Late last week, Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, conducted a rare military incursion into eastern Ethiopia’s Somali Region. The foray inside Ethiopian territory reportedly lasted at least three days, with the Ethiopian government acknowledging it combated the jihadists inside its borders.
According to officials in Ethiopia’s Somali Region (also known as the Ogaden), Shabaab militants entered Ethiopian territory through the region’s Afdheer Zone which borders Somalia’s Bakool Region on July 21. The jihadists then briefly took control over Hulhul, a town inside Ethiopia, before reportedly being beaten back after a three-day battle for the town.
The Ethiopian government, while acknowledging the rare invasion of its territory by Shabaab, framed the raid in a more propagandistic narrative. State officials in Ethiopia’s Somali Region remarked that its forces killed at least 100 members of Shabaab in the counter-offensive, though this has not been independently verified.
Public statements by Somali regional state officials also alleged that Shabaab’s incursion was intended to reach Oromia State to coordinate with the Oromo Liberation Army, an Oromo nationalist rebel group currently waging its own deadly insurgency against the Ethiopian government.
The Ethiopian government has in the past equated Shabaab and various Ethiopian militant groups, and in some cases has previously claimed ties between them.
The raid into Ethiopia came after Shabaab stormed two border towns inside Somalia on July 20 wherein Ethiopian troops as part of its Liyu Police – or paramilitary forces composed of primarily Ethiopian Somalis – are stationed.
Liyu Police are primarily utilized inside Ethiopia’s eastern Somali Region, though many of its forces have also been deployed to Somalia itself. The Liyu Police component of Ethiopia’s troops in Somalia are part of its forces inside the country that operate independently of its forces attached to the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS).
According to Shabaab, its men killed at least 87 members of the Liyu Police during its attacks on Aato and Yeet, two towns inside Somalia’s Bakool right on the border with Ethiopia. This number is most likely exaggerated, as photos released by the group itself only show 16 killed troops.
The photos do show, however, that Shabaab was able to capture and burn the Ethiopian bases in both towns. At least two members of the Liyu Police were also shown to have been captured by the jihadists.
Though Shabaab has yet to officially comment on the raids into Ethiopia itself as of the time of publishing.
Shabaab routinely targets Ethiopian troops inside Somalia and often castigates Ethiopia in its propaganda, but cross-border raids inside Ethiopian territory are exceptionally rare. In the early to mid-1990s, one of Shabaab’s predecessor groups, the al Qaeda-trained and supported Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI), made frequent incursions inside Ethiopia, which resulted in Ethiopia’s first intervention against jihadists in Somalia in 1996.
Since 2006, when Ethiopia again intervened inside Somalia to oust the Islamic Courts Union – the jihadist coalition from which Shabaab emerged – jihadist attacks inside Ethiopian territory have been few and far between. Only a handful of incursions into Ethiopia by Shabaab have been recorded since 2007.
At the same time, Ethiopian officials have frequently reported the arrests of Shabaab militants inside its territory, including an announcement in April of this year that dozens of Shabaab members were arrested in eastern Oromia and Somali regions.
Shabaab’s recent raid, though exceptionally rare, should be seen within the context of its resurgent capabilities inside Somalia. Shabaab continues to be one of al Qaeda’s most effective (and wealthiest) branches. It maintains significant control over much of southern and central Somalia and retains the ability to strike in Mogadishu, Kenya, where it also controls territory, and against heavily fortified bases in both Somalia and Kenya.
Ethiopian propaganda around the incursion
Though the Somali Region’s claims that Shabaab was intending to help an ethnic Oromo insurgent group inside Ethiopia are unlikely, it fits into a wider history and context of Ethiopia’s messaging around its various concurrent conflicts within its borders.
Ethiopia has long characterized both jihadists and ethno-nationalist rebels as terrorist organizations, and assertions of cooperation have longstanding historical precedent.
Last summer, a broad Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) counter-offensive expelled the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries and allied paramilitary groups from the northern region of Tigray. This was followed by a large offensive south towards the capital that saw the TPLF ally with multiple rebel groups in an anti-Abiy Ahmed coalition, including the aforementioned Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).
