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Al-Shabaab: the latest addition to Ethiopia’s woes

7 mins read

Ethiopia’s weakened security apparatus is increasingly being confronted by al-Shabaab militants.

In late July, al-Shabaab militants carried out an attack on three towns, Aato, Yeed, and Washaqo, which are on the Ethiopia-Somalia border. The group claimed to have overrun regional special force bases stationed there and reportedly killed hundreds of members of the Somali Liyu police.

A few days after the attempted incursion, the Somali regional President, Mustafe Omer, wrote on Twitter that his forces had killed more than 800 al-Shabaab members and captured nearly 100 fighters in the recent clashes.

He further boasted that the group’s aggression ended with “a rout” and assured that al-Shabaab would never dare to get close to Ethiopia’s border again. Nonetheless, the figures given appear exaggerated to many who believe the statement does not reflect the reality on the ground.

In fact, the governor of Bakool, the region of Somalia bordering Ethiopia in that area, spoke to the media and stated that, while the clashes described above were ongoing, several other heavily armed al-Shabaab units entered Ethiopia from east of El-Barde town without encountering resistance. This leads security experts to speculate that the militant group’s assaults on Aato and Yeed were a diversionary tactic.

Before elaborating further on recent events and explaining al-Shabaab’s reasons for attacking Ethiopia now, a short historical recollection is required.

Ethiopia-Somalia relations

In 2006, Ethiopia intervened militarily in Somalia to back the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) against its rival political force, the Islamic Court Union (ICU). The ICU was accused of having links to Islamic terrorist movements, which led to US’s support for the operation.

Many ICU members and Somali youths, who perceived the Ethiopian forces as invaders and were therefore moved by nationalistic sentiments, became radicalized, fuelling the growth of a nascent radical Islamic youth movement, al-Shabaab.

Ethiopia withdrew its forces from Somalia in 2009, claiming to have nullified the threat of Islamist rule. Contrary to the claims and despite Ethiopian efforts and the deployment of the Africa Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) UN peacekeeping mission since 2007, a significant share of the country remained in the hands of the insurgents.

Since then, Ethiopia has continued meddling in Somalia’s politics, undermining Mogadishu’s central government, arming various Somali clans against one another, and implementing a divide and rule policy that enabled it to install regional leaders willing to serve Addis Abeba’s interests.

Over the past decade, al-Shabaab has managed to regroup in Somalia and carried out attacks in neighboring countries. Despite the group’s acrimony towards it and in striking contrast to Kenya, which suffered several attacks, it rarely successfully hit any target in Ethiopia. Many experts reason that Ethiopia was able to prevent attacks thanks to its strong intelligence and security apparatus.

Over the last four years, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed enjoyed a good relationship with Somalia’s former President, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmaajo), and his administration rectified the EPRDF’s policy of interfering in Somalia’s internal affairs.

The association between the two leaders was formalized in the 2018 tripartite alliance between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, which aimed to reshape the regional governing system to reflect personal political ideologies—favoring a centralized government and strong executive.

Unfortunately, since Hassan Sheikh Mohamud became Somalia’s president in May 2022, relations between the two countries seem to have worsened again.

The new president visited neighboring countries with a stake in the region, such as Eritrea, the UAE, Turkey, Kenya, and Djibouti. He also traveled to Egypt, where he discussed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. The meeting between the two leaders culminated in a jointly held press conference during which they condemned Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to fill the dam.

Somalia’s criticism of this crucial project for Ethiopia and the cancellation of Hassan Sheikh’s planned visit to Addis Abeba have triggered real or perceived diplomatic tensions between the neighboring countries.

Al-Shabaab’s tactics

While al-Shabaab routinely targets Ethiopian forces deployed in Somalia with the African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission, attacks on Ethiopia or on Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) positions close to the border are rare.

So why did the group strike now?

Concerns regarding the impact of restructuring Ethiopia’s intelligence and security sectors on the ENDF’s effectiveness have been raised since the 2018 political transition led to a revision of the previous government’s repressive approach to internal security.

Ethiopian forces’ woes have only been exacerbated since. The country currently faces multiple insurgencies, from the war in the Tigray region that began in November 2020 to the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) insurgency in Oromia. The conflict in the north has been particularly devastating for the forces, as experienced Tigrayan members were purged from the ENDF’s ranks.

In addition to the internal crises, Ethiopia is at loggerheads with some of its neighbors and other regional powers, such as Sudan and Egypt. All these active conflicts have prompted internal divisions, fueled ethnic violence, stretched intelligence resources, and thus limited the country’s capacity to reinforce the thinly spread security forces along its borders.

Regardless, as recently as May 2022, Ethiopian security officials still seemed capable of preventing infiltration, when they claimed to have foiled an al-Shabaab attack on the capital.

