The terror youth cell, who call themselves “al-Shabaab” or “the guys”, showed no mercy when their gunmen stormed a Somali hotel in a shocking slaughter which left a trail of bodies.
When it was over, the bloodied remains of 26 dead and at least 56 wounded were strewn throughout the Asasey hotel in the port city of Kismayo, 500km south of the capital Mogadishu.
The dead included YouTube star and prominent Canadian-Somali journalist, Hodan Nalayeh, 43 and her husband, Farid Jama Suleiman.
In a 12-hour battle by authorities to regain control, the gunfire in the attack was so intense, the walls of the hotel itself disintegrated.
The hotel is commonly frequented by politicians and local patrons of industry.
Al-Shabaab, also known as the Mujahideen’s Movement of Striving Youth, began as an armed wing in the early 2000s to wage war against the Somalian government and “enemies of Islam”.
Its most famous member is Britain’s “white widow”, Samantha Lewthwaite, the West’s most wanted terror suspect.
The Irish-born 35-year-old is currently the subject of an Interpol Red Notice, and a fugitive from justice in Kenya for orchestrating grenade attacks at non-Muslim places of worship.
Lewthwaite is also a suspect in the 2012 Mombasa sports bar attack, and the 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya.
Al-Shabaab splintered in 2011 and formed alliances with Al-Qaeda and the West African terrorist group famous for mass kidnapping of girls, Boko Haram.
In September 2014, a Somali government-led US drone attack killed the head of the group’s foreign legion, Ahmed Abdi Godane.
Five days later, Ahmad Umar was named his successor,
In October 2017, al-Shabaab carried out the truck bombing massacre in Mogadishu which killed 87 people and injured 316.
In Saturday’s attack, al-Shabaab blew up the gate of a Asasey hotel with a car bomb and at least four jihadis took over the building for 12 hours until Somali forces killed them.
Among the dead are three Kenyans, three Tanzanians, two Americans and a Briton, said Ahmed Madobe, the president of Jubaland regional state which controls Kismayo.
Witnesses told the BBC they heard a huge blast before several heavily armed men forced their way in.
“There is chaos inside, I saw several dead bodies carried from the scene and people are fleeing from the nearby buildings,” witness Hussein Muktar said during the attack.
Photos of the hotel after the attack showed the building peppered with bullet holes and scarred by heavy fighting.
Al-Shabaab, which often uses car bombs to infiltrate heavily fortified targets like the hotel, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The attack is a blow to the Somalia government’s efforts to hold nationwide, one-person one-vote elections next year.
Security officials cordoned off the site of the attack and prevented journalists from taking photos or video of the damaged hotel and in some cases destroyed journalists’ cameras. Government officials have not been available for further interviews.
“I’m absolutely devastated by the news of the death of our dear sister Hodan Nalayeh and her husband in a terrorist attack in Somalia today. What a loss to us. Her beautiful spirit shined through her work and the way she treated people,” Omar Suleiman, a Texas-based imam who knew the victim, wrote on social media.
Nalayeh was born in Somalia in 1976, but spent most of her life in Canada, first in Alberta and then in Toronto.
She founded Integration TV, an international web-based video production company aimed at Somali viewers around the world.
She was the first Somali woman media owner in the world.
Canadian Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen mourned Hodan Nalayeh’s death on Twitter, saying she “highlighted the community’s positive stories and contributions in Canada” through her work as a journalist. “We mourn her loss deeply, and all others killed in the Kismayo attack,” he wrote.
Nalayeh’s endless “positivity” and “love for people” was inspiring, said Canada’s New Democratic Party leader Andrea Horwath on Twitter.
“In Ontario, Hodan launched Integration TV to tell the beautiful stories of the Somali Diaspora, and took that same humanity and love to her reporting and storytelling in Somalia.
“My thoughts are with her family, and the victims of the Kismayo attack during this horrific time.”
A top official of the African Union condemned the attack.
“This is an attack meant to derail progress in Somalia as the country rebuilds and consolidates the gains made on peace and security,” said Francisco Madeira, special representative of the chairman of the African Union Commission. “Somalia has made tremendous progress in seizing territory and pushing out the terrorists from many places across the country.” He said the African Union’s multinational force in Somalia will continue to work to stabilise the country.
— AP journalist Natalie Schachar contributed from Mexico City