Somalia: Amid Continued Fighting with Al Shabab in the South, Fresh Attacks in Puntland

The Islamist militia al Shabab’s home region is southern Somalia, but the group has a presence in Puntland, a semi-autonomous territory in northeastern Somalia. Several of the group’s recent attacks have occurred there.

As Somalia government troops, Kenyan soldiers, and African Union forces have pushed al Shabab out of its urban strongholds in southern Somalia, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia (.pdf, pp. 15-16) and other analysts have observed a partial shift of the group’s operations into Puntland. In February, a militia based in the Golis hills in Puntland formally joined al Shabab, and al Shabab promised to increase its attacks there. In April, Puntland’s President Abdirahman Farole told the BBC that more al Shabab fighters were moving into his territory. The BBC wrote, “Correspondents say the move of some members to Puntland could signal a significant regrouping for al-Shabab.”

The implications of this reported northward move should not be overblown. Losses through the summer, and the loss of the port city of Kismayo in October, have weakened al Shabab. And al Shabab is still attacking targets and attempting to hold territory in southern and central Somalia – for example, this week has seen “fierce fighting” around Jowhar, a reportedly al Shabab-controlled town north of Mogadishu. But with all that said, al Shabab attacks this week in Puntland will likely draw serious attention to the group’s presence there. The BBC has details:

Puntland Information Minister Mohamed Aydid told the BBC Somali Service that a truck carrying soldiers was targeted by a roadside bomb near Bossaso, the main commercial hub in the semi-autonomous region.

Ten soldiers were either killed or wounded in the attack, he said.

Heavily-armed al-Shabab fighters also launched an assault on a military base in the area, but were repelled by troops, Mr Aydid added.

“They fled to their hide-outs in the Galagalo mountains,” he said.

In a statement, the Puntland government said two of its soldiers were killed in this attack.

Its intelligence suggested that at least seven al-Shabab fighters were killed and more than 12 wounded as Puntland government troops fought back, the statement said.

Garowe has more.

Africa News Roundup: ECOWAS and Mali, French Commanders in Mauritania, Muslim Protests in Ethiopia, Karim Wade, and More

Details on the Economic Community of West African States’ battle plan for Mali:

“International forces will not do the ground fighting, that role will belong to the Malian army,” a military officer familiar with the plan, who asked not to be named, said on Friday.

“Air strikes will be the responsibility of the international force,” he said, adding foreign partners would also provide logistical and intelligence support and soldiers and police to secure areas captured by the Malian army.

Military planners from Africa, the United Nations and Europe in Mali’s capital Bamako last week drew up a battle plan that would involve a foreign force of more than 4,000 personnel, mostly from West African countries. It remains unclear how much of the force would come from Western nations.

The plan covers a six-month period, with a preparatory phase for training and the establishment of bases in Mali’s south, followed by combat operations in the north.

Top French military commanders visited Mauritania this week to discuss Mali and terrorism.

The ongoing Muslim protests in Ethiopia merit a full post, but two items of note are the announcement of new members of the Islamic Affairs Council and a statement by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom expressing concern “about the increasing deterioration of religious freedoms for Muslims in Ethiopia.”

In other Ethiopia-related news, “Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have agreed to resume jointly working on organizing sustainable management, utilization and development of the Nile waters under the Eastern Nile Basin. The agreement was reached after water Ministers and representatives of the three countries held a meeting in Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Thursday.”


The United Nations warns survivors of Nigeria’s worst flooding in five decades are at risk for waterborne and water-related diseases.  Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency reports the heavy rains have killed 363 people, affected 7.7 million and made more than two million people homeless.

Reuters: “Somalia’s al Shabaab, Squeezed in South, Move to Puntland.”

Senegalese police will again question Karim Wade, a former minister and son of former President Abdoulaye Wade.

What else is happening?

Africa News Roundup: South Sudanese Oil, ECOWAS Meeting in Mali, Flooding in Nigeria, and More

AP: “South Sudan ordered oil companies to restart production Thursday and officials said oil export could resume in about 90 days, ending a nearly nine-month shutdown following a dispute with Sudan over borders and oil.”

IRIN with a piece that is worth thinking about in the context of how the Islamist coalition in northern Mali works to attract support:

Hundreds of displaced northerners in southern Mali are risking life under Sharia law to return home, lured by the prospect of jobs, free water and electricity, and in some parts, relatively cheaper food, Malians in the north and south told IRIN.
Islamist groups have removed taxes on many basic goods, say traders in the region, provide erratic electricity and water services at no charge, and have fixed the price of some basic foods. They are also paying youths to join their ranks, as talk of intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) mounts.

