree of freedom of movement, which Shabaab has exploited to deploy suicide bombers. Particularly, it has used this degree of freedom of movement to try to strike back at those in charge of the fight against it. 

For instance, on at least four separate occasions in September, Shabaab took advantage of this relative security lapse to try to assassinate both regional political leaders and the Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who is currently based in central Somalia overseeing the offensive against Shabaab. 

Second, the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) began its second phase of its withdrawal in September. An additional 3,000 troops are scheduled to leave Somalia. Taking the initiative, Shabaab has been more aggressive in its attacks and have attempted to capitalize on the ATMIS drawdown. Somalia, and several ATMIS members, have thus attempted to stymie Shabaab’s plans by requesting a pause on the withdrawal. The African Union itself has also backed this initiative. 

But taken together, weakened security conditions, matched by a Shabaab bent on striking back hard against Somalia and its allies, allowed for the al-Qaeda branch to double down on its suicide bombing tactic. That Shabaab was able to deploy so many stands as a reflection of both its remaining force projection capabilities and its withstanding indoctrination ability to recruit so many individuals to its suicide bombing program. 

Shabaab’s suicide bombing campaign

FDD’s Long War Journal has collated data on all of Shabaab’s suicide bombings since 2006, using both open source news reports and claims from Shabaab itself. Shabaab has utilized at least 411  individual suicide bombers in at least 341 separate operations in this timeframe, including 36 failed or thwarted attempts. It is possible, if not likely, these numbers are higher as some incidents were undoubtedly left unreported or unclaimed. 

A little over 3,000 people have been killed by Shabaab’s suicide bombers, which is again a conversative estimate. It is possible, if not likely, this number is much higher in reality. The single most deadly suicide bombing remains the Oct. 14, 2017 suicide bombing in Mogadishu, which killed at least 587 people. This attack also represents one of the worst terrorist bombings in world history. 

Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of its suicide bombings have taken place inside most areas of Somalia. However, it was successful in conducting suicide bombings in both Uganda and Djibouti, while Ethiopia and Kenya managed to thwart several additional attempts. It has also conducted at least four separate suicide bombings inside territory claimed or controlled by Somaliland, an independent territory that broke away from Somalia in 1991. 

Much like with the suicide bombings in Sept. 2023, Shabaab has used suicide bombers over the last seventeen years in a multitude of ways. This again includes as part of wider assaults on military bases, hotels, or government installations, attempted or successful assassinations, and as part of terror attacks against civilians. 

The overwhelming majority have also been SVBIEDs, with a smaller percentage being explosive vests/belts. Only five suicide bombings have employed three-wheeled motorcycles, or tuk-tuks, and one was the result of a laptop bomb on a plane. 

Roughly nine attempted or successful suicide bombings have been carried out by women, though the relative lack of reporting on a bomber’s specific gender makes this number harder to verify. 

Shabaab’s suicide bombing campaign thus represents the largest, and most robust, of al-Qaeda’s global branches. Even further, Shabaab currently stands as one of the world’s worst offenders of suicide terrorism. And with the group still currently vying for power in Somalia – so far withstanding major offensives against it – these numbers will continue to rise.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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