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Same-Day Analysis

Assault on Puntland military outpost indicates deteriorating security, to the advantage of Islamist militants and Somali pirates

Published: 6/13/2017

Somalia's Puntland regional government claimed on 8 June that Al-Shabaab militants had overrun a Puntland Defence Forces (PDF) military outpost in Af-Urur, southwest of Bosaso city, resulting in conflicting reports of 20 to 61 troops being killed.



IHS Markit perspective

Outlook and implications

  • This was the single largest Al-Shabaab attack against Puntland forces since 2014.
  • Al-Shabaab's ability to deploy sufficient fighters to mount a direct assault on a military outpost indicates that the Islamists are taking advantage of an escalation in an ongoing clan dispute between Puntland regional president Abdiweli Gaas and former Bari regional commissioner Abdisamad Galan.
  • Al-Shabaab's increased strength in the area gives it the capability to mount small-arms and VBIED attacks against Bosaso port.
  • Pirates operating from Sanaag and Bari regions in Puntland are now more likely to share the proceeds from crew and hull ransom demands with Al-Shabaab militants.

Risks

Government stability; Civil war; Death and injury; Terrorism; Kidnap and ransom

Sectors or assets

Government property; Individuals; Maritime cargo; Ports

Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, president of Somalia, at the 2017 Somalia Conference at Lancaster House in central London.

PA 31266780

An unspecified number of Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabaab) militants attacked and overran a PDF military outpost in the village of Af-Urur, Bari region, according to Somalian media reports on 8 June. The Puntland regional administration confirmed the attack. The PDF reported on 9 June it had responded to the incident and had engaged in a small-arms battle with Al-Shabaab militants before retaking the base.

Al-Shabaab's central command is seeking to exploit deteriorating security in Puntland, especially as it now faces a more permissive operating environment in southern Somalia (see Somalia: 27 April 2017: Integration of Somalia's regional forces, enhancement of UK and US support indicate likely slow security improvement). To this end, Al-Shabaab is probably exploiting a shared clan lineage and co-operating more closely with an anti-government clan militia in the region (see Somalia: 13 March 2017: Appointment of Somalia's new PM indicates strategy to negotiate with semi-autonomous Al-Shabaab factions, security deteriorating in Puntland). Tellingly, Af-Urur is located less than 25 kilometres north of Armo, an area lying outside of Puntland government control. Armo is a stronghold of Puntland's numerically strongest clan militia, the Cali-Saleeban (sub-clan of Harti-Majeerteen/Darod), who are loyal to former Bari regional commissioner Abdisamad Galan.

Since the conclusion of federal elections in February, Galan has been locked in a dispute with Puntland's regional president, Abdiweli Gaas. The dispute stems from Galan's clan being marginalised from political representation and having limited access to patronage networks. A deal to include Galan in the regional government was discussed when Gaas visited Armo in October 2016, but concessions were never granted. IHS Markit sources reported in January that Galan had threatened to retaliate by targeting Puntland forces. Gaas has already demonstrated his clan's support for Islamist militant groups by, for instance, facilitating the capture of Qandala, Bari region, by a 100-strong Islamic State faction led by former Al-Shabaab leader Abdul Qadir Mumin, who also hails from the Cali-Saleeban clan (see Somalia: 8 November 2016: Anti-government clan's support for Islamic State faction in Puntland unlikely to contribute to increased Somalia-based piracy). Qandala was subsequently recaptured following a Puntland security forces (PSF) operation in March, with the remaining militants limited to conducting a low-level insurgency.

Piracy networks

The Cali-Saleeban clan lineage is partly shared by the "Ali Zwahila" piracy group led by Isse Yullux and clan elder Abdi-Hakin Afweyne, which operates in Caluula and Xabo, in Puntland's Bari region. This network also co-operates with members of the Siwaaqroon (sub-clan of the Harti-Majeerteen) led by Abdikarim Salah (alias Aw Koombe) who are based in Las Khorey, Sanaag region. This wider network was responsible for the failed hijack of product tanker Aris 13 on 13 March, which represented the first commercially significant piracy attack since May 2012 (see Somalia: 14 March 2017: First successful Somali pirate attack since May 2012 motivated by clan rivalries, exploiting insecurity in Puntland region). Al-Shabaab is likely to resume its historical preference of recruiting militants from the Cali-Saleeban, particularly as deteriorating security in Puntland allows the Islamists' insurgency to gain traction. In addition, Al-Shabaab has also benefited from co-operation with the Dubais (a sub-clan of the Warsengeli), which since the late 2000s has been incorporated into Puntland's regional administration.

Outlook and implications

A further deterioration in security would enable Galan's militia to support Al-Shabaab's expansion into the Cal Madow and Cal Miskall mountains, and neighbouring Sanaag region, which is intersected by a boundary disputed with self-declared independent Somaliland. The fall in morale of the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) and inability of the PDF to operate unimpeded in Sanaag region will create a lawless zone in which Salah's piracy group may begin to resume activities from Las Khorey. The expansion of Al-Shabaab into the same region and their shared clan affiliation, in addition the presence of Warsenegli sub-clans in the regional government, increase the likelihood that ransom payments will be redistributed with clan members associated with Islamist militants. IHS Markit sources also reported in 2015 that Afweyne's piracy group has invested in the purchase of fishing dhows to conduct illegal trafficking, including the transportation of Islamist militants from Yemen to Puntland.

Separately, Islamist militants will have greater scope to prepare and execute small-arms and VBIED attacks against Bosaso. This target set includes Bosaso port, government buildings, and hotels frequented by government officials. The increase in capability to conduct these attacks was indicated on 31 May, when a vehicle was intercepted by security forces at a checkpoint near Bosaso and explosive-making materials hidden onboard were seized during a search. Galan's co-operation with Al-Shabaab is probably intended to undermine confidence in President Gaas's ability to ensure security in the region. Gaas's government is already presiding over wage arrears of up to 12 months affecting the PDF, including the Puntland Intelligence Agency, the PMPF, and the Puntland Exploration Security Unit.

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