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Ethiopia’s Abiy may have opened the door to al-Shabaab
by Muktar Ismail
Saturday July 8, 2023

Federal authorities’ dismantling of regional paramilitaries has created an opportunity for al-Shabaab to strengthen its presence in Somali region.

The leaders of Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Djibouti held a regional summit in Mogadishu last February where they agreed to launch a joint campaign against the al-Shabaab militant group operating in Somalia, describing it as a threat to regional stability.

The Somali Armed Forces, with the backing of the international allies and African Union Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), have also intensified their fighting against al-Shabaab, with the goal to pursue and remove any threat it poses to regional stability.

The joint operation is set to begin soon in Somalia’s South West State and Jubaland, two territories bordering Ethiopia. Ethiopian troops, which invaded Somalia from 2006 to 2009 and have been heavily involved in combating al-Shabaab ever since, are expected to play a crucial role in the efforts to liberate these two states from the Salafi-jihadist group.

On 6 June, al-Shabaab responded by sending two suicide bombers to attack a contingent of Ethiopian troops stationed in Dolow, a town in Somalia along the border with Ethiopia, which resulted in renewed fighting between the two groups.

While military tacticians in the region meticulously orchestrate a strategy to defeat al-Shabaab within Somalia, Ethiopia is deploying a strategy that limits the capabilities of local regional forces that understand jihadist tactics and have been a critical tool in protecting the country’s eastern and southern borders.

Mounting Resistance

Following the announcement of the joint operation, al-Shabaab leaders reportedly convened a consultation meeting attended by more than a hundred delegates from different areas in an undisclosed location in Somalia and devised a plan to counter the impending coordinated attack on their strongholds.

A communiqué issued at the end of the al-Shabaab leadership meeting stated that the Mujahideen (those engaged in jihad) and the Somali people must work together to repel the second phase of the “crusader campaign” led by Ethiopian invaders with their lives and wealth, just as they did in thwarting the previous campaign of the “apostate tribal militia.”

These actions have allegedly caused al-Shabaab to step up its presence in Ethiopia.

A source close to the action indicates that al-Shabaab leaders believe the greatest threat will come from Ethiopia, so they have prepared a plan to counter the Ethiopian forces in particular and, more broadly, the Black Lion operation, for which they devised a two-pronged strategy.

The militant group’s first strategy is to start a guerilla war within Ethiopia, specifically in parts of Somali and Oromia regions.

According to the source, 600 to 1,000 al-Shabab fighters have infiltrated Ethiopia during recent weeks, where some are already working as casual laborers in areas between Afcade/Hargeele, Shabele, and Weeb rivers to El Kare of Somali region and Bale mountains in Oromia.

Moreover, al-Shabaab’s recent attacks on Ethiopian military bases are believed to have planted hundreds of al-Shabaab members in southeast Ethiopia’s Bale mountains with the intention of carrying out future attacks within the country.

Al-Shabaab fighters in Ethiopia had reportedly stockpiled enough food, ammunition, and other supplies that can last for three months.

The second strategy is to establish an active front in the Bakool and Gedo regions of Somalia, where they intend to bog down Ethiopian forces in the event of an attack.

It should be recalled that Ethiopian forces repelled an al-Shabaab incursion in July 2022 after the group targeted some border towns in Somali region. An estimated 500 to 800 fighters marched 150 kilometers inside Ethiopia before being repulsed by regional special forces.

The incident demonstrated the group’s determination and capability to expand its operations beyond Somalia’s borders.

Locals Recruited

Ethiopia had long been seen to be an impenetrable environment for terrorist activities due to its superior intelligence compared to Kenya which suffered several devastating attacks at the hands of al-Shabaab.

However, in the last three years the country has experienced an increase in the number of Ethiopians radicalized and recruited into Islamic organizations such as al-Shabaab and the Islamic State.

Although terrorist acts have been rare in Ethiopia, there has been a significant surge in jihadist groups’ interest in extending their operations following the war in Tigray from 2020 to 2022.

Al-Shabaab and other Jihadist groups see an opportunity to recruit more fighters within Ethiopia in the coming years, owing to the vast number of unemployed and idle youths living in villages and rural areas of the country.

Jihadist militants target youth who are disgruntled with the system and marginalized  communities with grievances who are motivated to change their condition, even if it means resorting to violence.