A major meeting of ECOWAS, the African Union, the European Union, and the United Nations took place in Bamako yesterday.

Lagun Akinloye on recent flooding in Nigeria.

Garowe writes that talks between the Ethiopian government and the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front have hit “deadlock.”

The United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and others have raised the possibility that al Shabab, now that its major strongholds in southern Somalia have fallen to African Union forces, may seek to establish more of a presence in Puntland. The BBC reports on a seizure of weapons imported into Puntland that were apparently meant for al Shabab.

Yesterday I wrote about border issues in Niger, but neglected to mention that this week Niger and Burkina Faso were at the International Court of Justice to settle a border dispute. It’s worth noting how colonial legacies still come into play: “During the hearings, Burkina Faso explained that the delimitation of the disputed part should be based on a 1927 French colonial decree, when both countries were part of French West Africa, while Niger contended that the decree was not precise enough to define the frontier in certain areas and asked the Court to delimit it by using a 1960 map of the French Institut Géographique as adjusted with factual evidence of territorial sovereignty.”

What else is happening?

Somalia: Assuming Kismayo Falls, What Next for Al Shabab?

The port city of Kismayo, Somalia (map) has long been a target of the Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF), who entered the country last October to help defeat the rebel movement Al Shabab. Under pressure from both the KDF and forces from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Al Shabab has withdrawn from a number of cities and towns, leaving Kismayo as its last major stronghold and a critical source of income. Kenyan forces have been steadily shelling Kismayo and preparing for a final battle since August. On Monday Kenyan troops battled Al Shabab in Birta-dher, a town some 24 miles from Kismayo, and now they are reportedly closing in on the city itself. Al Shabab seems to feel the city’s capture is likely:

Young armed men from the Islamist army, Al Shabab, still patrolled, but higher-ranking officers had today disappeared from their usual tea shops and command bases. Even Al Andalus, Al Shabab’s radio station, was off the air.

“They are fleeing toward various locations, some are going north, some are going into the forests. It is all the senior men; the young boys are still here in town,” says Abdi Qani Ahmed, a Kismayo trader.


Kenyan forces Tuesday were reported to be less than 50 miles from Kismayo, battling for control of at least two towns on the road into the city, according to Abdinasir Seyrar, a Somali Army officer. “We are a short distance from Kismayo now and we can reach it immediately we want to,” he says.

The looming fight has already created serious humanitarian concerns:

The United Nations and United States warned Wednesday that civilians must be protected as forces battling Somalia’s Islamist fighters tightened the noose around the key insurgent bastion of Kismayo.

More than 6,000 civilians have fled ahead of the anticipated assault on the strategic port city, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said Wednesday, with aid agencies preparing for a potential swift escalation of those needing support.

The capture of the city would not necessarily end these humanitarian concerns, nor will it answer the political questions concerning who will rule Kismayo and how. As Horn of Africa analyst Tres Thomas comments, “It does not appear that there are adequate plans to manage Kismayo if taken.”

Assuming Kismayo does fall, what will Al Shabab do? Three answers occur to me. One is that they will continue to carry out terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings targeting key buildings and persons in Mogadishu and elsewhere. Part of that trend may include continued attacks outside Somalia, especially in Kenya. A second answer is that they will retain a presence in rural areas of southern Somalia. And a third answer, suggested in the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia’s most recent report (pp. 15-16), is that Al Shabab may seek refuge in the semi-autonomous polity of Puntland and also head for destinations outside Somalia, such as Yemen.

Find more speculation about Al Shabab’s future at Al Jazeera. What are your thoughts? Do you expect Kismayo will fall easily? What comes next for Al Shabab?

Meet Jubaland/Azania, Somalia’s New Semi-Autonomous Region

The country called Somalia contains a host of would-be governments, including the Transitional Federal Government (which claims jurisdiction over Somalia as a whole) and the two semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland. Now Somalia has a third major semi-autonomous region: Jubaland, or Azania, whose creation was celebrated yesterday (see here for a map of Jubaland, and here for another, somewhat different political map of all Somalia).

Jubaland/Azania now has a president, former Somalia Defence Minister Professor Mohamed Abdi Gandhi, who has said a main goal of his administration will be to defeat al Shabab, Somalia’s Islamic rebel movement. This, Kenya’s Daily Nation reports, is one of the driving goals of the new region’s creation, but Somalia’s neighbors disagree on whether this tactic is a wise one:

The idea to create an autonomous region near the Kenyan border is hinged on the reason that it will prevent the movement of al Shabaab extremists within the region.

