Suicide Bombing Marks a Grim New Turn for Somalia

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Mohamed Dahir / AFP / Getty

A man lies wounded at the scene of a suicide bomb attack during a university student graduation ceremony in Mogadishu.

The ceremony was meant to celebrate the graduation of 43 medical students from Benadir University, a school founded in 2002 to help replace the hundreds of Somali doctors who have died in or fled Somalia's 18-year-long civil war. Instead, Thursday's ceremony in Mogadishu, capital of the world's most failed state, became another bloody reminder of just how far the country has sunk. Midway through the event, a male suicide bomber disguised as a woman in a long black abaya, veil and shoes, blew himself up, killing three government ministers and 16 other people in a devastating blow to the country's weak transitional government.

The al Shabaab militia, a rebel group linked to al-Qaeda, quickly claimed responsibility for the attack. In an interview with TIME, a man who identified himself as Sheikh Abdifatah, a senior al Shabaab official in Mogadishu, said the group had targeted the ceremony as part of its war on the U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government. More attacks are to come, he warned. "We did not target the students —our target was the TFG, and each day and every hour we will keep fighting ... Our goal is to target the enemy of Allah. We will never give up pursuing the enemy of Allah.

The choice of targets appears to have been a demonstration of the group's power because it occurred in one of the few remaining areas of Mogadishu that the Transitional Federal Government still controls. Al Shabaab fighters have advanced steadily across the country in recent months, while the TFG has been unable to expand its own control despite the backing of the United States, other western powers and neighboring powers Ethiopia and Kenya.

Witnesses said the bomber sat through several of the speeches before he stood up, walked toward the podium and detonated the explosives strapped to his body. They described a scene of horror, with body parts strewn across the hall. "We denounce in the strongest terms the blast which was carried out by the armed rebels fighting the government," Somali President Sharif Sheik Ahmed Sharif said at a news conference. "We cannot tackle those violent elements alone and we call on the international community to rush to help us fight them."

The African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, AMISOM, put the death toll at 19, with dozens wounded. Among the dead were Education Minister Ahmed Abdulahi Wayeel, Health Minister Qamar Aden Ali and Higher Education Minister Ibrahim Hassan Addow. Two Somali journalists and a cameraman with Dubai-based Al Arabiya also died. Thursday's attack underscored the way in which the Islamic rebel groups in Somalia are adopting tactics perfect by al- Qaeda and its allies. Suicide bombings were rare in Somalia until recently, a fact that security experts say shows the influence — and training — al-Qaeda is bringing to the lawless Horn of Africa nation.

"The Shabaab are a hard-core al-Qaeda group, and they are really establishing a foothold and deepening their bases in Somalia," Nuruddin Dirie, a London-based Somalia analyst and former presidential candidate in its Puntland region, tells TIME. "We knew they would target the government officials, but a hotel setting, targeting the graduating students, it tells us quite a lot about how ruthless, how uncaring this enemy is."

Sheikh Abdifatah, the al Shabaab official, says that the group had indeed received funding from al-Qaeda, along with other financers. He said the group does not distinguish between foreign or Somali fighters, so long as they seek the same goal. "We are in international Jihad against the enemies of Allah, so here on the ground we are all the same — we do not say this is al-Qaeda, this is foreign. We are all the same," he said. "Our next step is to continue the jihad until the foreign troops and TFG is removed together from the country."

Western powers offered their help after Thursday's blast, though they gave no specifics. The West has been unable to solve the al Shabaab riddle or figure out how to bestow enough power and authority on the Transitional Federal Government so that it can wrest control of the country back from the militants. President Barack Obama mentioned Somalia as one of the next battlegrounds in the fight against al Qaeda in his December 1 speech on Afghanistan. The United States supplied 40 tons of weapons to the TFG in June, but a security expert has told TIME that those guns ended up for sale in downtown Mogadishu.

In the meantime, the humanitarian crisis in Somalia gets worse. On Dec. 1, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs announced it was seeking $689 million in 2010 to address the country's problems. OCHA said that more than 3.6 million Somalis — more than a third of the population — need emergency help. Benadir medical school was supposed to help fix Somalia's all but nonexistent health system. Its motto is "Towards a better future." Today, that future was ripped apart.