Somalia: Reporter's Notebook - Somali Journalist-Turned-Politician Survives Fifth Suicide Attack

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Washington — By all odds, Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimuu should not be alive to tell his story.

Five times, this Somali journalist-turned-government spokesperson has been nearby when a suicide bomber set off explosives. The most recent incident occurred Jan. 16, when a bomber targeted him in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

"As I was trying to move, a man, allegedly the suicide bomber, ran towards my vehicle near the Makka al-Mukarama Hotel," he told me earlier this week. "He grabbed the back side of my vehicle and blew himself up. I became unconscious and later woke up in a hospital bed in Mogadishu with my nose covered with life-supporting oxygen [equipment]."

He talked to me by phone from a hospital in Turkey, where he was airlifted 24 hours after the explosion.

Militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack. Moalimuu said his leg is broken and he has shrapnel wounds on his hand and shoulder.

But he said he is optimistic he will recover from the attack. He has healed several times before.

A close, lucky colleague

Moalimuu spent years working for the BBC, reporting on the all-too-frequent terrorist attacks and suicide bombings that have killed thousands of innocent people in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu.

As a former BBC reporter in Mogadishu myself, I was Moalimuu's colleague, roommate and a close friend. Together we covered bomb and mortar attacks and witnessed colleagues die, including BBC producer Kate Peyton, who died after being shot in the back outside a hotel in Mogadishu by a suspected Islamist gunman in 2006.

I personally survived an attack on a Banadir University graduation ceremony at the Shamo Hotel in 2009 that killed 25 people.

Moalimuu is known as a man of resilience by his colleagues in the media. Earlier this month, I saw that resilience and the danger when I visited Mogadishu for the first time in 11 years.

On Jan. 3, I was riding with him in the same vehicle that days later was targeted by the suicide bomber. After living 11 peaceful years in the U.S., I could see the danger and risks surrounding his life as we moved through Mogadishu streets and government checkpoints, which are often the target for terrorist attacks. But to my surprise he looked coolly calculating and daring.

At some point that day, I remember being suspicious about a teenage boy holding a black backpack and walking toward our vehicle. I feared he could be a suicide bomber. As he got closer, I froze and Moalimuu kept looking at him, but fortunately the young boy passed.

From his bed in Turkey, Moalimuu remembered the boy.

"That young boy we suspected the other day could be the suicide bomber, who targeted me. Sometimes, it is mind-boggling. Why would someone you do not know, who does not know you, want to kill you and himself?" he asked.

He also said living and working in Mogadishu can be exhausting.

"I sometimes get tired of observing around," he said. "Innocent people, schoolchildren and mothers are walking on the streets and terrorists are hiding among them. You do not know who is going to kill you where and when.

"Most of the time, I have been going through my days unaware, not thinking of our mortality," he said. "I cope by focusing on the things more directly in front of me as a journalist before and as a politician."

Five-time survivor

Moalimuu's first close brush with death came in June 2013. He was driving past a United Nations compound in Mogadishu when an al-Shabab suicide bomber blew up his car outside.

"I remember the remains of a suicide bomber landed on my car, smashing the windscreen," he said, adding that the event left him shocked but uninjured.

The second attack he survived was in August 2016, when al-Shabab fighters stormed a Lido Beach restaurant where he was sitting. He was wounded in the attack, which turned into a siege that lasted for hours.

"I survived by lying in my own blood, pretending to be dead," he recalled. "One of my friends, who was sitting with me, was already dead and his body was right in front of me."

The incident left scars on his face and, of course, mental trauma.

"It took me months to recover from that attack," he said.

He was injured again on Feb. 28, 2019, when al-Shabab launched a bomb-and-shooting attack at Maka al-Mukarama Hotel, killing at least 10 people.

And finally, he survived an al-Shabab attack on the beachside Elite Hotel on Aug. 17, 2020. At least 12 people were killed in that incident, along with five militants, according to police.

From that attack, he emerged unscathed.

To the extent that I know him, Moalimuu is a hardworking, charismatic, sympathetic, humble and very friendly person.

But this time, his last words in our conversation over the phone showed his anger toward terrorists.

"Terrorism is a devastating tactic and is almost impossible to defend against," he said. "But there is one thing I am sure of -- they cannot decide when a person is to die, and the proof is the magnitude of the suicide attack that targeted my vehicle and the injuries I sustained. Thanks to Allah."

Why did he stay?

A decade ago, I got a job at the VOA office in Washington, D.C., and decided to leave Mogadishu, in part because I feared for my life and that of my family.

Moalimuu had similar opportunities to live a peaceful life abroad. He turned them down, driven by his determination to tell the world what was happening in the Horn of Africa.

"If all of us run away, the criminals killing and tormenting my people will have triumphed. The world will not know the heinous crimes which are being committed," Moalimuu told me 10 years ago. I've kept that quote in a diary.

In our phone conversation, he added another reason why he stays: He could not leave loved ones in Somalia.

"You know when you have a family that depends on you and children that need you, it is hard to decide to leave them behind," he said.

Moalimuu recently transitioned to a new job, as a government spokesperson for the office of Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble. He is considering a run for a seat in parliament, although Somali elections remain indefinitely delayed because of disputes between rival political factions.

Despite his injuries, despite the possibility that the next terrorist attack will break his sorely tested luck, he is still willing to continue to work for the betterment of Somalia.

"Nothing will never discourage me to serve for my country and people," he told me over the phone. "My goal is to make a difference in the governing and legislation system, which I could not do as a journalist."

He has no illusions about the threats he faces.

"In Somalia," he said, "it does not matter whether you are ordinary civilian, journalist or politician. You are always in danger."

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