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A year ago, Somalis dared to hope this troubled east African country had turned a corner, leaving behind the chaos and violence of a past marred by terrorism.
Now, residents are bracing for fresh attacks as extremists seek revenge following the death of Ahmed Abdi Godane — leader of the militant group al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda linked organization in Africa — earlier this week by a U.S. airstrike.
On Saturday, government facilities in the capital of Mogadishu were placed on high alert after Somalia’s national security minister, Gen. Khalif Ahmed Ereg, said the government had credible intelligence that militants are planning attacks. In a televised speech Friday night, Ereg said targets could include medical and educational institutions.
Residents here wonder what went wrong: A year ago, it was rare to encounter roaming bands of gunmen in Mogadishu. However, that stability was always fragile at best, and gunmen began returning earlier this year as militants, who never really went left, grew increasingly emboldened.
Now, pickup trucks packed with young men manning recoil-free anti-aircraft guns mounted in the back have again become a common sight. The gunmen regularly extort tolls from drivers and go on looting sprees in the city and countryside, unhindered.
“There are no police, no one to even call when there is trouble,” said Abroone Abukar, a farmer who grows bananas, lemons and papaya. “Sometimes men with guns will just come and take our produce right as we are harvesting it, like they have been watching us and waiting to take it from us. Once I was captured and even tortured for a while.”
Recently near Lido Beach on the Indian Ocean, six men set up a roadblock with empty barrels and, armed with AK-47 machine guns, stopped traffic and demanded payment. Drivers handed them a pack of cigarettes to pass.
As the militias returned, so did al-Shabaab, which imposed strict Sharia laws in rural parts of the war-torn country.
Late last year, the United States military deployed advisers to Somalia to help the government and African Union combat the group. It was the first time American troops landed in the East African country since 1993 when militants shot down two Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 servicemen.
“Al-Shabaab never went away as a credible threat in Somalia,” said Ahmed Soliman, an Africa specialist at Chatham House in London. “It was an illusion they would be removed within a year or two years and not pose a significant threat.”
Islamic courts that arose out of the turmoil that consumed Mogadishu throughout the 1990s established al-Shabaab in 2006 as a law enforcement group. But, as the group organized terror attacks outside Somalia, the international community took action.
In late 2011, African Union troops forced al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu. The group retreated to the countryside but still pursued its goals of establishing a radical Islamic government and expelling foreigners from the country. The group repeatedly tried and executed Somalis and others charged with spying for the Somali government or Western intelligence agencies.
“There have been clear victories against al-Shabaab in certain parts of the country,” Soliman said. “But, especially in rural areas, al-Shabaab is able to regroup, assimilate, train. It is much more fluid and flexible than the African Union troops in Somalia.”
Since it killed more than 15 people at a U.N. compound in central Mogadishu last year, al-Shabaab’s attacks have increased in boldness and frequency. The group has also targeted neighboring countries, seizing a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, that killed 67, while continuing to attack targets on the coast especially in Mombasa.
At home, suicide car bomb attacks, often on Somali politicians, leave handfuls of casualties in their wake. Attacks on the parliament and presidential palace in Mogadishu are commonplace.
“The capacity of the central government is fairly weak,” Soliman said. “There seems to be a quite a lot of internal fighting between different ministers and parliamentarians.”
Mahad Ahmed Mohamud, the principal of Hamar Jajab, considered one of the best schools in Somalia, said the increasingly unstable situation is undermining the progress made in recent years.
“How do you expect students to concentrate on their classes when on the way to school they see armed men racing through the streets and when in class gunshots are heard outside?” he said.
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