Shabaab looks to the Somali North


Image of a Shabaab fighter from the terror group’s website.

Speaking to a crowd in Ufurow district in the Bakool region, Mahad Omar Abdikarin, Shabaab’s governor for the Bay and Bakool regions in southwestern Somalia, recently announced that the al-Qaeda-backed group will attack Puntland, the semi-autonomous state, and the breakaway republic of Somaliland. Abdikarin is a prominent leader who has publicly flaunted Shabaab’s link with al Qaeda and has urged foreign fighters to flock to Somalia.

Having consolidated its power in the Deep South along the Kenyan border, Shabaab has launched a terror offensive in the northern self-declared state of Puntland. It is a Mexican drug gang-style campaign, with an aggressive string of targeted assassinations and low profile bombings in a Somali region that had been relatively safe and prosperous.

In the last two months, Shabaab gunmen have killed two Puntland lawmakers as well as a prominent judge who was responsible for jailing some of Shabaab’ s supporters; executed senior police officers; targeted an infantry division general with a roadside bomb attack; and even shot a number of clerics on the doorsteps of their mosques, accusing them of preaching moderate sermons opposed to Shabaab’s hard-line extremism.

Shabaab has also demonstrated in the past that it has the capacity to conduct a coordinated suicide bombing campaign in the North. On Oct. 29, 2008, five suicide bombers struck four compounds in the semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland, killing 28 Somalis and wounding scores more. In that assault, three suicide car bombers struck the presidential palace, the UN Development Program compound, and the Ethiopian Consulate in the city of Hargeisa in Somaliland; and two more bombers targeted an intelligence facility in the city of Bosasso in Puntland.

Shabaab’s short-term objective is not conquering and controlling Puntland. Although the group is besieging the Transitional Federal Government in the capital Mogadishu, it is not yet capable of deploying the large number of fighters required to take over Puntland.

At this stage, Shabaab has more modest goals: asserting its presence in the North, demonstrating it can strike at its enemies even in the safest regions of the country at will, and showing it is poised to take power. It is unclear if Shabaab is conducting the current Puntland campaign using local cells or operating from more remote bases in central and southern Somalia.

In its quest to overrun Puntland, Shabaab will have to confront two strong groups. The first is Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a, a pro-government Somali Islamist militia that follows the religious tradition of Sufism. Shabaab has targeted Sufis for practicing a different strain of Islam, and has destroyed Sufi shrines, cemeteries, and other symbols. Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a is strong in the central regions of the country and has fought back against Shabaab’s incursion on its turf.

The second group standing in Shabaab’s way is the Puntland security forces. Puntland’s security services are much better organized than the poorly trained and corrupt army that backs the weak Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu, which only controls a few small pockets in the capital.

A Shabaab victory in Puntland has dire strategic implications for the region. If Puntland becomes a failed state like the South, there will be a greatly magnified threat to the shipping passing through the Red Sea, the Bab al Mandeb waterway (the narrow strait between Somalia and Yemen), and the Gulf of Aden. In an April 2008 statement made in an al Qaeda-linked journal, al Qaeda described the Bab al Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden as “of supreme strategic importance” in their plans to control the region. With the strengthening of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, gains by Shabaab in Puntland and Somaliland will plunge the region into crisis.

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  • Great article. I have two points I’d like to highlight.
    1. As I wrote here in December, the President of Puntland, Abdirahman Mohammed Farole, has literally been begging for international support since mid-2009. He wants a stable Puntland that is a contributing global partner, but has so far received very little of the requested support.
    2. Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaah (ASWJ) draws recruits from only a few sub-clans. Thus with their current structure and support base will be hard pressed to sustain heavy or prolonged losses to al Shabab (HSM). I don’t see ASWJ being able to maintain their current level of effort throughout 2010 without widening their recruiting base.
    I believe your analysis of HSM’s goals is very accurate. What I am struggling with right now is whether HSM plans on fully consolidating its Salafi power base by defeating or absorbing HI before attempting to defeat the TFG. Either way, I think it will be 2011 or 2012 before there is a real HSM threat to Puntland. I believe the key is to act now by developing Puntland’s defensive and governmental capability to prevent the onslaught of (what I believe will be) a stronger HSM in the future. We could also achieve complementary effects in our Horn of Africa counter-piracy efforts through bolstering support to Puntland.

  • KaneKaizer says:

    It’s hard to get recent and accurate information about the fighting in Somalia anywhere else. Are al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam still hostile to each other?

  • As of at least November/December HI and HSM were still going at it in the south. I can only speculate about the apparent partnership in the central regions, but my guess is that it has at least something to do with Salafism vs Sufism. A common Sufi enemy that threatens both of them.
    Sites I use to stay current for my writing on Somalia:
    BBC (English updates are spotty at best)
    Hope that helps.

  • Zeissa says:

    The year and year before I emigrated from Norway back to Hong Kong (again) there were two axe-wielding chop-happy psychotic lunatics in Norway (one on a bus where the driver had to sacrifice himself to save the bus from going down a gulge, the other one a small plane where he only wounded a pilot and nearly killed everyone aboard) and one knife-wielding psychotic on a tram who stabbed many holes in a single man close to my home. I believe this was in 2006, and maybe 2005.
    This is because Norway makes a policy out of taking refugees noone else wants.
    Somalia is not only a breeding ground for radical Islam, Somali refugee mafia networks and numerous other ailments and perpetrators but also a breeding ground for psychotics.
    There are two ways for a permanent fix. The cheap one is to prop up either sub-government in the north or the TFG and support them to victory. The other is to either adopt Imperialistic Liberalist Democracy to create another Islamic state with radical leanings but anchored (somewhat) in liberalism, or to simply find a state with fascist leanings (I suggest China or Russia) to conquer the whole mess and reeducate the population.
    Or you could do it yourself when your democrat compatriots let go of their naivity.
    Honestly I don’t want to see Russia or my motherland get a foothold on the Horn.


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