Contested area of northern Somalia witnesses rare suicide bombing

At least five people were killed yesterday in a suicide bombing at a crowded cafe in the village of Milxo in the Sanaag Region, a contested area laid claim to by both Somalia and Somaliland. No group has yet to take responsibility, though Shabaab, al Qaeda’s East African branch, is widely suspected. 

Yesterday afternoon, a bomber wearing an explosive vest stepped into a crowded cafe in Milxo, a small inland village not far from the town of Las Khorey on Sanaag’s northern coast, as locals were having tea. The bomber then detonated his explosives, killing at least five people and wounding another 10

No militant group has yet to take responsibility for the blast, though locals placed the blame on Shabaab. Shabaab has a history of operating in and around Milxo, with the group mounting an offensive against troops belonging to Somalia’s semi-autonomous area of Puntland stationed in the area earlier this year. The town also briefly came under the direct control of the jihadist group in late 2020. 

Somaliland claims control over the entirety of the Sanaag Region, including the Las Khorey area, though in practice the eastern part of the region is physically controlled by Puntland. The two states have clashed over the full control of both Sanaag and the Sool Region, just south of Sanaag, on multiple occasions since 2007.

Local militias, backed by Puntland forces, have attempted to keep the al Qaeda branch out of the Las Khorey area. However, Shabaab also attempts to exert its influence in the area in a more indirect manner, trying to extract “taxes” from the locals. Residents of Milxo thus blamed the suicide bombing on local businesses refusing to pay the extortion money to the jihadists. 

Shabaab has attempted to make inroads with members of the Warsangali clan in Sanaag, a sub-clan of the Darod clan family, and the prominent clan of the area. The Warsangali also inhabit areas of northern Puntland, where the jihadist group has been able to establish firm ties with Warsangali militias that constitute much of its manpower in the north. 

However, it is unclear that Shabaab is making the same progress in Sanaag as local militias have rose up against the jihadist group on multiple occasions. It is then possible that Shabaab has decided to take a more aggressive approach in its strategy for Sanaag and the suicide bombing, in addition to its offensive near Milxo earlier this year, are part of this potential change in its calculus. 

The suicide bombing marks the first such instance in Sanaag and the first in the northern contested areas since 2018. That year, two prominent politicians in the town of Buhoodle in the Togdheer Region, another area claimed by both Somalia and Somaliland but with its own secessionist past, were killed in a suicide bombing targeting their vehicle. Like yesterday’s explosion, Shabaab was widely blamed though it never officially claimed credit. 

This silence is not atypical of Shabaab for its militant activity inside Somaliland. For instance, its most infamous attacks in the declared republic, the 2008 suicide bombings in Hargeisa that killed at least 30 people, were never officially claimed by Shabaab (though it celebrated the attacks with clips of the bombers themsevles in its media years later). As such, the jihadist group has likely only conducted three such suicide attacks inside Somaliland and the contested northern areas since 2008.

Shabaab, for its part, has largely only publicly taken credit for operations in these disputed areas that resulted in territorial gain. For example, in 2019, it touted its forces for briefly taking control over a village not far from Ceerigabo, the capital of the Sanaag Region. A year later in Oct. 2020, it again celebrated the brief capture over a series of villages near Las Khorey. And in Dec. 2020, it lauded the capture of Milxo. 

Yesterday’s suicide bombing nevertheless represents a worrying development. Though Sanaag has witnessed some of Shabaab’s violence, it has largely avoided the same level of bloodshed that its neighbors in Puntland have suffered. If Shabaab is indeed taking a more aggressive approach in the region, the bombing could be a harbinger of more violence. Though as shown during in its offensive against Milxo earlier this year, local militias in Sanaag are so far more than willing to stand up against the jihadist group.

Caleb Weiss is a research analyst at 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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