Recent Explosion Raises Questions on Al Shabaab Targeting Airlines

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On Tuesday, February 2, 2016 a Daallo Airlines commercial plane traveling from Mogadishu to Djibouti was forced to land just minutes after take off due to a breach in its hull. One of the passengers was killed after being sucked out of the plane, but the other 74 passengers were safely evacuated after landing.

It is currently unclear what caused the large hole, but most facts point towards an explosive. Black soot covered the area around the hole, which is typical for an explosive, and John Goglia, a former member of the US National Transportation Safety Board and aviation safety expert, believes all signs point to an explosive.

If it were an explosive, it could have been set to a timer, and detonated when the plane was not yet fully pressurized, which would have limited the overall damage. There has been no claim of responsibility.

If terrorism was involved, the obvious primary suspect is Al Shabaab, although the Somali terrorist organization does not have track record of utilizing on board explosives.

The group does have a history of conducting targeted killings of key Somali political figures however, and Somalia’s deputy ambassador to the UN Awale Kullane was onboard the flight.

Al Shabaab has been known to target Somali political figures and UN officials in the past.


  • July 25, 2015, Abdullahi Hussein Mohamud Bantu, a member of Somalia’s Parliament, was killed in a drive-by.
  • July 26, 2015, a suicide car bomb detonated outside the Jazeera hotel killing a Chinese embassy worker. The hotel was also known to be attended by foreign diplomats from all over the world.
  • February 2015, Al Shabaab detonated another suicide bomb at the Central Hotel killing the Somali deputy Prime Minister.
  • June 24, 2015, Al Shabaab targeted a convoy filled with UAE officials. The officials remained unharmed, but three Somalis were killed.
  • In December 2014, Al Shabaab targeted a UN convoy near the Mogadishu Airport that killed two people.

While it remains unclear that Kullane was an intended target, it seems likely that Al Shabaab has the intelligence capabilities to acquire the ambassador’s movement schedule in order to conduct such an attack.  Al Shabaab’s intelligence wing, known as the Aminiyaat, is known to have successfully placed assets in the Somali transitional government’s security and diplomatic branches, and utilized intelligence to coordinate rapid attacks.

In March of last year the FAA cited the greatest threat to U.S. aviation in Somalia as Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), which Al Shabaab is suspected to possess.

But in this case the evidence points to an onboard explosion. This would support the Transportation Security Agency’s (TSA) view that non-metallic IEDs remain the terrorist’s weapons of choice.

While Al Shabaab doesn’t have a history of creating such devices, it would be able to leverage its ties with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in order to acquire this expertise. AQAP has been responsible for several attempts to detonate explosives onto airplanes in the past, and stationed nearby in Yemen. In April of last year Fox News reported that AQAP was facilitating Al Shabaab’s training in conduct major plots.

It is not currently possible to determine with certainty who was responsible for the breach in the plane, and the Somali government’s rush to deny that terrorism played a role may cloud the future investigation.

However, if Al Shabaab was involved, it would suggest that while the organization may be willing to branch out into new tactics, its overall objective remains the aggressive targeting Somali government personnel.

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