As the conference ended on Sunday, it was not clear whether the Kenyan Government supported the election but recent WikiLeaks revelations showed that the country supported the creation of an autonomous region near its border with Somalia to prevent the flow of illegal arms.

The meeting had been opposed by both Ethiopia and Djibouti, who argue that creating autonomies in the war-torn country could inspire further insurgency by other regions or degrade the gains made by the TFG.

The Jubaland initiative has a long history. A Wikileaks cable (see item 6) shows Kenyan support for the idea in early 2010 (via @slowfalling), and “Kenya has been pouring money [and] supplies into the Jubaland area for some time to fight [al] Shabaab.” But momentum toward the creation of an official state picked up with a seven-day conference last week that culminated in the formalization of Jubaland/Azania. Now it remains to see how Jubaland will negotiate its relationships with the TFG, with Kenya, and with the rest of Africa.

Commenter James Gundun, responding to an earlier piece, leaves us with some questions and issues to think about:

Jubaland has been in the works for years – forming a presidential cabinet electing a parliament is expected – although it’s difficult to say what comes next. While TFG officials attended the week-long conference before appointing Mohamed Abdi Gandhi, how much overlap are they willing to cede to Kenya? This arrangement can squeeze al-Shabab through local governance and attempt to remedy the refugee crisis, but friction may easily develop between Nairobi and the TFG. Ethiopia also opposes the formal recognition of Jubaland, citing fears of increased insurgency, as it monitors the newly-created Shabelle Valley administration and aspiring Somali Central State. Positive interplay between the TFG, Kenya, and Ethiopia is vital to stabilizing Somalia.

What do you think? Will this move hurt or help al Shabab, or make no substantive difference?

Somalia: US Hails AMISOM’s Military Progress, Criticizes TFG’s Politics

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson recently gave an interview to All Africa on US government positions on various political situations in Africa. A large portion of the interview focused on the crisis in southern Somalia, where the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) are battling the rebel movement al Shabab. Carson credited AMISOM for recent military progress against al Shabab, but criticized the TFG”s lack of political accomplishments.

We have seen AMISOM perform extraordinarily well…One can no longer say, derisively, that only six or seven city blocks are controlled by Amisom forces. Amisom now controls 60 to 70 percent of Mogadishu and continues to make serious and significant headway against Shabaab forces in the area.

But we have been disappointed that the military progress has not been matched by similar political progress on the part of the TFG, which has not been able to do the things that it was assigned to do under the Djibouti process. It is important that the TFG be more than a government in name alone. It must continue to reach out and become more inclusive and representative of all of Somalia’s important clans and sub-clans and regional groups. It must look for ways to bring in and integrate and collaborate with the forces that are fighting against extremism and al-Shabaab. It must be able to deliver services and assistance to the people who need it. Where AMISOM makes progress in the city, the TFG must also be able to make progress in delivering services.

Carson also expressed disappointment in the Transitional Federal Parliament’s decision, taken in January, to extend its mandate by three years. This move flew in the face of the fact that the TFG’s mandate expires this August.

Carson then moved on to talk about ways in which the US is essentially bypassing the TFG.

The second track that we rolled out in October is to expand contacts and development assistance relationship and engagement with the governments of Somaliland in Hargeisa and Puntland in Bossaso. We think that it is important to reach out to those governments and to provide assistance in economic areas to help strengthen their young governments as they try to make democratic gains and progress. We also see them as partners in dealing with piracy; particularly the government of Puntland, which is nominally in control of many of the areas from which pirates come, such as Hobyo and and Eyl.


In the south [where the TFG’s sway is theoretically greatest – Alex], we are looking for ways to effectively work at the very local level, sub-regional governments – to help them provide stability and opportunities for greater economic development. These would be groups that are not associated with the TFG; but are opposed to the radical extremism espoused by al-Shabaab. We see a number of clan groups in Galmudug, for example, where leaders are determined to provide both stability and economic opportunity and security to their people. We’re talking with them and looking for ways to provide development assistance support to their efforts.

Stepping back, Washington is clearly happy to see AMISOM make headway against al Shabab, but it seems that Washington’s disappointment with the TFG outweighs that happiness. The parliament’s reach for more time alienated the US, and it appears that going forward Washington will decentralize its political contacts in Somalia even more. What that says for the TFG’s future I can’t say, but August is not far off, and from the TFG’s standpoint it’s a bad time to have run afoul of Washington.

Puntland, the TFG, and the Continuing Fragmentation of Somalia

Within the country known as Somalia, there are at three major regional political units: Somaliland (which declared independence in 1991, at the beginning of Somalia’s civil war), Puntland (which has had an autonomous government since 1998), and southern Somalia, where the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) sits in the capital of Mogadishu, technically ruling over the whole country. Somalia has been fragmented for some time. But this month, with Puntland moving to distance itself from the TFG, the cracks are widening.

