What the Somalia bombing ahead of Erdoğan’s visit shows

What the Somalia bombing ahead of Erdoğan’s visit shows

An attack against a hotel in the Somali capital of Mogadishu on Jan. 22 killed five people, including two suicide bombers, on the eve of Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Somalia. A Turkish delegation preparing for Erdoğan’s visit has been staying at the hotel, in front of which a Turkish flag had been raised. Yet another terrorist attack to be condemned...

Reuters reported that al-Shabaab, the Somalian branch of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack. Al-Shabaab had previously attacked the Turkish Embassy and Turkish Airlines targets in Somalia in 2013. It had also hit Istanbul in 2003 in twin attacks on Nov. 15 and 20, killing a total of 54 people and wounding dozens.

Erdoğan, who was in Ethiopia yesterday as the first stop of his East Africa tour, made it clear through the Turkish Embassy in Mogadishu that he was not going to cancel his trip just because of the terrorist attack. For his second stop, Erdoğan is scheduled to visit Djibouti, before heading to Somalia.

The attack took place at a critical time. On the same day, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was in London to attend an international conference on counter-terrorism, with a particular focus on jihadist movements - particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda.

In Yemen, on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, right across from Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia across the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, the Houthi ethnic-based Ansarullah movement, backed by Iran, has just staged a coup. Power-sharing talks are now under way with the current government. 

Yemen is a country with major al-Qaeda activity. The Yemeni branch of al-Qadea claimed responsibility for the Jan. 7 attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, which left a total of 20 lives behind, nine of them being the artists and writers of the magazine that printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad despite threats. The leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, is currently second after Ayman al-Zawahiri in the al-Qaeda network, after Osama bin Laden was killed by American Special Forces in 2011.

Earlier in the week, an Israeli attack killed leading Hezbollah figures near the Golan Heights in Syria, as well as an Iranian general. The targets were heavily involved in the civil war in Syria in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Meanwhile, al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, is fighting a war against al-Assad, but ISIL has its own agenda, not necessarily against al-Assad, or Iran, or the U.S. backed Haidar al-Abadi government of Iraq, but instead seeking to carve out a shariah-ruled state in both Syria and Iraq.

All of these non-conventional military activities are taking place in Turkey's southern neighborhood. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s conservative government in Turkey is a member of the coalition against ISIL and al-Qaeda terrorism, but it does not want to commit itself fully to the war in Syria unless the U.S.-led coalition takes a clear position in favor of the toppling of al-Assad. Davutoğlu has said a number of times that al-Assad’s ouster and ISIL's defeat are equally important for his government. That stance has intensified criticism that Ankara is turning a blind eye – at the very least – to jihadists from Western countries using the Turkish border into and out of Syria, as long as they are fighting against al-Assad (and with no guarantee that they will not later turn their weapons against Turkey too). Davutoğlu rejects these claims categorically.

Ankara’s hopes are diminishing amid repeated signals from the U.S. and other European allies (France, Germany and Britain) that the main priority now is to contain the threat of terrorism by ISIL, al-Qaeda and related jihadist organizations. It is also becoming clear that al-Qaeda and the like do not make much of a distinction between Erdoğan and Western leaders just because Erdoğan is a devout Muslim. So, Ankara might be approaching a position of revising its policy on Syria and struggling more openly against cross-border terrorism.

The global security environment is becoming ever more complicated and dangerous. The bombing in Somalia ahead of Erdoğan’s visit is just a part of this.