The truck bomb attack that killed more than 100 people in Mogadishu on Tuesday was a not entirely unfamiliar horror for the residents of a city locked in a permanent state of fratricidal warfare for two decades, but it highlighted the scale of a foreign policy challenge recently accepted by the government of Turkey.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had surprised many observers with the priority focus of his speech at the U.N. General Assembly last month. Here was a leader in the eye of an escalating diplomatic storm with Israel; a critic of and key challenger to U.S. strategy on Iran; and a growing influence among the newly free (and would-be free) peoples of the Arab world — and all he wanted to talk about, in his first five minutes at the podium, was Somalia. Nobody talks about Somalia anymore. And that was Erdogan’s point. He called it a “disgrace for the international community” that the imminent threat of starvation to 3.7 million Somalis gets so little global attention. And he sought to lead by example, having using the occasion of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in August to become the first non-African leader in decades to visit the long-suffering Somali capital, arriving with $115 million in famine aid and promises of more, just a week after the Islamist Shebab gunmen pulled out of the city.
Erdogan’s intention had been to highlight Somalia’s plight, and to underscore the aid effort being undertaken by Turkish government and civil society groups, key among the Muslim activist charity known by its Turkish acronym IHH — which had sent the vessel Marvi Marmara in a flotilla to break Israel’s siege of Gaza, prompting the deadly raid last summer that has resulted in a decisive breakdown in Turkey-Israel relations. But the Islamist gunmen of the Shebab are threatened by international efforts to rehabilitate Somalia, and have created a security environment that has imperiled major aid efforts to address the growing famine.
As if the decision to visit Mogadishu didn’t present enough of a nightmare for his security detail, Erdogan also announced that Turkey was reopening its embassy in a capital that has, for the past 18 years, been a model dystopia of neighborhood boundaries that double as military front-lines in a proverbial war of all against all. Turkey promised direct aid, infrastructure projects, and also scholarships that would offer young Somalis a way out of the hellhole of Mogadishu.
That was two months ago. But, this week, Turkish planes were back on the recently restored runways of Mogadishu’s airport — which the Turkish government has undertaken to upgrade — on a more urgent mercy mission: To fly 37 of the most seriously wounded victims of Tuesday’s truck bombing to Turkey for treatment. A number of those killed and injured in the blast had been waiting in line to hear the result of their Turkish scholarship applications. One of the militants involved had reportedly said Somalis had no need of secular education. And a Shebab statement had warned of further attacks to come on the facilities of a government that Turkey is trying to help onto its feet.
Tuesday’s bombing, then, will have been a sobering indicator of just how tough the challenge facing Turkey in Somalia will be. After all, Erdogan had acknowledged the security problem and urged that it be addressed through a peace process with the Shebab. The truck-bombing seemed to be a brutal riposte from the Shebab. So, having declared itself before the international community to be the willing champion of the long-suffering Somalis, the Turkish government could find itself increasingly drawn in to a quagmire that has repeatedly confounded American, European and African powers. Presumably, though, Erdogan went into Somalia well aware of the dangers — and Somalis seeking famine relief and a better life, who rarely get any attention from world leaders, will be hoping to see the Turkish Prime Minister’s renowned stubbornness keep Ankara engaged in Mogadishu despite the challenges.