Shabaab mounts prison break in northern Somalia

Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, has claimed responsibility for attacking Bosaso’s central prison in Somalia’s semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland earlier today.

Somali officials have not yet given a precise number of militants freed in the prison break, but Shabaab has claimed it “liberated more than 400” inmates.

Shabaab was quick to claim responsibility for the prison break via its local radio stations and through its Shahada News Telegram channel.

“Fighters of Shabaab succeeded in liberating more than 400 prisoners from the central prison of Puntland in Bosaso,” Shabaab’s statement from Shahada News begins. The al Qaeda branch adds that “many of the prisoners were members of the movement and some had been imprisoned for more than 10 years.”

The jihadist group also reports it freed women and young girls from detention, though this detail is entirely unconfirmed. Likewise, Shabaab often exaggerates the total success of its operations.

Bosaso residents reported gunfire and explosions near the prison early this morning. Puntland officials were slow to confirm a strike on the prison was taking place, but initially only confirmed scant details to the media.

In an early statement to local Puntland media, the regional police chief confirmed that at least one soldier was killed in the assault while two others were wounded.

A prison guard speaking to Reuters, however, painted a different picture.

“There was a hellish battleā€¦ As I fought inside, we lost five soldiers,” the guard is reported saying. He also added that two additional soldiers who had arrived at the scene as back up were also killed.

He also confirmed to the wire news service that explosives were used to breach the prison and that “they [Shabaab] freed the prisoners and took most with them.”

Puntland police officials later confirmed most of the guard’s testimony, though they again did not give any estimate for the total number of freed inmates.

Shabaab’s Prison Breaks

Today’s assault in Bosaso is not the first time Shabaab has mounted a prison break in recent months. In Aug. 2020, Shabaab militants inside Mogadishu’s central prison attempted to shoot their way out of the prison after raiding its armory with help from sympathetic guards.

Going back further in 2017, it also conducted a suicide bombing on the Mogadishu prison but damage was limited thanks to the intervention of a security guard. And in 2013, Shabaab attempted to free militants from the same Bosaso prison as today but that attack was thwarted.

Shabaab’s statement today makes it clear that the group views prison breaks as one of its main objectives.

For instance, the statement is explicit that today’s assault came from the orders of its emir, Abu Ubaidah Ahmed Omar. “It should be noted that the liberation of prisoners is a primary goal of [Shabaab]…which was previously announced by our emir,” the message reads.

The communique then quotes Abu Ubaidah as saying “we say to Muslim prisoners everywhere: we feel what you feel…be patient and endure, freeing you from captivity is a debt in the necks of your mujahideen brothers. And I say to the mujahideen, let the liberation of Muslim prisoners be at the top of your priorities.”

Prison breaks are a cornerstone of jihadi operational strategy. Shabaab, like many other jihadist groups around the world, utilizes these raids to not only free its members and leaders from detention, but to also demonstrate the weakness of the state and thereby gain a major propaganda victory.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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