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Somalia’s Al Shabab launches suicide attack ahead of talks

A suicide car bomb attack, apparently aimed at two Somali lawmakers in the heart of the government-controlled center of Mogadishu, has left 15 people dead.

A suicide car bomb attack, apparently aimed at two Somali lawmakers in the heart of the government-controlled center of Mogadishu, has left 15 people dead. It’s the latest sign that the Islamist militant group Al Shabab – which claims a link with Al Qaeda – still has the capacity to disrupt, even as it loses territory under a three pronged assault by Kenya, Ethiopia, and the African-Union-backed government of Somalia itself.

The blast comes just two weeks before a conference in London to discuss possible long term solutions in Somalia, which has seen more than two decades of civil conflict, and the blossoming of a pirate industry that targets commercial ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean for ransom.

Al Shabab took credit for the Wednesday attack near the Muno Hotel in Mogadishu, reports Bloomberg. Police say the attackers rammed their car into a café at the hotel, opening fire on customers before detonating the car bomb.

“The holy suicide attack occurred as it was intended because the hotel housed so-called lawmakers who compete with Allah to draft a constitution,” Sheikh Abdi Aziz Abu Musab, a spokesman for the [Al Shabab] rebel movement, said in comments on Radio Andulus, a broadcaster controlled by the militia.

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Somalia’s Deputy Interior Minister Abdihakim Egeh said that the attack would not slow Somalia’s steady progress, reports Voice of America.

“After our government liberated Mogadishu, people are coming back to their houses; they are coming back to rebuild their destroyed businesses and houses, and, it’s really depressing to see something like this [Wednesday’s bombing],” Egeh said.

“I can assure you that the streets of Mogadishu are becoming safer and safer every day, and I’d like to take this moment to thank our security forces for making this possible,” Egeh said.

The attack came on the day of a visit by the European Union‘s new envoy to the Horn of Africa, Alexander Rondos, and just a few days after a similar visit by British Foreign Secretary William Hague. Both the EU and the British government – as well as several of Somalia’s neighbors — have increased their support for the shaky transitional government of Somalia, which has battled Al Shabab for control of the country since it came to power in 2008.

Britain will hold a conference on Feb. 23 to search for political solutions to Somalia’s multiple problems of extremism, clan conflict, and piracy, all of which significantly affect trade and the stability of the region.

While Wednesday’s suicide attack shows that Al Shabab still has the capacity to plan and carry out such attacks, it also comes at a time when the Islamist militia has been losing ground to Kenyan troops. On Feb. 1, Kenyan troops took the town of Badhadhe, a key transit point south of Al Shabab’s headquarters in the port city of Kismayo, reports the BBC. Kenyan troops launched their attacks on Somalia in mid-October, after a string of kidnappings and attacks on Kenyan soil emanating from Somalia. Ethiopia soon followed suit, moving into the border region around the Somali town of Beledweyne.

Somali government forces, meanwhile, have pushed Al Shabab out of Mogadishu itself, allowing Somali civilian families to return to their homes and businesses. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are 1.5 million people internally displaced by the combination of war and famine in Somalia, with another 770,000 seeking refuge in neighboring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya.

While Britain’s ambassador to Somalia, Matt Baugh, told Agence France Presse that the attack would only “strengthen our resolve” to help the Somali people secure their country, there are still substantial questions about whether this Feb. 23 conference will be able to achieve what multiple other conferences held in Djibouti have been unable to achieve.

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The greatest difficulty that Somalia faces is not Al Shabab, and not piracy, but rather the clan divisions that prevent Somali politicians from uniting the country. Since the fall of Somalia’s last unified government, the socialist regime of President Siad Barre, in 1991, Somalia has been divided along clan lines, with each clan arming itself to retain a voice at the negotiation table. Whenever one clan appears to dominate the government of the day, other clans take up armed resistance against it. Channeling that clannish tendency toward national unity is a challenge that has yet to be surmounted.