On Sunday, January 16, President Abdirahman Mohammed Farole of Puntland held a special meeting of his cabinet. Following the meeting, Puntland’s government

issued a statement saying that the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) “does not represent Puntland in international forums” and that the United Nations Political Office for Somalia should “reconsider its position and support for the TFG at the expense of other Somali stakeholders.”

Puntland, unlike the breakaway region of Somaliland to the west, does not consider itself an independent country. Until now, it had supported the federal government, which is backed by the international community but has been greatly weakened by an ongoing war against rebels who are seeking its overthrow.

The statement, read by Daud Mohamed Omar, the planning and international cooperation minister, criticised the Mogadishu government for its “unwillingness to actively support federalism for Somalia in violation of the TFG charter,” according to a report by Radio Garowe, a community radio station based in Garowe, the Puntland capital.

Since Puntland’s announcement, tensions have escalated.

Puntland…has barred central government officials from entering its territory, an official said, as a row between Puntland and the capital Mogadishu escalated.

Puntland officials said the ban extended to all lawmakers and civil servants, a week after declaring it would not cooperate with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) until the establishment of what it described as a legitimate and representative federal government.

“We have notified all our immigration departments and airports that TFG officials were banned from inside our territory,” Puntland’s deputy Interior Minister Ali Gab Yusuf told reporters over the weekend.

These moves on the part of Puntland’s government appear to have some measure of popular support within Puntland.

Different analysts have read Puntland’s actions differently: some believe Puntland is making a play for more “political consideration” from the TFG, while others “are worried Puntland’s separation spells the end for a unified Somalia, with the emergence of smaller regional states more likely.” Much will depend on what the TFG achieves before the end of its mandate in August. Reuters writes, “By then [the TFG] should have enacted a new basic law and held general elections. Most political analysts say it will probably fail to do either.”

Whether or not Puntland is bluffing, one thing seems clear: the failures of the TFG (to regain substantial territory, to establish political legitimacy, to meet its founding goals, to inspire support in Puntland and Somaliland) are driving the centrifugal forces at work in the Somali federation – or what’s left of it. To the extent that the center is perceived as weak, Somalia’s regional polities will increasingly reach for greater autonomy.

US Engagement with Somaliland and Puntland

Stars and Stripes reports on the greater outreach to Somaliland and Puntland that will form part of the United States’ new strategy in Somalia:

In the coming months, the U.S. will begin direct engagement with leaders of two northern Somalia breakaway regions with the hope that those political ties can stem the radical insurgency that threatens to spread beyond the lawless parts of southern Somalia, according to State Department officials.

The effort marks a significant policy change toward Somalia, which has become a safe haven for the Islamic insurgent group al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-linked faction that has been battling the weak, U.S.-backed central government.

In the last two years, the U.S. has spent more than $200 million trying to bolster Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. And while that support will continue, the U.S. also will engage with leaders in Somaliland and Puntland as it looks to build on those regions’ relative political and civil stability.

The two analysts the article quotes – Richard Downie of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Ken Menkhaus of Davidson college – both indicate that the new strategy could be effective, though Menkhaus warns that its implementation could prove tricky.

What of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG)? Downie bluntly states that the new strategy “reflects the fact that the TFG is probably a doomed project.” If that view is shared amongst government policymakers, the TFG’s doom could definitely be on its way. US strategy and the TFG’s survival are closely linked: American dollars have most likely already extended the TFG’s lifespan past what it would have been without aid. A more diversified American strategy in Somalia, then, could not only reflect US fears that the TFG is failing, but also hasten the fulfillment of those fears.

Even with the new strategy, the situation puts the US in something of a bind. Extending greater support to these would-be nations does not equal granting them official recognition, but it is a big step in that direction. If African countries who oppose the “balkanization” of Somalia become uneasy with US policy, that could create diplomatic problems for the US in the region. And withdrawing support from the TFG could give al Shabab more room to expand, potentially achieving exactly the opposite of the hoped-for effect. The old strategy was clearly failing in its goal of building a strong central government in Somalia, but the new strategy brings its own complications. These complications are not insurmountable, but they are serious.

Weekend Links: Nigeria, Niger, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, and More

Flooding in Nigeria:

About two million people in northern Nigeria have been displaced after authorities opened the floodgates on two dams, an official says.

The flooding began suddenly when the gates on the Challawa and Tiga dams were opened, a spokesman for the Jigawa governor said.

