Somalia skies darken

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By: Martin Rivers

With local and international stakeholders now scrambling to tighten security across the industry, there are growing calls for enhanced background checks on airport employees in Mogadishu.

Anywhere else in the world, the bombing of an international passenger flight would attract round-the-clock media coverage and a global manhunt for the perpetrators.

In Somalia, however, more than two decades of brutal civil war have desensitised both the domestic population and the outside world to mass-casualty atrocities. Amid a seemingly endless cycle of indiscriminate violence in the country, even the deadliest terror attacks fail to hold the attention of the press.

So it was in January, when upwards of 100 Kenyan troops stationed in Somalia were killed in an attack on their army base by Al Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-linked terror group.

And so it was again on 2nd February, when a suicide bomber evaded security screening at Mogadishu Airport and exploded his device aboard Daallo Airlines Flight 159 to Djibouti. Mercifully for the other 73 passengers, the detonation occurred before the Airbus A321 had reached its cruising altitude – averting an explosive decompression that would almost certainly have killed everyone on-board.

Despite failing to bring down the plane, the bomb was powerful enough to tear a hole in the fuselage and send suicide bomber Abdullahi Borleh plummeting to his death. His badly burned corpse was recovered near Balad, 19 miles north of Mogadishu.

Investigators quickly realised that Daallo Airlines, a Somali-owned company, was probably not the intended target of the attack. Almost all of the passengers on Flight 159 – including Borleh – had originally booked themselves onto a Turkish Airlines service between Mogadishu and Djibouti. But they were transferred to Daallo at the last minute when Turkey’s flag-carrier grounded its flight, citing “bad weather conditions”.

“Whenever their passengers are stranded we do whatever we can,” Mohammed Yassin, Daallo’s chief executive, tells The Somalia Investor Magazine. “That is the normal way – not only between us and Turkish Airlines, but between all airlines … We just did what we were supposed to do.

“If this passenger [Borleh] was on Turkish Airlines, he would have done the same … He had a Turkish Airlines boarding pass.”

Turkey’s flag-carrier is the only major international airline that operates to Mogadishu, launching flights from Istanbul in 2012 as part of Ankara’s longstanding commitment to development in Somalia. The route later incorporated a stop in Djibouti and was bolstered to daily frequencies. But cancellations are a regular occurrence as the Turkish authorities respond to intelligence tip-offs and evolving security assessments.

Asked whether he believes that Turkish Airlines cancelled its flight for weather-related reasons – winds of up to 45mph were recorded on the evening of 1st February – Yassin is unequivocal. “I don’t buy that,” he says. “I think either they got a hint about this [plot] or maybe they consider Mogadishu unsafe for whatever reason. But I believe it was a security issue.”

He adds that the subsequent claim of responsibility by Al Shabaab is credible, though there is some “ambiguity” about the “interlinking” of the perpetrators. Security analysts describe Al Shabaab as a fractious organisation whose core leadership has limited control over semi-autonomous splinter groups. The recent establishment of an apparent Daesh affiliate, Jahba East Africa, underscores the fragmentary nature of the battlefield in Somalia.

Whichever organisation was ultimately responsible, Turkish Airlines responded swiftly by suspending its Djibouti-Mogadishu route and imposing an immediate media blackout. As of April, the flag-carrier is still refusing to confirm or deny plans for a resumption of flights.

That contrasts with Daallo and its local partner Jubba Airways, which stood their ground by quickly restoring operations after the bombing. The Somalia carriers ended two decades of rivalry last year when they merged to form the Africa Aero Alliance. Their combined route network presently centres on three bases – Mogadishu, Hargeisa and Djibouti – from where they serve three international destinations (Jeddah, Nairobi and Dubai) plus domestic points such as Bosaso, Galkayo and Garowe.

Although Yassin is still working to add Addis Ababa and Entebbe to the network, his attention has now shifted to security matters. “This has been a wake-up call for us,” he admits. “Everything that we have taken for granted, not any more.

“We have to continuously improve the security situation, and be proactive about it. [We have to consider] what could happen, where the threats may come from, how about [bombing attempts using] liquids, how about electronics. There are a lot of things now that everybody should look into. Not us only, but overall.”

Within days of the bombing, Vlatko Vodopivec, the pilot of the stricken aircraft, gave an interview to the Associated Press in which he described security at Mogadishu Airport as “zero”.

Yassin refuses to criticise those remarks, stressing that Vodopivec endured a traumatic experience in the cockpit and should be considered a “hero” for safely landing the aircraft. Even though the pilot is no longer working with Daallo, Yassin has invited him to visit Mogadishu once again so that the Somali people can express their gratitude for his life-saving actions.