Behind the Suicide Bombing in Somalia

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Mowlid Abdi / Reuters

Islamist insurgents fighting the Somali government patrol the streets of Mogadishu

Weeks of heavy fighting in Somalia took an even deadlier turn on Thursday when a suicide bomber drove a car full of explosives into the front of a hotel in the west of the country, killing Somalia's National Security Minister, a former ambassador and at least 20 others. Somalia's extremist Islamist militia, al-Shabaab, said it carried out the attack.

The attack happened when a man steered a small car toward the gate of the Medina Hotel in Beledweyne, near the border with Ethiopia. The car veered into parked cars and exploded. National Security Minister Omar Hashi Aden and former Somali ambassador to Ethiopia Abdul Karim Farah Laqanyo were among those who died. "It was an act of terrorism, and it is part of the terrorist attack on our people," Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed told journalists in the capital, Mogadishu. "Al-Qaeda is attacking us."

In the capital of neighboring Kenya, Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke said he had information that more than 100 people were killed. The attack underlined fears that Somalia is developing into a third front in the war against terrorism and militant Islam. It also was the bloodiest episode in two months of heavy fighting in which Sharif's beleaguered government has consistently ceded ground and lives to Sharif's former allies in Somalia's hard-line Islamist movement.

The fighting, often in and around residential areas in Mogadishu, has killed hundreds and displaced more than 100,000. Hours before Thursday's attack, 17 people died in fighting in Mogadishu. Those deaths came just hours after Mogadishu police chief Ali Said Hassan was killed. The ferocity of the fighting and its high-profile victims raise the chances of Sharif's government falling to the Islamists.

Nairobi-based Somali analyst Abshir Hassan said of Thursday's attack: "It will change a lot on the ground, and it is a major setback to the government to lose this competent Minister." The fall of Sharif's government would represent a double blow, both to prospects for peace in Somalia and to forging a bridge between the Islamic and Western worlds. Sharif was a founder of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a hard-line Islamic law-and-order collective that briefly ruled Mogadishu for six months in 2006. The ICU succeeded in ejecting the country's warlords from the capital and imposed a modicum of rough justice. But after another ICU leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, declared a jihad on neighboring Ethiopia, Ethiopia invaded and toppled the ICU.

Sharif and Aweys agreed that all foreign troops must leave Somalia and supported a national resistance against them. But after Ethiopian troops pulled out in 2008, the two split. In January, Sharif formed a government that espouses Shari'a law but also seeks dialogue with the West. Aweys formed the more militant Hizbul Islam, which is seemingly opposed to any contact with the West. He also allies himself with al-Shabaab, originally the ICU's militia, which today, while publicly denying links to al-Qaeda, has managed to attract hundreds of foreign jihadis to its ranks.

If that collision of big guns and bad ideas weren't enough, lawlessness on land has spurred more of it at sea, making Somalia not only the world's most failed state and the home of its worst humanitarian crisis but also a center of piracy. The geo-strategic elements of this enduring catastrophe explain why it is watched blow by blow by both the U.S. and al-Qaeda.

Washington believes al-Shabaab still harbors two al-Qaeda bombers responsible for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and has launched air and missile strikes on suspected militants several times since early 2007, killing at least two Islamist leaders. Osama bin Laden makes frequent broadcasts urging Somalis to defeat Americans, Ethiopians and anyone with any connection to either. The stakes could hardly be higher, says analyst Hassan. "If these guys [the Islamists] succeed in taking over Somalia, they will create havoc in the entire continent. The world needs to act quickly."

With reporting by Abdiaziz Hassan / Nairobi