The dams are in Kano state, but about 5,000 villages in neighbouring Jigawa state have been affected, he added.

Several states in northern Nigeria have been hit by floods this year.

It is not yet clear whether residents received a warning or if anyone was injured or went missing in the flooding, reported the Associated Press news agency.

On Monday, the EU will likely move toward greater cooperation with Niger.

Sudan: “A top Sudanese official says people in south Sudan will no longer be citizens of the north if their region votes for independence in a January referendum.”

International Crisis Group has a new report on Eritrea.

In Somalia, a change in US policy toward Somaliland and Puntland?

Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said U.S. officials were developing ties with authorities in both Puntland and Somaliland, both of which declared themselves independent in the early 1990s when the Horn of Africa nation descended into civil war and anarchy.

Carson said the United States did not plan to recognize either government as an independent state. But he said increased U.S. cooperation, particularly on aid and development, could head off inroads by Islamist Al Shabaab insurgents, who stepped up their fight to topple Somalia’s Western-backed central administration last month.

Check out this piece from Professor Laura Seay (Texas in Africa) on UN Week and the Millennium Development Goals.

Enjoy your weekend!

Amidst Political Strife, Humanitarian Emergency Worsens in Southern Somalia

Yesterday I wrote about continued conflict between Hizbul Islam and al Shabab in parts of southern Somalia, and had a good discussion with commenter Toaf about where things might be headed. Today I want to discuss how conflict affects local communities.

First, fighting drives people from their homes and fundamentally destabilizes communities. Al Shabab’s recent conquest of Afmadow sent thousands of people fleeing, including key elders and businesspersons. This further erodes local political and economic systems. Moreover, when refugees flood into new areas – or other countries – that places pressure on societies and leaders there.

And for people who remain in a town hit by fighting, problems accumulate. Beledweyne, near the Ethiopian border, frequently changes hands between Hizbul Islam, the Transitional Federal Government, and Ethiopian forces. Repeated shifts in rule have driven many residents into camps outside the city, halted much economic activity, and exacerbated problems of malnutrition and disease.

Second, the fighting makes it impossible for many aid agencies to continue working. I am continually surprised to hear that any are still working, and I admire the bravery of the men and women who have remained in Somalia to provide humanitarian assistance despite pervasive violence. Now, however, even some of the bravest are being forced out:

The regional spokesman for the United Nations’ World Food Program, Peter Smerdon, tells VOA that the agency was forced to withdraw five local staff members from the town of Afmadow in Lower Jubba on Saturday.

Smerdon says the move follows the evacuation of six WFP international workers from the town of Buale in Middle Jubba nine days ago.  Christian humanitarian organization, World Vision, also flew out six members of its staff in Buale on the same day.

“In Afmadow, it was clashes between Islamist groups.  In Buale, it was because of security concerns, which I cannot go into,” he said.

WFP and World Vision are two of only a handful of international aid agencies operating in Somalia’s southern regions.  The United Nations says the evacuation of WFP staff is yet another blow to a country, where a third of its population, more than three-and-a-half million people, need urgent food aid.

World Vision plans to continue some of its programs in the Juba region, but obviously violence is creating massive difficulties.

Finally, the politics of international aid to Somalia also have effects on the ground. Earlier this month, the UN and the WHO warned of looming disaster in Somalia: floods, disease, and hunger could affect millions without an increase in aid, and even the funds available could hardly be disbursed due to violence. US concerns that money might flow to al Shabab led to restrictions on aid delivery that “have put aid groups operating in the area in a near-impossible bind.” Some money is still coming in – the African Development Bank recently pledged $2 million for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government – but the TFG serves a fraction of the population.

In short, suffering is real and widespread, and those of us who follow the political and strategic aspects of the civil war would do well to keep the human aspects in mind.


As a coda, the crisis in Somalia has occasioned some reflection among bloggers about the American role in the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. Adam Serwer writes that US support for the invasion was a mistake, and I agree. So does the Majlis Blog, though not as explicitly. The Majlis Blog also wonders what the US can do now, a question few are bold enough to answer with specifics (including me).

I believe we must not overestimate our capacity to “fix” Somalia. In the interest of crafting a more coherent policy, however, we do need to have more serious national conversations about a number of questions, including: Should we recognize Somaliland? How should we treat Puntland? Do our policies toward Kenya seem likely to help Kenya deal with fallout from Somalia’s civil war? What will we do if Ethiopia contemplates another major intervention in Somalia? Can we prevent regional actors from arming factions inside Somalia? And can we quarantine southern Somalia if the TFG falls?

And lest we forget, here’s a reminder of some history:

US Soldier in Somalia, 1992