Mogadishu — After al-Shabaab commandos carried out a suicide attack Friday (February 21st) against the heavily fortified presidential palace Villa Somalia, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud pledged that the country's progress would "in no way be deterred" by the "enemies of peace".
The attack was timed around midday prayers, presumably to target government officials praying at the mosque inside the compound, located about 100 metres from the main gate.
An initial car bomb exploded at the perimeter of the complex, and then a group of al-Shabaab gunmen breached the Villa Somalia compound in an apparent repeat of tactics used during last year's attack on the United Nations compound.
Al-Shabaab immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
"Our commandos have attacked the so-called presidential palace in order to kill or arrest those who are inside," al-Shabaab military spokesman Sheikh Abdul Aziz Abu Musab told AFP.
"The airport, so-called presidential palace and anywhere in Somalia can be attacked as we plan," he warned, adding that the group wanted to show "that no place is safe for the apostate government".
At a press conference outside the gate where the explosion occurred, Somalia's Minister of National Security Abdikarim Hussein Guled said there were two suicide bombers and seven gunmen who were killed by security forces in the ensuing firefight.
Guled said five others were killed in the attack, including Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister's Office Mohamud Hersi Abdulle Indha-Asse and Somali National Army General Nur Mohamed Mohamud Shirdow.
Eyewitnesses tell of chaos and fear:
Asha Abdullahi Isse, who served as deputy minister of women's affairs during the administration of Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and lives near the compound, told Sabahi she heard two explosions five minutes apart at around 12:30 pm.
"We were all frightened [at first] as we were not sure whether the noise was coming from -- our house or the presidential compound," she said. "Ten minutes [after the explosion] we heard heavy gunfire from what seemed to be a firefight."
She later found out that at least two of her neighbours who were walking near the compound sustained injuries from the explosions.
Yasin Kamal, 32, a university student who also lives near the compound, said that while the attack was under way everyone in his neighbourhood froze in place out of fear.
"It was hard to find out what was happening," he said, underscoring the sense of confusion and chaos that took over. "Everyone was afraid that security forces would think they were part of al-Shabaab since whenever this group carries out attacks like this they try to mix themselves with regular citizens."
"One of the soldiers killed was my maternal uncle," he said. "When the situation cooled off we were informed by some of his soldier colleagues about his death."
Abdi Haji Goobdon, a retired Radio Mogadishu journalist who was inside Villa Somalia's mosque at the time of the attack, told Sabahi the explosion occurred as they waited for the president to arrive and the imam to begin the Friday prayer.
The room was filled with government officials including ministers and top aides when a loud explosion followed by heavy gunfire was heard.
People started fleeing the area and chaos ensued, he said. As he fled, he said he saw a man shooting the building where the presidential living quarters are located.
Goobdon said he followed about twenty others outside and into the back of the building where they found refuge in a basement room. About 30 minutes later a security guard told them things were under control and escorted them out of the compound, he said.
'Terrorists have staged a failed attack'
By around 3pm, the government announced that the complex was back under full control.
"Desperate violent terrorists have staged a failed attack," Guled told reporters.
"The government killed all the [individuals] behind that attack, the situation is under control now and I urge the Somali public to stay calm and help the national security forces," he told Radio Mogadishu.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was in the compound during the attack, was not harmed.
In a message on Twitter, United Nations Special Envoy to Somali Nicholas Kay confirmed the president was unharmed and said the "attack on Villa Somalia had failed".
"The Somali people are tired of shootings, bombings and killings," he said in a statement. "It is time for a new chapter in Somalia's history and we cannot allow a slide back at this critical time."
Special Representative of the Chairperson of the African Union Mahamat Saleh Annadif, in an AMISOM statement, said it was unconceivable to believe that people who say they are Muslims can choose a holy day in Islam to carry out this criminal act.
The official Twitter account for Villa Somalia also remained active during the attack, calling it a "media spectacular" and "another act of desperation from a dying animal".
In a statement after the attack, Mohamud sent condolences to the families of those killed and injured, and warned against "overestimating the strength of the terrorists".
The victims "include people who have dedicated their lives to making Somalia a better place and those who gave up successful careers in other countries and returned to Mogadishu to help a nation on its knees," he said.
"I would remind everyone that all our misguided enemies will achieve are short-lived media headlines, here one day and gone the next," Mohamud said. "What they will not achieve, however, is any noticeable impact on the work of our government as we seek to rebuild Somalia after decades of war."
The government will continue its mission "to continue improving security across the country, rebuilding a federal Somalia and providing the economic foundations for a more prosperous nation", the president pledged.
"An act of terrorism, however unspeakable, does not hide the truth that this is a marginal group on the brink of extinction," he said. "The military campaign we are fighting with brave Somali and AMISOM soldiers will eliminate our enemies."
An upsurge in al-Shabaab attacks, and attacks against al-Shabaab:
The attack comes amid an apparent upsurge of al-Shabaab bombings in and around Mogadishu.
Al-Shabaab claimed credit for a twin bombing at the Jazeera Hotel in Mogadishu on January 1st, boasting it was the start of its campaign for the new year.
Then at the beginning of February, al-Shabaab terrorised Mogadishu residents with two consecutive nights of mortar shelling in the vicinity of Villa Somalia and six other districts of the capital, although no casualties or property damage was reported.
Somali and allied forces have also carried out several high-profile strikes against the militant group.
On January 9th, Kenya Defence Forces and Somali government-allied Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa militia co-operated in an airstrike on an al-Shabaab training camp in Somalia's Gedo region that narrowly missed killing al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane.
Then on January 26th, the US military launched a drone strike against a convoy of vehicles Lower Shabelle region, killing senior al-Shabaab official Ahmed Abdulkadir Abdullahi, known as "Iskudhuq", and three other members of the militant group. This time, Godane was reportedly injured in the strike.
AMISOM forces also have begun gaining ground against the militant group in recent weeks, including in areas around Afmadow and Marka, and Ethiopian troops serving under AMISOM are beginning operations to remove al-Shabaab from El Dher, Galhareri and El Bur districts.