Following the shock of this incursion, the Ethiopian government claimed al-Shabaab fighters intended to reach mountainous areas on the border of Somali and Oromia to connect with OLA. While some al-Shabaab members of Oromo ancestry were caught during the recent fighting, the government’s allegations aren’t backed by any evidence, and security experts question that link because jihadists and ethnic nationalist insurgents have very different ideological beliefs.

Security experts believe that the group’s attack in Ethiopia was meant to expand its presence across the region and perhaps recruit new members inside Ethiopia. In any case, the group still poses a danger to countries in the Horn of Africa.

Moreover, despite the rhetoric, no large-scale operation against al-Shabaab has been conducted by Somalia federal forces yet, enabling the group to mobilize the resources for such an operation. Nevertheless, observers believe that due to the renewed U.S. drone strikes in Somalia, the militant group is desperately looking to Ethiopia’s mountainous areas as an alternative territory to hide from the aerial attacks.

Recent confrontations

During the first days of the confrontation, the bulk of the fighting was done by Somali region’s forces. The Liyu police have long been present in the Bakool region of Somalia, protecting supply routes and providing logistical support to ENDF contingents operating as part of the AU mission in Somalia, which are based in Baidoa, the capital of the South West State.

Despite losing most vehicles, some al-Shabaab fighters managed to pass through the defendants’ positions after the attack on border towns described above. Nonetheless, two days after the initial incursions, the police force carried out a counteroffensive, encircling and defeating the al-Shabaab unit that had entered through Yeed near Hulhul.

On the same day, the regional officials reported having repelled another 200 al-Shabaab fighters in Lasqurun village, which is only 20 kilometers from Ferfeer town near the Ethiopian border with the Hiran region in central Somalia. They claimed to have killed 85 al-Shabaab fighters during the clashes.

Three weeks after the first attacks, the regional Liyu police were involved in renewed fighting with al-Shabaab militants in the village of Sanku Dhooble near Qallaafo town in the Shabelle region on 11 August. This episode occurred just one week after the regional president declared that al-Shabaab had been defeated and was not capable of fighting inside the region any longer.

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Worryingly, a U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) assessment suggests al-Shabaab fighters may have penetrated as far as 150 kilometers into Ethiopia before being stopped. Stephen Townsend, the general at the helm of the command, warned that the al-Shabaab incursion was not a fluke or a one-off.

As detailed above, contrary to what authorities previously reported, the operation was very intense and complex, requiring the intervention of federal forces as well.

Fortunately, not everybody is in denial of the threat. Some Ethiopian officials, diplomats, and security officers admitted to the media that some 50 to 100 al-Shabaab fighters had reached their target, Elekere, a mountainous terrain between the Somali and Oromo regions. It’s not clear if the government is still pursuing the militant groups that have reached there.

In an attempt to prevent further attacks across the border, federal forces have recently gone on the offensive. ENDF has carried out air raids and ground forces are expected to advance into Somalia to create a buffer zone. Thousands of heavily armed Ethiopian troops have been deployed to Southern Somalia and established a military base at an airport in the Dolow and Balad-Hawo districts.

Political quicksand?

Incapable or unwilling to engage with Somalia’s federal government, Addis Abeba has resumed its divide and rule policy towards its neighbor, bypassing the central government to engage directly with the country’s federal states and regions.

Over the past weeks, Ethiopian security officials have been shuttling between Somalia’s federal states, holding meetings with several senior officials there. Moreover, the federal government has invited several regional states’ leaders to Ethiopia to sign security cooperation deals.

In response, South West State president Abdiaziz Laftagareen became the first to heed the call, arriving in Jigjiga on 8 August, where he met Mustafe Omer in a visit aimed at ensuring border security and jointly fighting al-Shabaab.

Other senior-level engagements were reported with Hiiran, Jubaland, and Puntland states. Authorities of the Gedo region, who are close to former president Farmaajo, have also welcomed the renewed Ethiopian deployment.

Given the group’s secrecy and constant internal evolution, regional cooperation against al-Shabaab aimed at understanding the insurgent’s capabilities, identifying existing security gaps, carrying out joint operations, and sharing intelligence seems to be the only way forward in combating this jihadist threat.

However, not all Somali actors support Addis Abeba’s new policy to bypass the central government. Allies of Somalia’s president believe these political engagements and military operations are intended to fuel tensions and undermine Somalia’s federal administration.

Grievances against Ethiopian forces—especially the regional paramilitary force known as Liyu Police —could threaten the fragile security cooperation in the border areas between the two countries. This skepticism can be reduced if Ethiopia’s Somali region and federal forces consult with the Somalia government before conducting military operations across the border.

While waiting for the actualization of regional cooperation, it remains to be seen whether the overstretched ENDF can defend the country’s borders and defeat the jihadists or if this hasty decision to move troops inside Somalia will further destabilize the embattled administration in Addis Abeba.