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How I survived one of the longest terrorist’s hotel sieges in Mogadishu

by Feysal Osman
Sunday September 25, 2022

It was around 7:00 pm on a Friday evening on the 19th of August 2022; we had just finished our evening (Maghrib) prayers. The open-air veranda at Hayat Hotel in Mogadishu is crowded; guests/hotel customers are seated with their friends, family members, or coworkers are drinking tea, coffee, or eating dinner. The restaurant inside the ground floor of the hotel is also packed and bustling with activities. The atmosphere is happy, friendly and lively.

It was our second day in Mogadishu, we were on a week-long official visit from Hargeisa. Some friends visited my colleague Ismail at the hotel, but they couldn't find seats at the Hayat restaurants, so they opted to go for a meal at a nearby restaurant. I, on the other hand, was getting ready to order my dinner at the restaurant on the ground floor near the reception, but the waiters were too preoccupied taking and delivering orders. I decided to go upstairs to my room on the second floor to retrieve my phone from the charger.

How it all started  

While I was still at the stairs of the first floor, I heard one of the loudest explosions I have ever heard, and saw a huge flash of light, followed by debris falling from above. I said to myself, "This must be an explosion from a very close distance"; it never occurred to me that a complex terrorist attack was underway at the hotel I am staying in. I dashed down to the reception to find out what just happened, but I couldn't get to the ground floor. There was what I could only describe as a stampede of people trying to get upstairs, and everyone had this palpable panic in their face, including one of the hotel guards who was bleeding from his face. Then reality sunk in when I heard people yelling, praying, and pleading for help. That was when I realized the hotel is under attack.

Another loud explosion followed, and the shooting spree began thereafter. Immediately, everything became urgent; I dashed into my room and collapsed on the floor and lay there, gripped by terror. A third and even louder explosion followed and the gunfire intensified almost from every direction within the hotel. I am not sure how many more loud explosions I heard after that, but an overwhelming feeling of helplessness took over. My heart was beating so fast that I was afraid of heart failure. I started shaking and developed shortness of breath, but I began to take deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling, trying to kick-start my survival instincts into gear. I stood up when I saw the closet. I decided to squeeze myself inside and cover myself with the prayer mat. I had been inside for less than a minute when I heard gunfire in close proximity and remembered that terrorists target rooms on upper floor because they suspect that senior government officials stay in the VIP rooms usually located on the upper floors to provide a view of the city. I raised my hands in prayer to God and begged Allah for help. Right then, it felt that God had answered my prayers. My instinct went into high gear and an inner voice said ‘take action’.

The difficult decision: Jumping out of the window

There is what feels like a few seconds of silence after each intense period of gunshots and explosions. My phone rang; I'm not sure who called, but I rushed to turn it off. My family members, as well as my colleague Ismail, who reported to our Headquarters, are all gravely concerned that I am trapped inside the hotel. I said to myself that because of the phone ringing, the terrorists might have noticed someone in the room and could break into the door at any time to kill me. Now is the time to act. I quickly turned off the lights in my room, tucked my American passport into the pocket of my jacket on a clothes hanger, and dashed to the window.

The window from my room where I jumped out. Photo credit: Hassan Ali Elmi/AFP

Because of the explosions that rocked the hotel, the windows were completely shattered and the metal frame had fallen off. I was extremely fortunate that my room window overlooked the tarmac road to the airport and the iron sheet rooftops of the businesses adjacent to the hotel. I stepped on top of the unit of the air conditioner installed outside the window to my room, grabbed the wires –not once did I consider the risk of electric shock –   suspended myself downward and let go off the cables I was holding onto. My descension came with a loud bang, and I fell on the roof of the spare parts shops, facing the tarmac road; I was still fearful that terrorists would shoot me from their position at the hotel, so I jumped to ground. Unfortunately, I landed in the extremely tight space between the hotel and the adjacent businesses. The first thing I noticed was blood on my left leg (just below the ankle) and a sharp pain in my right shoulder. I laid there for a while trying to stay as silent as possible. I began to look at my surroundings and uncertainty took over me; in one instance I am thinking that I am better off but in the next moment, I think that I may be in a more perilous circumstance, because there is no way out from where I have fallen in. The ear deafening gunshots and bombings continued, and the debris falling from the hotel has almost covered the right side of my face.

