Islamic State describes intense campaign against Shabaab in northern Somalia 

One of the Islamic State’s men during a purported clash with Shabaab’s in the mountains of northern Somalia last year.

In the latest issue of the Islamic State’s weekly Al-Naba newsletter, the global jihadist organization describes in detail a fierce campaign its so-called Somali Province waged against Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s East African branch. The reported campaign lasted for a little under a year and allegedly resulted in the Islamic State’s men gaining more territory in northern Somalia’s semi-autonomous state of Puntland. 

The two sides have violently clashed at least 51 times, largely in northern Somalia, since the emergence of the Somali Islamic State faction in late 2015 according to data kept by the author for FDD’s Long War Journal

Around 36 of these incidents were between March and December 2023, assuming the Islamic State’s record keeping is truthful and accurate. During this period, the Islamic State also claims its men killed or wounded at least 238 members of Shabaab, though this number cannot be independently verified and is likely an exaggeration. 

According to the Islamic State, the sustained campaign against Shabaab began in earnest in March 2023, after previously preventing the al-Qaeda branch from advancing on its positions over the prior two months.

In March, however, the Islamic State’s men retaliated, ambushing Shabaab’s nearby patrols and raiding small villages held by the group in Somalia’s northern Balidhidin District of Puntland (and likely the larger neighboring Iskushuban District) throughout the month. 

These clashes were previously reported in local media. For instance, Hiraan Online stated that at least 40 militants from both sides were killed in these clashes throughout most of March 2023. The Somali website also reported that the clashes that month began when the Islamic State conducted a suicide bombing against Shabaab’s positions in the area.

The Islamic State did not confirm the use of a suicide bombing its Al-Naba report, however. 

The Al-Naba report goes on to state that April 2023 also witnessed more intense clashes, all roughly within the same area southeast of the coastal city of Qandala. For example, Al-Naba states that between April 1 and May 1, 2023, the two sides clashed an additional nine times.

Between May and July 2023, the Islamic State again recorded at least another 16 battles, with some being recorded as mortar/rocket strikes or IED blasts against Shabaab’s men and vehicles patrolling in the region.

Sporadic clashes, at least an additional six times, including clashes, mortars, and further IED incidents, were then recorded between August and December 2023. It was after these last clashes that the Islamic State claims Shabaab’s men withdrew from the area and the Somali Province was able to capture large swaths of land in the area. 

In the immediate aftermath of reportedly taking over Shabaab’s previously held territory in December, the Islamic State says its men undertook an extensive da’wah [proselytizing] campaign, with loudspeakers, to sensitize remaining Shabaab members and locals of the religious malpractices of al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.

In other villages, Al-Naba states that the Islamic State’s men provided food and medical aid to locals and dismantled IEDs left by Shabaab. Though these public relations moves are unconfirmed, they are nevertheless meant to portray the Somali Province in a positive light and thus garner public support. 

Besides the initial foray of hostilities in March 2023, local media did not report on any of the additional battles claimed by the Islamic State over the rest of the year. Likewise, Shabaab’s media and propaganda apparatus were also silent on these battles (though if they indeed had the losing hand, there would be an incentive to hide this conflict). 

Assuming the Islamic State is correct, however, would mean that it now controls slightly more territory in the remote areas of northern Somalia than it previously did. Despite the obvious propaganda value of such a victory against the larger, more capable al-Qaeda branch in the area, it holds little significant value on the ground. 

The Islamic State’s Somali Province continues to be notably smaller and weaker than its rival Shabaab. It cannot project power to the same degree as the al-Qaeda branch and its attack claims in Somalia only occur sporadically, with just 10 claimed operations in Somalia in 2023 (apart from the claimed clashes with Shabaab). 

Indeed, this is echoed by the latest report from the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team. The report notes that the Somali Province boasts just 100-150 fighters in Puntland – though it does maintain active cells in Mogadishu. 

The report also notes that territorially the Somali Province is severely limited by Shabaab. Al-Naba’s writers seemingly know this fact, as even in their own write-up they admit that Shabaab still maintains control over the Cal Madow Mountains, which straddles Somaliland and Puntland and connects with the Cal Miskaat Mountains, where the Islamic State has its bases. 

Instead, the Somali Province’s real strength, and significance for the Islamic State’s global enterprise, is hosting the Al-Karrar regional office. Al-Karrar acts as the command hub for all of the Islamic State’s activities in central, eastern, and southern Africa. 

Financing, directives, and other support flow from Al-Karrar to various groups, like the Central Africa Province or Mozambique Province, or cells, such as in South Africa, from the so-called office in Puntland. Though the latest UN report notes that Al-Karrar might have been weakened following the death of one of its directors, Bilal al-Sudani, last year. 

Nevertheless, the most recent Al-Naba issue provides an interesting look into the activities of one of its most silent, albeit financially significant, affiliates of the Islamic State. 

At best, it presents a semi-fictionalized version of events of the ongoing war between its men and al-Qaeda’s men in Somalia. At worst, it documents a rebirth of sorts of a group attempting to bounce back following the detrimental loss of one of its key leaders.

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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