Partnering with Somalia's Police to Build Counterterrorism Capacity

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Ambulances carry wounded victims past the scene of a truck bomb blast in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Ambulances carry wounded victims past the scene of a truck bomb blast in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Partnering with Somalia's Police to Build Counterterrorism Capacity

On the afternoon of October 14, 2017, two bombs exploded in downtown Mogadishu. The first and larger of the two bombs, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, killed and injured hundreds of people, leveled two city blocks, collapsed nearby buildings, and left an enormous crater near one of the city’s major intersections. At least 400 people died, among them American citizens, and fatalities are likely to rise as other victims succumb to serious injuries. 

The first bombing -- the deadliest single attack in Somalia’s history -- “was our 9/11,” said General Bashir Abdi Mohamed, the Deputy Commissioner of the Somali Police Force. Speaking to officials from the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau on October 22 at the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Philadelphia, he explained, “No Somali was untouched.” Grief-stricken citizens across the country donated food, medicine, and other supplies to the victims and their families. Somalis of all walks of life mobilized to demonstrate their outrage against the perpetrators, engaging in seven continuous days of protests. Not only are Somali citizens united in their condemnation of the killings, but the barbarity of the attacks appears to have unsettled those once sympathetic to al-Shabaab, with some reaching out to law enforcement with tips about the organization.   

Somalia Police Force officers at the crime scene for processing and investigation. (State Department photo)

One element working to turn the tide in Somalia’s fight against terrorism is an elite Somali Police Force unit that arrived on the scene within minutes of the first explosion. An on-duty Joint Investigative Team cordoned off the site, began collecting evidence, and gathering statements from survivors at the scene and at local hospitals. When the second blast -- also from a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device – occurred moments later, another Joint Investigative Team responded to the scene immediately to investigate.

These teams were established in 2014 with the assistance of the State Department. Since then, they have responded to over 250 major incidents, systematically collecting and analyzing evidence that has been used to identify terrorist perpetrators, their networks, and bring them to justice. They were on the scene to investigate the bombing of Daallo Airlines Flight 159 in February 2016, when terrorists attempted to bring the flight down with a laptop bomb. The team's work facilitated the submission of evidence to prosecutors and court testimony that resulted in multiple convictions. Their investigation of a November 2016 attack in Mogadishu’s Little Liberia neighborhood resulted in the conviction of three individuals involved in the attack. These successes come at a high cost -- to date, three team members have died and four officers have been wounded in the line of duty.  

The Joint Investigative Teams are the first Somali Police Force unit trained to perform a specialized mission, in this case responding to and investigating terrorist attacks. Rather than considering suicide bombings or other attacks as "case closed" with the deaths of the attackers -- as per previous practice -- they use the skills developed during years of training and mentoring to meticulously develop a case against those involved in planning and facilitating the attack.

Through their hard work and dedication, the Joint Investigative Teams are changing the public's perception of the police. General Bashir says their work is just beginning. While responding to attacks is important, he wants the Somali Police Force to become increasingly proactive, and capable of detecting and disrupting plots. He also wants to improve the Somali Police Force's ability to communicate and engage with the Somali people. “We have big expectations for the Somali police.  Now we need to close the gap between our expectations and our performance.” During the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference, Bashir discussed police capacity-building plans with State Department officials and exchanged ideas with counterparts from police organizations across the United States and around the world. The support from the State Department sends a clear message: “you are not alone.”

About the Author: Sam Pineda is Director in the Office of Programs, Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.