When a double truck bombing shattered the night in Mogadishu on Saturday, rescue workers began the grim search for survivors that has become all too common as Somalia battles an Islamist insurgency. They picked through burned-out cars and hunted as best they could in a collapsed hotel.
But it was only on Sunday, as emergency workers pulled body after body from the rubble of a nearly leveled downtown street, that the magnitude of the latest attack came into focus. The numbers of dead surged from 20 on Saturday night to more than 270 and counting, according to government officials. More than 300 people were injured.
“This is the deadliest incident I ever remember” since the 1990s, when the government collapsed, a shaken Senator Abshir Ahmed said in a Facebook posting.
The attack came as the United States under President Trump has made a renewed push to defeat the Shabab, Somali-based militants who have terrorized the country and East Africa for years, killing civilians across borders, worsening famine and destabilizing a broad stretch of the region. While no one had yet claimed responsibility for the bombings, suspicion immediately fell on the group, which frequently targets the capital, Mogadishu.
The Shabab — which once controlled most of the city — has lost much of its territory in recent years, the result of attacks by African Union forces, a fitfully strengthening Somali army and increasing American air power. But the group remains a potent killing force, despite years of American counterterrorism operations.
Some of the militants have proclaimed allegiance to Al Qaeda, while others support the Islamic State.
On Sunday morning, emergency crews continued to pull bodies from the buildings demolished by the blast.
As the death toll grew Sunday, the Somali president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, declared three days of national mourning. He donated blood for the victims and asked his fellow citizens to do the same.
“Today’s horrific attack proves our enemy would stop nothing to cause our people pain and suffering. Let’s unite against terror,” Mr. Mohamed said on Twitter. “Time to unite and pray together. Terror won’t win.”
On Sunday, fires were still burning at the scene of the bombings. Senator Ahmed, deputy speaker of the upper house of Parliament, wrote on his Facebook page that the director of one hospital had told him at least 130 bodies there were burned beyond recognition.
Witnesses said the attack was made even worse by the number of cars stuck on the road where one of the bombs exploded.
“There was a traffic jam, and the road was packed with bystanders and cars,” a waiter at a nearby restaurant said. “It’s a disaster.”
Doctors at hospitals in Mogadishu struggled to save the wounded on Sunday. The Associated Press quoted one nurse as saying staff members had seen “unspeakable horrors” in a hospital where the smell of blood was strong. The news agency reported that exhausted doctors fought to keep their eyes open even as the screams of victims echoed through the halls.
Hopes for Somalia tend to ebb and flow after more than 25 years of chaos since its central government collapsed. In recent years, there has been a bit more optimism with a new government in power. Still, in the fragile world of Somali politics, the threat of the Shabab never went away. Hundreds of people have been killed or wounded in attacks on the capital this year alone.
Analysts thought the latest attack might have been in retaliation both for the loss of territory and for increasing American drone attacks since Mr. Trump loosened restrictions meant to strictly limit civilian casualties.
United States Special Operations forces have launched 15 airstrikes against Shabab leaders, fighters, and training camps since the beginning of the year, including five strikes last month, according to The Long War Journal, which tracks American strikes against militants in Africa.
One of the strikes, on July 30, killed Ali Jabal, a Shabab commander who led forces and conducted attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere in Somalia. After he was killed, the Pentagon’s Africa Command said his removal from the battlefield would significantly degrade the Shabab’s ability to coordinate attacks in the capital and in southern Somalia.
Counterterrorism specialists said the size of the bombings Saturday, which were well beyond what the Shabab has conducted before, suggested that the group might have received help from operatives with the Qaeda arm in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is renowned for its prowess with explosives.
Africa specialists said the attack could backfire on the Shabab — and that may be one reason the group has not claimed responsibility, at least so far.
Some victims died in their cars or in public transportation vehicles, Somali officials said after the blast on Saturday in Mogadishu.
“When the group feels under pressure, it lashes out with more significant attacks,” said Tricia Bacon, a Somali specialist at American University in Washington and a former State Department counterterrorism analyst. She called the attack “a bad miscalculation” by the Shabab that will likely shore up public resolve for the government’s commitment to fighting the militants.
Some analysts also suggest that the Shabab may have been trying to take advantage of Somalia’s most recent political instability; the federal and regional governments have disagreed over which side to support in a political standoff between Qatar and a group of countries led by Saudi Arabia. One of those countries, the United Arab Emirates, supplied weapons to some of the regional governments in 2015.
American officials condemned the Mogadishu bombings, calling them “cowardly attacks” that “reinvigorate the commitment of the United States to assist our Somali and African Union partners to combat the scourge of terrorism.”
Previous attacks on the capital this year have killed or wounded at least 771 people, according to data compiled by the Long War Journal. The operations included remotely detonated vehicles, suicide car bombings and suicide assaults. At least 11 of these attacks have been assassination attempts against Somali military, intelligence, and government personnel, as well as Somali journalists.
The blast occurred two days after the head of the United States Africa Command was in Mogadishu to meet with Somalia’s president, and after the country’s defense minister and army chief resigned for undisclosed reasons.
About 200 to 300 members of American Special Operations forces work with soldiers from Somalia and other African nations like Kenya and Uganda to carry out more than a half-dozen raids per month, according to senior American military officials. The operations are a combination of ground raids and drone strikes.
A member of the United States Navy SEALs was killed and two troops were wounded in May during a raid on one of the Shabab’s compounds. It appeared to be the first American combat death in Somalia since the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident.