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What led to the deadly attack on a popular hotel in Somalia's capital Mogadishu?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group, stormed a popular hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia, the other day. Somali forces pushed back and ended a 30-hour siege, but the attack left 21 people dead and dozens wounded. Let's talk about this with Omar Mahmoud, who is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. His focus is East Africa. Welcome to the program.

OMAR MAHMOUD: Thank you very much for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: I feel that Americans may need a reorientation on al-Shabab. They haven't been in the news very much here lately. Who are they, and what do they want?

MAHMOUD: Well, al-Shabab is a militant Islamist group that's been present in Somalia, fighting against the government there for about the past 15 years. They were born out of an Ethiopian invasion to Somalia and started out as resisting that, but over time have become really the dominant governing actor in rural areas of Somalia, while the government's hunkered down in sort of the urban centers. But they're pushing for their version of Islamic Sharia law to be implemented across Somalia, and that's where they've continued this fight against the Somali government.

INSKEEP: If their strength is in the rural areas, is it surprising they would get into Mogadishu and assault a hotel on this scale?

MAHMOUD: Well, their strength is in the rural areas, but they maintain the ability to penetrate urban centers and urban centers controlled by the government as well. So we've seen attacks like this quite frequently, honestly. You know, the past year or two, they had tapered off, but before that, this type of incident, unfortunately, was a regular occurrence.

INSKEEP: As you talk about this rural-urban divide, I immediately think of Afghanistan, where the Taliban controlled rural areas long before they could control the cities. It was thought the cities could hold out, and that turned out not to be true. Are there any parallels here?

MAHMOUD: Yeah. I mean, I think there's always many contextual differences between two different circumstances. But I think, of course, you know, we can't fail to see some of the parallels as well. And al-Shabab's strength is really being able to hold those rural areas because that allows them access to populations in order to supplement their recruitment. It allows them to tax and have extortion practices along some of the trade routes. And so that's really kind of their center of gravity, and that's what helps them conduct the penetration into urban areas as well.

INSKEEP: What kind of strength does the government have to push back?

MAHMOUD: Well, the government does have a number of advantages with it. You know, it has international backing. For example, there is a African Union peacekeeping mission, which helps protect the government in urban centers. There's, of course, the U.S. military presence. President Trump, in the waning days, had announced he was repositioning some of those troops out of Somalia, but President Biden has brought them back in. There's a little bit of air power with that as well. We have to remember, though, this is a government that's still been formed. You know, 15 years ago, it didn't exist at all. So it's still slowly coming into its own, but it does have significant outside support.

INSKEEP: You mentioned the U.S. presence. In your judgment, has the U.S. presence been constructive, helpful there?

MAHMOUD: I think it's been helpful, but insufficient. And by that, I mean the U.S. presence has focused very much from a counterterrorism perspective, very much from a military perspective. And there have been some successes there. There's an elite part of the Somali National Army that's been trained by the U.S. that's done quite well. And some of the drone strikes do keep pressure on Shabab. But the problem is that the military is only part of the solution. There's not as much focus on the political work, on terms of the reconciliation, in terms of getting the Somali government to function politically and in a manner that can also match the coherence of an organization like Shabab. So I think it's part of the puzzle, but it hasn't been the full part.

INSKEEP: Omar Mahmoud is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. Thanks so much.

MAHMOUD: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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