Security forces under the command of the semi-autonomous region of Puntland in northern Somalia claimed to have defeated Shabaab and driven the al Qaeda-linked group from an area that has been described as the Tora Bora of East Africa.
Puntland forces launched the operation against Shabaab fighters under the command of Mohammed Said Atom in the Galgala Mountains region in late July.
“We have attacked their bases and chase them away,” Puntland Security Minister Yusuf Ahmed Qeyr told Garowe two days ago. “Our forces are now in full control of the Galgala Mountains and the enemy suffered heavy casualties.”
Qeyr did not give an estimate of Shabaab casualties, but one commander claimed that the bodies of 11 terrorists were found, while three soldiers were killed. Another report claimed that “dozens” of Shabaab fighters were killed. Shabaab commander Atom has not been reported as killed or captured in the fighting.
Local Puntland officials said Atom’s bases in the mountainous region in the province of Sanaag are “like Tora Bora in Afghanistan,” with cave complexes and training camps [see AFP report, Fears of a new Tora Bora in northern Somalia]. In 2002, al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden battled against US Special Forces and Afghan militias in the Tora Bora mountain complex in Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan.
Atom denies links to Shabaab
Both Shabaab and Atom have denied that fighting in Puntland is related to the al Qaeda-linked group.
“Al Shabaab is not connected to them [Atom’s forces] and it’s the local people in Galgala that are fighting against the Puntland government and PIS [Puntland’s intelligence service],” Sheikh Ali Mohammed Rage, Shabaab’s top spokesman, told Voice of America Somalia.
“There is no Al Shabaab involved,” Atom said. “Themselves [Shabaab] are saying they are not involved.”
But as Garowe reported, Atom and Rage provided nearly identical answers in coordinated statements to the press. Atom evaded direct questions on whether he was a member of Shabaab. He also echoed Shabaab talking points on the establishment of an Islamic state.
“We are Muslims and we wish to build an Islamic state and to remove the Ashahado la Dirir from Somalia,” Atom told reporters. The Ashahado la Dirir is a phrase used by Shabaab and its predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union, to describe Somali and foreign enemies, Garowe reported.
UN links Atom to Shabaab
Earlier this year, the United Nations identifed Atom as “one of the principal suppliers of arms and ammunition for Al Shabaab operations in the Puntland region.”
“Atom is aligned with Al Shabaab and may receive instructions from Al Shabaab leader Fu’aad Mohamed Khalaf,” the UN report continued. The UN linked Atom to the Feb. 5, 2008, bombing in Bosaso that killed 20 Ethiopian migrant workers and wounded more than 100. Shabaab has declared war on Ethiopia and has attacked Ethiopian troops and interests throughout the country.
Shabaab has successfully carried out terror attacks in the relatively peaceful Somali north in the past. On Oct. 29, 2008, five Shabaab suicide bombers struck four compounds in Somaliland and Puntland, killing 28 and wounding scores. 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 in Bosaso, two bombers targeted an intelligence facility.
On July 11 of this year, Shabaab carried out its first suicide attack outside Somalia, when two bombers detonated at restaurants in Kampala, Uganda, as soccer fans watched the World Cup. In that attack, 74 civilians were killed and more than 60 were wounded.
The Shabaab cell that carried out the Kampala attack is called the Saleh Ali Nabhan Brigade, which is named after the slain al Qaeda leader who also served as a senior Shabaab leader. Nabhan was one of the most sought out al Qaeda operatives in Africa. He was wanted for involvement in the 1998 suicide attacks against US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Shabaab’s top leadership positions are dominated by foreign commanders, according to an intelligence assessment by the African Union Mission for Somalia. The foreign Shabaab commanders have trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and many have entered Somalia over the past year to assume top leadership roles in Shabaab. The al Qaeda commanders come from Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan, and the United States.
• Shabaab, Puntland forces clash in northern Somalia, The Long War Journal
• Violators of the designated arms embargo on Somalia, United Nations [PDF file]
• Five suicide bombers strike in northern Somalia, The Long War Journal
• Uganda attack carried out by Shabaab cell named after slain al Qaeda leader, The Long War Journal
• Al Qaeda leaders play significant role in Shabaab, The Long War Journal