By Scott Stewart
An explosion ripped through a residence Oct. 13 in the Bole district of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, killing two men. The Ethiopian government said the two were Somalis who were in Ethiopia illegally. News footage of the scene showed a pistol, hand grenades and bomb components discovered after the blast.
The incident occurred just prior to a highly publicized soccer game in which the Ethiopian national team played a World Cup qualification match against the Nigerian national team in an Addis Ababa stadium just a few miles from the site of the explosion. An Ethiopian government spokesman noted Oct. 14 that an intact suicide vest and a soccer shirt were found at the site of the explosion, indicating that the two men likely intended to use their weapons and explosives to attack the stadium during the match or one of the many venues where large crowds would gather to watch the game on television. While the Ethiopians lost the soccer match against Nigeria, their luck clearly was better when the explosion killed the two would-be assailants before they could strike.
Ethiopia has long been wracked by terrorist attacks conducted by insurgent groups such as the Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front. Such groups have used improvised explosive devices and carried out armed assaults or ambushes in the past, including attacks in Addis Ababa. These nationalistic groups have not, however, employed suicide attacks before. In fact, the Ogaden National Liberation Front has released press statements describing al Shabaab suicide attacks as cowardly. The apparent planned suicide attack in this incident by two men of Somali origin suggests al Shabaab or al Shabaab sympathizers were behind the attack aborted by the explosion.
Al Shabaab in fact claimed responsibility for the failed attack via its Twitter account. The group also claimed to have placed other explosive devices on Churchill Avenue at the Piazza in the heart of the Ethiopian capital, but a subsequent search of the area found nothing. Al Shabaab also claimed on Twitter on Oct. 15 that the operation was in fact intended to target the soccer match.
Al Shabaab and its predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union, has threatened to conduct attacks in Ethiopia since shortly after the 2006 invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian troops that resulted in the unseating of the Islamic Courts Union government in early 2007 — and the emergence of al Shabaab as an insurgent and terrorist group. Indeed, Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, the Somali jihadist group that preceded and helped spawn the Islamic Courts Union, had been threatening to attack Ethiopia since the 1990s.
Despite some thwarted plots and low-level bombings that may have been linked to al Shabaab — for example, it claimed responsibility for a November 2007 bombing at a hotel in Dolo, Ethiopia — al Shabaab’s threats against Ethiopia have been largely empty.
If the claims of the Ethiopian government and al Shabaab are true in this case and the deceased pair indeed planned to attack soccer fans, this would be eerily similar to the July 11, 2010, al Shabaab attack in Kampala, Uganda, in which a coordinated suicide attack using three improvised explosive devices struck crowds watching World Cup matches. The Kampala attack killed 70 and wounded scores more. Uganda has troops in Somalia, as do Ethiopia and Kenya. While Ethiopia is undertaking a unilateral military mission in Somalia, Kenyan and Ugandan troops are supporting the African Union Mission to Somalia, which seeks to help the government of Somalia in its struggle against al Shabaab. (Burundi, Djibouti and Sierra Leone also have troops deployed to the country under the aegis of the African Union Mission to Somalia.)
Like Kenya, where al Shabaab attacked the Westgate Mall on Sept. 21, Ethiopia hosts a large population of Somalis displaced by decades of famine, war and the lack of a stable government. In addition to the displaced Somalis, there is also an ethnically Somali area of Ethiopia with a sizable population. All told, some 8 million Somalis reside in Ethiopia, comprising the country’s third-largest ethnic group. Similar to Somali diaspora populations elsewhere, including in the United States and Europe, a small percentage of Somalis in Ethiopia are sympathetic to al Shabaab.
If the explosion in Addis Ababa was indeed an al Shabaab operation, this would clearly indicate a shift in the group’s intent to act on the threats they have made against the countries with troops in Somalia. Three years separated the Kampala attack and the Westgate Mall attack, but only a month passed between the Westgate Mall attack and the explosion in Addis Ababa, indicating that al Shabaab appears to have increased the tempo of its attacks outside Somalia. This change of intent and corresponding increase in operational tempo means al Shabaab could be plotting other strikes in countries with troops in Somalia.
However, even if al Shabaab wants to increase the frequency and range of its operations, the group will be limited in what it can do because it lacks the sophisticated terrorist tradecraft required to conduct more sophisticated attacks. This is especially true the farther one gets from its home base in Somalia.
As we noted in the aftermath of the Westgate Mall attack, the operation employed attackers using common insurgent weapons (assault rifles and hand grenades) and rudimentary insurgent tactics rather than more sophisticated terrorist tradecraft and weaponry. This was made possible because al Shabaab has a robust support network in Kenya and access to military weapons. The presence of a pistol, hand grenades and electrical blasting caps in Addis Ababa likewise shows that al Shabaab also has ready access to military ordnance inside Ethiopia.
The presence of the bomb components in the rented residence where the detonation occurred suggests that the explosion occurred during the assembly of an improvised explosive device or from the premature detonation of an already completed device. The sloppy workmanship on a firing chain for a bomb found intact at the residence, which had numerous connections taped together with electrical tape as part of the improvised wiring harness and was hooked to three electrical detonators and a nine-volt battery, makes an accidental detonation of an explosive device with a similarly constructed firing chain easy to envisage.
It is far easier to assemble improvised explosive devices from military-grade or commercial explosive components than it is to manufacture components from scratch. That the two operatives in Addis Ababa failed to accomplish this without killing themselves demonstrates their lack of bombmaking tradecraft. If a bombmaker struggles to make a device from manufactured components in Ethiopia, the chances of that individual manufacturing a viable device from scratch in a more hostile environment — like the United States or the United Kingdom — are fairly remote.
As we noted after the Nairobi attack, al Shabaab has shown the ability to conduct complex attacks inside Somalia using both insurgent and terrorist tactics. Its terrorist attacks in Somalia have involved the successful deployment of suicide bombers and large vehicle bombs. But to date, al Shabaab has yet to demonstrate the ability to conduct anything more than rudimentary attacks outside Somalia. The botched attack in Addis Ababa confirms our assessment of its limited ability to project a terrorist capability. Before the group can pose a transnational threat, it must develop the capability to dispatch operatives trained in advanced terrorist tradecraft to conduct missions in hostile environments. Thus, at present the group appears to continue to pose a regional threat rather than a true transnational one. But even with this limited capability it can be deadly within the region.