Puzzles deepen in the context of Shabaab’s attempted Ethiopian invasion

Last weekend, Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, attempted to mount a sizable incursion into Ethiopian territory. The foray lasted at least three days, with possibly hundreds of Shabaab militants involved, before regional troops from Ethiopia’s Somali State fought the jihadists back into Somalia. 

Over the last few days, however, new information has come to light that warrants further discussion of Shabaab’s raids and the possible intentions of its incursions. This includes a purported second attempt by Shabaab to mount a concerted raid into Ethiopia. 

Independent reporting has focused on Shabaab’s attempts to establish its own frontline inside Ethiopia, while Ethiopian officials and media continue to double-down on Shabaab’s alleged links with the ethnic Oromo insurgent group, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). 

On July 21, at least 500 Shabaab militants first entered Ethiopian territory after a separate unit of Shabaab’s forces attacked the Somali border towns of Aato and Yeed the previous day. The two towns hosted bases of the Liyu Police, an ethnic Somali paramilitary force used by Ethiopia inside both Somali State and Somalia itself. 

According to Harun Maruf of Voice of America, the strikes on the Liyu Police bases were meant as a diversionary tactic meant to allow the larger Shabaab force time and space to mount the incursion into Ethiopia itself. Shabaab’s propaganda has solely focused on the attacks on the Liyu Police. 

This includes an open declaration of war made against the Liyu Police by Shabaab’s shadow governor of Somalia’s Bakool Region, Osman Abu Abdi Rahman, just days after the battles. Fu’ad Mohamed Khalaf, one of Shabaab’s top leaders, also recently denounced the Liyu Police after visiting Aato, which Shabaab says it still controls. 

These initial raids marked a rare occasion as only a handful of Shabaab attacks have been recorded inside Ethiopia itself since 2007. Shabaab has made Ethiopia a prime target within its propaganda since the country first intervened against the group in 2006. It has thus tried on numerous occasions to mount terrorist attacks inside Ethiopia, though the plots have all largely been thwarted or have failed on their own. 

Regional forces from Ethiopia’s Somali State eventually stopped the militants in their progression, reportedly killing around 100 jihadists. While this number cannot be independently verified, the United States Africa Command has confirmed that the militants were able to penetrate as much as 150km into Ethiopian territory. 

It is unclear if other Shabaab militants remain that deep inside Ethiopia. The purported direction the militants were heading, however, presents several interesting developments. 

According to Horn of Africa analyst Matt Bryden, Shabaab’s plan was to make it to Ethiopia’s Bale Mountain range in the country’s Oromia State. It should be noted that Bale is more than double the distance from the border than the 150km incursion cited by US Africa Command.

Shabaab members were reportedly arrested inside Oromia’s Bale Zone earlier this year, though it is unclear to what extent – if any – those militants played in Shabaab’s attempts to erect a base of operations in the mountains.

The Bale Mountains, which are situated in Ethiopia’s southeast, are already host to another insurgent group, the aforementioned Oromo Liberation Army. The OLA is an ethnic Oromo militant group fighting for autonomy or even independence for Ethiopia’s Oromia State and is mobilized by secular nationalism. 

Second incursion and more allegations of Shabaab aiding Oromo nationalists 

It is through this context that Ethiopian officials continue to double-down on the contention that Shabaab was attempting to aid the OLA. After Shabaab’s initial three-day incursion was pushed back, official’s from Ethiopia’s Somali State remarked that the jihadist group was attempting to link up with the OLA. 

This line was again repeated earlier this week when Shabaab reportedly attempted to mount a second concerted raid into Ethiopia. According to Somali State officials, the jihadists again entered Ethiopian territory on July 25 through the Ferfer district of the Somali State’s Shabelle Zone, which borders Somalia’s Hiraan and Galguduud regions. 

Much like the first incursion of last week, Somali State officials reported its forces beat the jihadists back, with at least 85 additional Shabaab militants being killed in the second attempted incursion. 

Somali State officials then again stated that this second attempted incursion was meant to also link up with the OLA in Oromia. 

This is unlikely to be the case. While Shabaab most likely has ethnic Oromo members within its ranks, the OLA, as previously stated, is a secular Oromo nationalist group and employs no religious rhetoric. It explicitly aligns with other ethno-nationalist insurgent groups, most notably the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), all of which are also secular nationalists.

Salafi militancy has remained a marginal force within Ethiopia’s complicated militant landscape, which has always primarily organized itself along ethno-nationalist lines. 

There is also historical precedent for Shabaab rejecting secular insurgencies inside Ethiopia. When accused in 2014 of working alongside the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an ethnic Somali insurgent group in Ethiopia’s Somali State, Shabaab explicitly stated it views such organizations as “un-Islamic” and therefore unworthy of its support. 