I heard people whispering and talking about someone being under the rubble. I froze in panic when they said that they will pull her or him out; I couldn't tell if it was the terrorists looking for people to kill or government forces coming to our rescue. The series of explosions had loosened a small door in the back of the reception area; from the gap at the bottom of the door, I saw people rising up from the rubble and police officers barking orders at the people to raise their hands and walk towards them (the police). From where I was lying, I understood that to begin moving, everyone must speak up, remove their shirts, raise their hands, and wait for direction/order on when to move. My ears were keen on the police officer's directive. I made my way out of the rubble: I yelled ‘please help me’; I was comforting myself that the ordeal is almost over. Nearly ten guns were pointed at me from a short distance, and once the officers realized I wasn’t a threat they took my hand to assist me. Meanwhile, the terrorists were still firing down the stairwell, and the officers warned us to move quickly as they shoot at the terrorists. I am not sure which unit they (police) were from, but they were highly professional and exuded a deep sense of care; I could see the fearless intensity in their faces; they were determined to save lives. I was later told they were from the Haramacad Unit. We exited the main hotel gate in the west, taking cover behind the wall and gradually heading towards the Sahafi hotel and the CID headquarters. The police escorted me to a nearby hotel, where my family and friends met me. I will never forget the pure joy of seeing them again. Almost everyone was overcome with emotion because no one expected that I would make it out alive. It was, in all honesty, a miracle that I made it out intact.

Analysis and recommendations

The aftermath

As the siege continued, the next day, I was taken to the hospital to be treated for the injuries on my ankle; various scans were done to detect if I had suffered any internal damages or bones fractures caused by my leap; I was in excruciating pain on both my legs and right shoulder. Luckily, the scans showed that I did not break any bone; the unbearable muscle/bone pain nevertheless persisted. To make matters worse, I was unable to sleep the following nights because every time I fell into a brief deep sleep, I would wake up drenched in sweat and hearing explosions and gunfire inside the hotel.

I did not want to be gripped with fear any longer; just as I decided to do something to save my life at Hayat Hotel, I now feel compelled to actively do something. I want to share my story in the hopes of raising awareness about extremism and terrorism, as well as shedding a light on the work we can all do in our communities to keep an eye out on warning signs that someone may be on the path to radicalization and violence.

The casualties

According to the Ministry of Health, 21 people were killed in this tragic incident and over 117 were injured, with 15 of them in critical condition. Health Minister Ali Haji warned that the death toll could rise because family members may have collected the bodies of relatives before an official count was made. The nearly 30-hour siege has left the hotel largely destroyed.

Beside the physical, emotional, and psychological harm caused by the traumatic experience, often overlooked is the financial loss. This heinous act destroyed several businesses and livelihoods of people operating and employed in these businesses; breadwinners of families lost their lives, throwing families into unknown circumstances.

While seemingly minor but nonetheless important to highlight, my colleague and I were also financially hurt as we lost our laptops, passports, phones, and other personal belongings. My new and old laptops, as well as seven years of data stored on two hard drives, were all lost. The victims of Hayat Hotel lost old and new memories ones that would happen in-person and ones that were in safekeeping forever.

May the Almighty keep the souls of those who were killed in eternal peace and heal the injured.

To my fellow Somalis

Even in uncertain times throughout the past seven years, I had visited Mogadishu countless times; I never imagined that something so brutal and unexpected like the attack at Hayat Hotel would occur to me in one of the most highly fortified areas of the city. Those of us who have firsthand experience with such attacks, whether by losing a loved one, running into the fray to save others, or surviving physical and mental injuries, are all too familiar with the realities of terrorism. However, I am worried that the rest of the Somali people still view these issues as "affecting others," with the belief that it is unlikely that it will happen to us. I was certainly guilty of this prior to this terrorist attack.

