In one of the darkest countries in the world, a suicide bomber disguised behind a woman's veil brutally quenched a tiny flicker of hope at a university graduation in Somalia's capital city of Mogadishu Thursday.
The bomber detonated a blast that killed approximately 22 people, including at least four high-ranking government officials and two journalists. But most of the victims were students who had braved the prospects of violence and deprivation to complete a university education in a war-torn country in desperate need of courageous public servants.
The blast's implications reverberated elsewhere, as U.S. and Somali officials said the bomber likely belonged to a terrorist group supported by al-Qaeda. Officials fear al-Qaeda may be turning to the largely lawless Somalia as a new training ground to plan attacks on targets worldwide, including the United States.
Hundreds of people had gathered in the Hotel Shamo Thursday for the graduation of doctors and engineers from Benadir University. The ceremony marked only the second time in 20 years that any medical students had graduated in the chaotic nation ruled mostly by militants and pirates. The school was founded in 2002 to replace doctors who had fled overseas or died in the nation's long-running civil war.
The ceremony was near its end when an explosion rocked the meeting room, scattering body parts, blood, and panicked survivors seeking escape. Reportedly, four high-ranking government officials near the platform didn't escape: Officials reported the deaths of the country's ministers of health, education, higher education, and youth and sports. At least 18 other people died, and more than 60 were injured.
Though no one immediately claimed responsibility for Thursday's violence, a group called al-Shabaab has taken credit for two similar attacks earlier this year: A June attack killed at least 24 people, including the national security minister. A September bombing killed 17 peacekeepers and four civilians at the African Union headquarters in Mogadishu.
Members of al-Shabaab say they aim to overthrow Somalia's UN-backed government, which controls only a small part of the capital city. U.S. officials say al-Qaeda has been training the terrorist group and may be aiming to use the country and its terrorists to attack Western targets in the future. On Friday, a spokesman for al-Shabaab denied any involvement in the blast.
For now, Somali officials and victims' families are grieving the loss of a group of students that represented a pocket of peace in the middle of war. Somali Prime Minister Omar Sharmarke called the attack "vicious and calculated outrage," and added: "The loss of our ministers is disastrous, but it is an outrage to target the graduation of medical students and kill those whose only aim in life was to help those most in need in our stricken country."
Abdinasir Mohamed, a Wall Street Journal reporter covering the graduation, watched one of his colleagues die in the explosion. Later that evening, he filed a haunting report: "It has been hours since the time of the blast, and I haven't been able to eat because I keep seeing the image of what happened, of people, hoping to be doctors to serve the country, sent to the grave."