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Al-Shabaab’s Attack in Djibouti…

Not quite a game changer

On 24 May, an explosion rocked a restaurant popular with Europeans in Djibouti City’s Menelik Square. The incident left three dead and nearly a dozen wounded, two of the dead were Djiboutian security officers. French, Dutch and Spaniards were among the wounded. On 27 May, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack. This marked Djibouti’s first international terrorist attack on its soil.

What does this mean and should we be surprised?

Djibouti has historically been located in the eye of the Horn of Africa hurricane since the end of its civil war in 1994. A calm peaceful center, as its neighbors dealt with enormous insecurity challenges. It was only a matter of time before a terrorist event occurred in Djibouti.  Especially with al-Shabaab and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula operating near Djibouti which has hosted the French military since 1862 and the American Military since 2002. Earlier this month the U.S. renewed its military basing lease and agreed to pay Djibouti $63 million annually for the next ten-years.

Why this year? Why now?

It all boils down to “the reinvention of al-Shabaab“, as Matt Bryden so eloquently described it. Al-Shabaab’s leader Ahmed Abdi Godane consolidated power and has since executed the deadliest region-wide campaign of violence by a  Islamic extremist organization in East Africa. Al-Shabaab has targeted Mogadishu Hotels, a U.N. convoy, West Gate Mall, The Somali Parliament, and The Somali Presidential Compound in the last nine months. The frequency of high-profile attacks in Kenya and Somalia is on the rise… and now Djibouti. The message seems clear enough, Abdi is aggressively targeting its foreign adversaries in Somalia in their own backyards and there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the organization interfering with Abdi’s ambition.

There are two reasons to attack Djibouti. The country is host to a large western military presence and it is a troop contributing country to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Al-Shabaab first threatened Djibouti in the spring of 2011 when Djibouti announced its intention to join AMISOM. The attack has caused U.S. forces to lock down its facilities and many French residents are thinking about leaving Djibouti.

Why did they strike the La Chaumiere restaurant?

La Chaumiere is a soft target when it comes to restaurants frequented by westerners. La Chaumiere is in Menelik Square which is lined by nightclubs, bars and a couple outdoor cafe style restaurants. Many of the businesses there cater to westerners and only affluent locals are typically allowed inside the establishments. La Chaumire (aka the Sports Bar) is one of two large outdoor cafes and very popular with Europeans. The restaurants seating area was more accessible to the public than most other establishments in Djibouti.

How Will Djibouti Respond?

Security is already tight in Djibouti and this attack will likely cause security forces to strangle its capital. The country seen a fair amount of economic progress over the past 3 years. Next year’s GDP growth is expected to rise by over 6%. Two highrise buildings are under construction and there is a plan to build the country’s first mall. Djibouti has few resources, primarily camels and the port. There is little doubt President Guelleh seeks to reassure investors that it is still safe to invest in his nation. Even average Djiboutians are unlikely to stand for this. Djibouti City is not very big and the locals are proud and will assuredly be more vigilant. This may not be the last terrorist event in Djibouti but its unlikely al-Shabaab can effectively support a sustained terrorist campaign in Djibouti. This small nation should rebound from the attack but convincing Djibouti’s western guests that its safe to spend money downtown will be a considerable challenge.

 

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