Theatre bomb attack sends Mogadishu back to the dark days

Al-Shabaab rebels in Somalia claimed responsibility for the attack on Mogadishu's National Theatre. Photo: REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Al-Shabaab's objective today, as ever, was to murder and to maim.

But this morning's deadly blast at the newly-reopened Mogadishu National Theatre was an emblematic attack on the transition towards peace that the building has come to represent.

Mogadishu has changed since al-Shabaab militants were forced from most of the city last summer. 'Normality' has started to return to the the most dangerous capital in the world. Its streets now seem more 'chaotic' than 'lawless'.

But today Mogadishu stepped back in time - to those darks days that seemed like so long ago. A teenage girl strapped with explosives blew herself up as politicians and dignitaries gathered to celebrate the first anniversary of Somali National Television.

At least eight people were killed, according to local reports. The country's football and Olympics chiefs were among the dead. An Al-Shabaab spokesman sent this gleeful tweet:

Shabaab had banned public art, so a new theatre, a creative hub in the heart of the capital, had been a powerful statement about modern Somalia. Plays about peacetime Mogadishu were due to be staged there. Young actors and directors would come from around the country to excel in their art. No more.

The militants have struck back. And there is fear in Mogadishu that al-Shabaab has returned.

Residents carry the body of a woman killed in the explosion. Credit: Reuters

But today's strike shows signs of desperation too.

Facing failure on the frontline, the militants have resorted to asymmetric attacks, 'one-offs' targetting high-profile venues, including the presidential palace.

Assessed in isolation, each appears to be a show of strength. Together, they indicate a strategy that is incoherent and weak.

The group is divided and in retreat. Their soldiers, thought to include as many as 50 British nationals, are fighting a losing battle with Kenya, which has invaded parts of Somalia.

Earlier this year it was forced into a merger with al Qaeda - a meeting of minds which led to the formation of a terrorist super-group which spans much of the developing world. But there is little evidence that the new group has gained any ground in East Africa.

So although the flimsy Somali government might look flimsier than it has done for months, al-Shabaab is far from the peak of its powers too.