Moreover, Bale has long served as an important area in the history of armed Oromo nationalism, as the site of a major revolt – amounting to the first armed Oromo uprising – in the 1960s against the imperial government of Emperor Haile Salassie. In this 1970s and 80s, the original Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) began in West Hararghe and was concentrated in eastern Oromia and Bale. 

Though armed action by the OLA in Bale Zone remains less frequent than in nearby Guji Zone – where the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project recorded at least 30 clashes since the beginning of the year – it is unlikely that the OLA would willingly tolerate the presence of the al Qaeda branch in its claimed territory. 

Furthermore, the OLA has been repeatedly accused of staging violent attacks on Amhara civilians elsewhere in Ethiopia – though the OLA has repeatedly denied responsibility and instead blames the Ethiopian government – and it is unlikely that it would risk further damage to its international legitimacy by forging ties with a group like Shabaab.

Raising further questions are reports that ethnic Somali militiamen unaffiliated to Shabaab have staged a series of attacks on Oromo civilians in Bale’s Gura Damole district over the preceding two months, resulting in the displacement of 1038 households in June. 

Longstanding tensions over land had previously resulted in a series of bloody attacks by Oromo and Somali paramilitaries in both Oromia and Somali regions in 2016 and 2017, killing hundreds and displacing hundreds of thousands. 

Further, the Liyu Police, the same paramilitary group attacked by Shabaab on July 20 inside Somalia, was blamed in July 2018 for killing at least 98 Oromo civilians in the Bale Zone during the 2016-2017 violence by the Ethiopian government’s Human Rights Commission, in addition to attacks in other parts of Oromia’s border with Somali region. 

It is possible that Shabaab may attempt to capitalize on inter-ethnic violence in the border areas between Oromia and Somali region, though the degree to which Shabaab is cognizant of these issues or capable of taking advantage of them is unclear. 

It also remains unclear how Shabaab might entrench itself in Bale given the presence of hostile Oromo and Somali paramilitary groups engaged in active violence against civilians, the government, and each other. 

Shabaab are no supporters of the Liyu Police (or the aforementioned ONLF) and are unlikely to work alongside them inside Ethiopia, though other Somali paramilitary groups inside Ethiopia may elicit different feelings for Shabaab.

It is possible that Shabaab could take a more proactive role in the future, though, provided it actually establishes a firm presence inside Ethiopia. 

Ethiopia in the sights of Shabaab’s regional expansion

Nevertheless, it is much more likely that Shabaab views the Bale Mountains as a suitable area for it to base its units in order to launch a more sustained pace of attacks inside Ethiopia itself, separate from the indiginous conflicts taking place in the area.

Indeed, a former Shabaab member quoted by Harun Maruf stated that “the group’s plan is to erect their black flag inside Ethiopia.” 

Especially in Somalia’s northern region of Puntland – and to a lesser extent in northeastern Somaliland – Shabaab has found refuge in the Bari and Golis Mountains.

The remote and rugged terrain provides enough sanctuary for the group to mount attacks inside Puntland and occasional excursions into Somaliland – the latter of which has also been helped by pro-Shabaab members of the Warsangali, a minority Darod sub-clan inside northeastern Somaliland. 

It is thus much more likely Shabaab is attempting to replicate this model for Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains for its own purposes – effectively striking inside its longstanding enemy of Ethiopia – than assisting an ethnic Oromo insurgent group. 

Much like with some elements of the Warsangali in northeastern Somaliland, it is possible that Shabaab could cultivate some friendly ties with local Somali clans in eastern Ethiopia. Though this remains to be seen.

The impact and implications of Shabaab’s two attempted incursions into Ethiopian territory are still being uncovered.

However, the two concerted efforts within the span of a week demonstrate Shabaab’s growing ambition, regional capabilities, and opportunism to exploit regional geopolitics, especially as the Abiy Ahmed government struggles to contain the various insurgencies inside Ethiopia. 

These raids also come as Shabaab has made it a point to intensify its attacks inside northeastern Kenya. In just the last week alone, the group has claimed authorship for at least five attacks in Kenya’s Mandera and Garissa Counties, according to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal

Meanwhile, in southern Somalia, at least 13 people were killed a suicide bombing in the town of Merca yesterday. Those killed included the town’s mayor. At least 19 suicide bombings conducted by Shabaab have been recorded this year, according to data kept by FDD’s Long War Journal

As Shabaab continues to resurge inside various parts of Somalia, it also continues to expand its violence across East Africa. Much like with the violence inside Kenya, the recent incursions into Ethiopia are part of this expansion project.

Both authors are senior analysts at the Bridgeway Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to ending and preventing mass atrocities.

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