On Wednesday, armed group al-Shabab captured a United Nations-contracted helicopter in Somalia, killing one person and kidnapping several other passengers and crew members on board. The helicopter was on a medical evacuation mission from Beledweyne city in central Somalia and was heading to Wisil town approximately 500km (310 miles) away, but had been forced to land midway through the journey after an apparent accident, when al-Shabab attacked.
This latest attack is one of al-Shabab’s more daring assaults in recent months and comes amid an intensifying offensive against the group by the Somali military, launched in 2022. In its early stages, the military campaign saw some gains but suffered setbacks last year when al-Shabab recovered territory it had lost.
The UN World Food Programme, the largest humanitarian operator in Somalia, said it had suspended all its flights in the area as a result of the attack.
Details are still unclear, but here’s what we know so far about the assault and kidnapping:
Who was in the helicopter?
A United Nations memo seen by Al Jazeera confirmed that the kidnapped workers on board the helicopter were third-party contractors of the UN, and that two of them were Somali men. There were also people from African and European countries, but it’s not clear what the exact nationalities of these passengers are. Some reports say there were eight passengers, others say there were nine in total.
One person was killed in the attack, according to several reports. The location of two other passengers is unknown and it’s possible they may have escaped in the attack. The precise number of kidnapped persons currently in the hands of the armed group is not clear.
Why was the helicopter there?
The helicopter was on a medical evacuation mission. At least some of its passengers were military personnel and it was also carrying medical supplies onboard. The aircraft had taken off in Beledweyne city in central Somalia and was heading east to Wisil town. But it crash-landed near Hindhere village after an object struck its main rotor blade. The crash site was within al-Shabab territory and bordering the Galguduud region on the front line of the government offensive. It is not clear what the object was or whether it had been deliberately launched by al-Shabab fighters.
The Washington Post reported that al-Shabab fighters set fire to the vehicle after they seized the passengers.
What is al-Shabab?
Al-Shabab is an armed group that has operated in Somalia since 2006 and wishes to create a state that adheres to its strict interpretation of Islam in Somalia. The group, which commands thousands of fighters, has targeted civilians and military outposts in deadly and often gruesome attacks, launching assaults into neighbouring Kenya on some occasions.
It currently controls large swaths of territory in southern and central Somalia, where many regard its civil and legal institutions as being more stable than those of the state. To generate revenue, al-Shabab taxes civilians in its area of control, raking in about $100m monthly according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS).
Al-Shabab had a strong presence in the country’s capital city for a time in the late 2000s, but African Union (AU) troops helped to push the group out of Mogadishu in 2011. Since the mid-2010s, the Somali military, supported by AU troops and US bombing, has tried to seize back control from its strongholds. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was elected in May 2022, promised to crack down harder on al-Shabab and his government has warned the armed group to hand in their guns or face military assaults.
But al-Shabab fighters have continued to launch daring and deadly offensives. The group was linked to 6,225 deaths in 2022 alone, according to ACSS, representing a 120 percent increase in its attacks since 2019. Some of al-Shabab’s most recent assaults include car bombings in Mogadishu in October 2022, which killed about 120 people. In November of the same year, al-Shabab fighters seized a popular hotel close to the presidential villa and maintained possession of it for more than a day. Nine people were killed in that attack.
Although al-Shabab has not formally taken responsibility for Wednesday’s UN helicopter attack, it has in the past kidnapped aid workers, some of whom are still missing.
What happens next?
There aren’t many details about a potential rescue mission.
Somali officials told Reuters on Thursday that the government is working to free the kidnapped workers but added that the area where they were taken would be difficult to access.
“The government has been undertaking efforts to rescue the crew since yesterday when the accident happened, and efforts still go on,” Information Minister Daud Aweis, said without providing more details of the rescue mission.
Military officials speaking to Reuters, painted a more dire picture however, saying that a land operation to rescue the hostages was not feasible because the area is fully under the armed group’s control and the local population supported al-Shabab.
“I do not know if there will be commandos on planes with the help of foreigners,” one Major said. “That may be the only possible way to rescue them, but so far it has not happened.”