If Shabaab’s recent barbaric killing of innocent civilians, burning of trucks carrying food aid, destroying water sources and imposing blockades on already struggling cities, at a time of record-breaking drought, does not constitute gross violations of the religion, Somali culture and human moral values and rights, I don’t know what else would. It is high time that we collectively stand-up to stop the cancerous cult's never-ending cruelty, which has normalized killing, maiming, extortion and fear mongering. Unless we recognize that it is everyone's responsibility to stand-up and save our future and the future of the next generation from these Khawarijs, we will continue suffering and the bloodshed of innocent lives will sadly persist.

The recent sporadic emergence of self-organized local anti-Shabaab militias known as Ma’awisley in many parts of Hiraan, Galgudud and Mudug regions is commendable and should be supported. For far too long, these communities bore the brunt of the terrorists' atrocities; they have reached a tipping point where they have rightly declared enough is enough. We, as Somalis, must drive these changes and raise awareness, particularly those of us who have been victims or survivors of extremism, because no one understands the dangers of extremism better than those who have faced them, and no one is more credible than those who have survived it.

To the Somali government

The attack on Hayat Hotel, which is located at one of the highly fortified areas of the capital along the road leading to Mogadishu’s international airport, is not just a stark reminder of the lethal capabilities of Shabab but also conspicuous security failures. How did the assailants manage to pass through the security checkpoints outside the hotel and carryout an attack of this scale and magnitude? Why did the security forces all over the area not apprehend the assailants and neutralize them before they could perpetrate this heinous act?

While I have to acknowledge and appreciate the bravery of the first police responders who rushed towards the deadly scene to save innocent lives trapped in the hotel, I have to also point out the fact that immediate and sufficient response to the attack was lacking; it took almost an hour for the government forces to arrive at the crime scene and engage the terrorists.

Some of the lessons that can be drawn from this tragic incident is to review police response plans, including the timeliness and engagement techniques of the initial responders. Media reported that the police engaging with terrorists were removed and the decision did not only delay the immediate conclusion of the assault, but disoriented and distracted the forces who were engaged with the terrorists, and ultimately delayed rescue efforts.  In future, it is critical to improve the readiness of the elite anti-terrorisms’ units within the police with a clear chain of command to respond to complex attacks such as the Hayat Hotel siege. This can reduce casualties, and can minimize the consequences of the attack. It is equally important for the government to update the public about the situation, detect misinformation and not just let terrorists’ propaganda and their sympathizers dominate the social media.

I appeal to President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a former teacher, and Prime Minister Hamze Abdi Barre, a former coworker, to lead the way as promised and capitalize on the anti-Shabaab movement momentum that has recently begun. Empower the local self-defense militias (Ma'awisley) raised by local communities and pastoralists to defend themselves against Shabaab extortion and violence. They need to complement these grassroots initiatives with a long-awaited military offensive. They need to mobilize, empower and defend the clans, to help them liberate themselves from this ruthless enemy. While some may raise concerns about the long-term effects of arming clan militias on stability, I believe that dealing with clan militias is less difficult than reasoning with an irrational actor.

Owners of the Mogadishu hotels

Given that the terrorists have attacked several high-profile hotels, restaurants and businesses, it is high time that hotel owners also take their share of responsibility for the safety of your customers. It is thus imperative that you adopt to the context by stationing armed guards on the stairs and upper rooms. I believe that if there had been a few armed guards on the upper floor, the terrorists would have never entered the hotel and caused such damage, and they would have been neutralized, but because there was no one to stand in their way, they had a free pass to cause havoc and slaughter innocent people. Prioritize security, invest in it and create additional fortified exits in case of emergency for evacuations.

Lastly, I traveled to Mogadishu to assist civil society organizations in advocating for improved governance and human rights in Somalia, including the promotion of relevant policies, but following the horrific ordeal at Hayat hotel, I realized there is more important advocacy that should take precedence over all other advocacy items; peace and security.

Feysal Osman is a graduate of the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution in Virginia. He worked as a researcher in Washington, DC before moving back to Somalia to promote better governance, human rights, and civil society empowerment. He can be reached at Email: [email protected]


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