That offensive was stopped by the Ethiopian military and the Ethiopian government and the TPLF have been in negotiations to resolve the conflict. As negotiations with the TPLF continue, however, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy has been far less willing to negotiate with the TPLF’s ally in Oromia, promising a “military solution” for the continuing OLA insurgency, which seeks greater autonomy or even independence for Oromia.
This marked a major reversal for Abiy, who had delisted the OLA’s predecessor organization, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), in 2018 which allowed the group to return to Ethiopia for the first time since the 1990s. Within months, however, the OLA, the armed wing of the OLF, rejected the OLF’s political leadership and returned to armed activity, and was again banned in late 2020 alongside the TPLF.
It is in this context, that Abiy has drawn parallels between the OLA and jihadist militants, returning Ethiopian government rhetoric to themes that had previously been utilized during the TPLF-led government.
The TPLF-dominated government, which controlled Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018, repeatedly described the OLF as terrorists, and placed them on the same list of proscribed organizations as Shabaab and Al Qaeda.
During the 1990s, the Ethiopian government accused Shabaab’s predecessor AIAI of being active inside Oromia.
While it is most likely true that AIAI in the 1990s had a cooperative relationship with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an ethnic Somali insurgent group that fought inside Ethiopia’s Somali Region until 2018, there remains no clear evidence to support Ethiopian claims of cooperation between AIAI and the Oromo Liberation Army at that time.
One such historical group in Oromia, however, is less clear-cut. The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia (IFLO), another insurgent group in Oromia, did have an Islamist character and reportedly had ties to AIAI in the early 1990s – though that group was distinct from the OLA and is no longer active. If AIAI was active inside Oromia in the early 1990s, it would have most likely been through the IFLO and not the OLF.
Though there is little evidence of ties between the historical OLF or modern OLA and jihadist groups, parts of Oromia adjacent to the Somali region, particularly the Bale Zone, have long histories of Salafi activism.
Indeed, at least some of the expansion of Islam within Oromo communities in the late-19th century resulted from its potential as a nationalist-religious rejection of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity that was central to the identity of the Ethiopian imperial state as it expanded into Oromo areas.
Nonetheless, modern Salafi militancy has remained a marginal force within Ethiopia’s complicated militant landscape, which has always primarily organized itself along ethno-nationalist lines.
The new adoption of similar rhetoric by Somali Region officials, who themselves replaced the region’s TPLF-era administration following Abiy’s rise to power in Addis Ababa in 2018, thus suggests a return to form for Ethiopia’s history of claiming the OLA is assisted by foreign jihadists. Much like with the OLA and AIAI, there remains no clear evidence of ties between the current iteration of the OLA and Shabaab.
The Somali regional government’s claims about the intent of Shabaab’s recent Ethiopian incursion thus warrants significant skepticism. However, such a cross-border raid by Shabaab does demonstrate the jihadist group’s ambition and opportunism amid some of the most important shifts in the regional security landscape in over a decade.
Ethiopia’s military sustained heavy attrition during the war against the TPLF, requiring significant redeployments from long standing commitments, especially inside Somalia. Moreover, the broad cessation of hostilities with the TPLF since Dec. 2021 has allowed the Ethiopian government to focus its attention on other rebel movements closer to the capital.
And it is further notable that the recent clashes took place not between Shabaab and the federal Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), but between Shabaab and the Somali Region’s paramilitary forces.
As the war in Tigray comes to a close and the ENDF rebuilds while facing much more proximate security threats to Addis Ababa, it remains to be seen how Shabaab may exploit not only the impending withdrawal of ATMIS from Somalia, but other regional security vacuums, particularly inside more remote stretches of eastern Ethiopia.
It is here where Ethiopia is most threatened by Shabaab’s militancy and not through any alleged relationship between it and the OLA. Focusing on those alleged links risks worsening the conflict in Oromia, as well as misunderstanding the exact nature of the dangers Shabaab does in fact play inside Ethiopia.
Shabaab does not need to ally with a non-jihadist ethnic insurgent group to mount attacks inside Ethiopia, as made clear by its recent raid.
The recent foray into Ethiopian territory itself should also remind analysts and policymakers that Shabaab not only greatly threatens Somali or even Kenyan security, but security across much of Africa’s Horn. The future withdrawal of ATMIS and other regional forces from Somalia will likely only exacerbate this regional threat.
Both authors are senior analysts at the Bridgeway Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to ending and preventing mass atrocities.
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