Editor’s note: Caleb Weiss recently visited Hargeisa.
On May 18, 2021, Somaliland celebrated its 30th independence anniversary after unilaterally breaking away from Somalia in 1991. Compared to its neighbors across the Horn of Africa, and indeed much of East Africa, Somaliland represents a relatively stable territory with very little terrorism inside its borders.
Despite a wave of suicide bombers that hit Somaliland’s capital of Hargeisa in Oct. 2008 – bombings widely blamed on Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa – the unrecognized country has not witnessed another major terrorist attack since then.
Security forces have arrested various Shabaab members and sympathizers during the past decade, while also reportedly disrupting terror plots. This indicates that Somaliland probably faces an ongoing, low-level jihadist threat. The threat mainly emanates from Shabaab, though a small Islamic State arm based in the neighboring Puntland region of Somalia provides another worry for the state.
Al Qaeda’s History inside Somaliland
Jihadist activity has long been reported inside Somaliland. For instance, in October 2003 Italian aid worker Annalena Tonelli was murdered by gunmen belonging to the al Qaeda-linked Al Itihad al Islamiyya (AIAI) in the Somaliland city of Borama. Just days later, AIAI also murdered two British aid workers in the town of Sheikh. And in March 2004, the same AIAI cell shot Kenyan aid worker, Flora Chepkemoi, to death in Hargeisa. Somali officials have stated that the Somaliland AIAI cell was commanded by Aden Hashi Ayro, a key operative within Al Qaeda’s East African networks and co-founder of Shabaab.
Founded by Somali jihadists who had fought and trained inside Afghanistan, AIAI was sanctioned by the US government and the United Nations for its close links to al Qaeda in September and October 2001, respectively.
AIAI eventually formed a core part of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in 2006, which controlled Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia until several successive African Union military offensives drove them out of the capital city. Al Qaeda’s current branch inside Somalia, Shabaab, grew out of the ICU.
Somaliland and international officials say Shabaab carried out the Oct. 2008 suicide barrage in Somaliland and Puntland, which killed at least 30 people in Hargeisa and Bosaso. While the group never officially claimed the assaults, it did praise and acknowledge the suicide bombers in its media.
The subsequent investigation of the bombing campaign found that just one of the bombers was a native Somalilander. However, this does not mean that members of Shabaab from Somaliland have not played a large role in the organization.
Indeed, Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, Shabaab’s first emir until his death in September 2014, was born and raised in Hargeisa. Before migrating to southern Somalia, Somaliland officials also linked Godane to the AIAI cell that murdered the foreign aid workers in 2003 and 2004.
Current jihadi operations
Although the jihadists have not conducted a major attack since 2008, Somaliland still faces a plethora of other threats from terrorist groups in the region. For instance, both Shabaab and its rival in the Islamic State’s Somalia Province (or just Islamic State Somalia, ISS), have their northern bases in the mountains of Puntland that straddle the Somaliland border.
Shabaab, for instance, has often utilized these bases to infiltrate Somaliland territory in its far eastern reaches. In Oct. 2020, the group captured several villages near the town of Las Qoray in Somaliland’s Sanaag Region. And just a year prior, Shabaab said it took control over a village not far from Ceerigabo, also in the Sanaag Region.
Much of Somaliland’s east, however, is not under firm government control. Large areas of Sanaag and Sool, another region in Somaliland, are disputed with Puntland. Moreover, the dominant clans of Somaliland’s east, the Darod sub-clans of the Warsangali and Dhulbahante, have often been at odds with Somaliland’s government over claims of discrimination and under-representation among the region’s dominant Isaaq clan. The Dhulbahante themselves have had a rival claimant to power in the Khatumo State of eastern Somaliland.
These conflicts and grievances have the potential to be exploited by Shabaab. For instance, in 2010, a series of bombings in and near the city of Las Anod in Somaliland’s Sool Region are thought to have been perpetrated by Shabaab-sympathetic members of the Dhulbahante.
In Somaliland’s major cities such as Hargeisa, Burco, and Berbera, Shabaab is also thought to maintain sleeper cells. Somaliland officials told FDD’s Long War Journal that Shabaab also attempts to maintain an active intelligence apparatus in the urban areas. However, Shabaab has been less effective at utilizing these networks for kinetic operations.
Somaliland officials and independent researchers often tout the efficacy of the country’s intelligence services and their relationships with local communities at thwarting Shabaab’s attempts at infiltrating cities within the territory. Somaliland officials also quoted similar recent successes in this regard to this author during a recent trip to Hargeisa.
However, the reliance on community networks and local reporting is likely just part of the story.
The vast majority of Shabaab’s focus and resources are directed to the war in central and southern Somalia. Shabaab’s failure to launch major attacks inside Somaliland may also be the result of the group’s smaller presence in Somalia’s northern Puntland region.
Shabaab is also likely pursuing a different modus operandi in the north, in which it is focused on establishing greater ties with local clans to build support and provide opportunities for expansion.
For example, one way in which it better expanded its presence in neighboring Puntland was by establishing ties with the Warsangali clan militia led by Mohamad Said Atom. In 2010, Atom pledged allegiance to Shabaab, effectively making his clan’s militiamen Shabaab’s foot soldiers in the mountains of Puntland. Shabaab has been able to expand in the north in recent years, even after Atom’s defection in 2014, as a result. For instance, Atom’s successor, Yasin Kilwe, is himself a member of the Warsangali clan.
There is evidence that Shabaab is trying to pursue the same route inside Somaliland. For instance, in the two occasions it has taken over territory inside Somaliland, it has made a point to lecture and preach to the locals, indicating it is taking a Da’wah-first approach, that is, proselytising for Shabaab’s jihadist version of Islam.
It remains unclear how successful Shabaab will be in this endeavor, however, as local media reported after the Nov. 2019 capture of a town near Ceerigabo that local clans organized a militia against Shabaab.
Turning briefly to the Islamic State in Somalia, the group retains small cells in southern Somalia and in various areas of Puntland. Its leadership is based in the Galgala Mountains that run the border between Somaliland and Puntland.
However, ISS has not launched one attack inside Somaliland’s territory. Instead, its resources are largely invested in Puntland’s Bosaso, Qandala, and Iskushuban districts. In regard to its operations, it has also claimed the vast majority of its attacks inside Mogadishu or its northern suburb Afgooye, according to data kept by FDD’s Long War Journal.
That said, as the United Nations documents the reportedly outsized role played by ISS in the Islamic State’s overall African network, the government in Hargeisa remains rightly concerned over any future possibilities for the Islamic State to strike within its territory.
Somaliland sits at an interesting time in its overall history. While still unrecognized, it has nevertheless paved business and diplomatic relationships with countries like the UAE and Turkey in order to gain more international legitimacy. In these endeavours, Somaliland touts its relative safety and lack of terrorism as a selling point for future relations.
As it stands, Somaliland’s security apparatus has indeed been able to keep the territory from witnessing another major terrorist attack since 2008. However, it is not entirely out of the woods yet.
In the east where its control is lacking, Shabaab is indeed trying to make in-roads with local clans that claim discrimination from the government in Hargeisa. And if Ethiopia is correct in its claims that both Shabaab and the Islamic State utilize Somaliland as a transit route for points throughout East Africa, Hargeisa faces even more of an intelligence challenge against the jihadist groups.
Time will tell just how long Somaliland will be able to keep the jihadist groups at bay. For now, at least, the territory remains among the most secure places in both Africa’s Horn and the wider East African region.
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