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Anniversary: Why Somalia needs national biometric registration system

By Thabit Mohamed | October 14th 2020 at 04:50:00 GMT +0300

Three years ago today, a terrorist operative drove off a truck rigged with powerful explosives from Somalia’s breadbasket region of Lower Shabelle to the capital Mogadishu to execute what would be one of the world’s deadliest terror attacks.

The terrorist successfully bypassed a number of security checkpoints along the way, taking advantage of the traditional identification systems used in the country.

Before long, nearly 600 people would tragically lose their lives at the busy Zoobe junction, while hundreds of others would be left with serious, even life-long injuries; many others would remain missing till today, with properties and businesses reduced to rubble.

The third anniversary of one of the October 14 terrorist attacks is a good time to reflect on both the existential threats posed by terror groups; but also, more importantly, to reflect on the institutional and governance dysfunctions that allow Al Shabab to operate with impunity.

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The attack deeply scared the psyche of the Somali people, leaving both lingering traumatic impacts and exposing, in a glaring way, subsequent failures to implement multiple governance reforms including on security and disaster preparedness. The centerpiece of these reforms is an urgent need for a comprehensive national biometric registration system in the country.

As the Mayor of Mogadishu and Governor of Benadir Regional Administration at the time of the devastating truck bombs at the busy Zoobe intersection, I argue that such a system, alongside other measures, would not only help security agencies better prevent or investigate future terrorist attacks and improve disaster response but also accelerate the country’s socio-economic reconstruction.

A robust biometric registration system that includes fingerprints and other unique identification markers would be the basis for an integrated national ID that can be used in everything from registering phone lines and vehicle plate numbers, sending money, purchasing or renting a property, opening businesses to voting in future national or local elections among other things.

Such a wealth of biometric information in a unified, secure database would provide significant support to security agencies to identify security threats, disrupt terrorist networks, and conduct effective investigations after attacks. It’s not easy to build one but it’s not impossible. Neither is it the magic bullet for securing the country but is without a doubt an essential ingredient.

For instance, investigations regarding the Zoobe attack would have made tangible progress, and the likelihood of the tracing the culprits, including the individual who let the truck bomb pass through the checkpoint in the outskirts of Mogadishu, would have been significantly higher if a functional biometric database was in place.

Just recently, a court in Nairobi, Kenya, found two suspects guilty of the horrific Westgate Shopping Mall attack 7 years ago after being identified through their mobile phone communication.  In Kenya, phone lines are registered and linked to the country’s national ID. Similarly, some of the attackers of the Dusit hotel complex in Nairobi early last year were identified through the registration plates of their cars that are also linked to the country’s ID.

Currently, Al-Shabaab and other terrorist groups in Somalia are taking advantage of the weak, disjointed, and antiquated identification system to plot terrorist attacks, engage in extortion, carry out illegal taxation, and infiltrate not only security agencies but the justice system as well, therefore defeating the criminal justice system, where conclusive identification and tracking of suspects remains a huge challenge.

Last year, almost two years after the October 14th terror attacks; Al Shabaab executed another major attack in Mogadishu killing my successor and his team at the Benadir Region Headquarters.

The suicide attack showed in a tragic way Al Shabaab’s capacity to operate in plain sight, exploiting nonexistent identification systems to infiltrate government.

With no national ID system in place; “Somali nationals rely on a patchwork of documents to prove their identity, most of which are non-robust with coverage limited to specific municipalities, states, or program beneficiaries,” as described by a recent publication by the World Bank, UNDP, and the International Migration Organization (IMO).

Investments in a biometric identification system may initially seem relatively high or unnecessary in a country still recovering from decades of conflict, but the returns on investments would far outweigh the costs.

Following the October 14 2017 attack, I submitted a list of recommendations to reform the security and disaster response architecture and to reduce the likelihood of future terror attacks and to minimize the causalities, in case they happen. Included in the recommendations was a proposal to build a national biometric identification system.

Other recommendations included decentralizing parts of the security function from the Federal to local authorities in Mogadishu, which is the focal point of terror attacks, and strengthening the relationship between security agencies through community policing to improve information sharing. I also called for setting up fully-equipped disaster response centres and a national blood bank among others.

Reality is, the tragic Zoobe terrorist attack remains a defining moment in the country’s history and a true litmus test for evaluating the kind of leadership the country needs as Somalia heads to vitally-important federal and parliamentary elections in the coming months.

It is crucial that the country elects leadership that would actively implement measures that minimise risks of terrorist attacks like Zoobe. We owe it to the victims of the attacks and the country’s future.

The October 14th terrorist attacks were a tragic setback for the country, but they also offer the enduring inspiration we need to fix the challenges that Somalia faces and unlock the country’s limitless potential.

Mr. Thabit Mohamed is the former Mayor of Mogadishu and Governor of Benadir Region. He’s currently the Leader of the People’s Power Party (Xisbiga Awoodda Shacabka).

Al-Shabaab Zoobe attack
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