Recently, extremist militant groups have increased their online propaganda by using languages that are commonly used in the region such as Somali, Swahili, Amharic, Oromo, and Arabic.

In July 2022, a Jihadist group released a 25-minute video titled “Upon the Path of the Conquerors,” which was broadcast in Amharic and subtitled in Arabic. The video was shot in good quality and depicts the military operations, training, and daily life of the Islamic State’s Somalia members, with a focus on Ethiopian fighters.

This video demonstrates how Jihadist organizations are interested in reaching out to attract Amharic-speaking Ethiopians, Somalis, and Eritreans to join Jihadist groups and how they are capable of raising funds outside of their traditional areas.

Despite relentless attacks from al-Shabaab, Islamic State militants have maintained a presence in Somalia since a small group of al-Shabaab members defected and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in October 2015.

While al-Shabaab’s strength is waning due to ongoing regional counterinsurgency operations in Somalia, other terrorist organizations may take over the region if not handled appropriately. As a result, the current operation should target both al-Shabaab and its adversaries.

Resurfacing Tensions

In the past few weeks, the Ethiopian government has been deploying a large number of its military forces to the border areas between Ethiopia and Somalia in preparation for the war against al-Shabab insurgents.

However, these forces have limited knowledge of the area and how the terrorist group operates and, to make matters worse, clashes and mistrust with locals living in the region have been reported from the start.

Moreover, the Ethiopian military is already thinly dispersed and may be ineffective in remote and arid locations such as Somalia. The long-standing distrust between the Ethiopian military and the Somali people may play into the hands of al-Shabaab.

Unfortunately, the newly deployed military in Somali region has started killing and tormenting unarmed citizens in Kebridehar, Godey, Shaykosh, Ayshaca, Gursum, Guradamole, and Tuli-Guuleed.

In one notable incident, the Ethiopian military allegedly killed two civilian and injured ten others on 30 April in Kebridehar, after low-ranking officers got into an argument with local youths. More recently, Ethiopian army members were accused of indiscriminately firing on civilians in Kebridehar on 20 June, killing four people and injuring three others.

These incidents show a lack of coordination and distrust between the Ethiopian military and the local Somali population, and bring back painful memories of crimes committed by the Ethiopian army against Somalis during the EPRDF’s rule.

The Ethiopian army’s relationship with the Somali people has never been good and even the smallest reckless move can cause insecurity throughout the region. As a result, al-Shabaab can use these sentiments to gain momentum by recruiting and operating easily among the local population.

Somalis in Ethiopia believe that the relative serenity, peace, and stability enjoyed by the Somali region over the last five years is vanishing, and that events are spiraling back to the dark days of yesteryear.

Security Vacuum

Ethiopia’s federal government announced its desire to dissolve and incorporate all regional special forces into the national army, federal or regional police, or both, a move that was interpreted as an attempt to curtail local regional autonomy.

On 15 April, the military’s Chief of Staff, Berhanu Jula, declared the process of integration finalized and the regional special forces defunct. As a result, the era of regional special forces came to an end without much difficulty.

Abiy’s recent move to disband regional paramilitaries known as ‘Liyu’ (‘special’) police – which have been responsible for many atrocities since being formed in 2007 – has caused border patrol units to leave their bases prematurely, creating a security vacuum.

It’s understandable that Abiy’s goal is to restore the central government’s monopoly on violence and to mitigate emerging powerful regional forces that could pose a threat to his rule, as happened in Tigray and Amhara regions.

This approach, however, must be applied on a case-by-case basis.

Weakening or dissolving Somali region’s Liyu police now does not serve the purpose of stopping al-Shabaab militants from expanding their presence into the neighboring countries.

Somali Liyu police, despite their many excesses, have been an effective tool for protecting the security of Ethiopia’s eastern and southern border areas. Hence, dissolving or disarming the Somali Liyu police might weaken security at a time when al-Shabaab is building up in border areas.

A two-tiered security approach composed of a strong national army and federal police alongside robust and well-armed regional forces is preferable to the one Abiy envisions. A hasty and chaotic process of demobilization and disarmament will only exacerbate Ethiopia’s security difficulties.

Muktar Ismail is a disaster prevention specialist, a former humanitarian and development advisor to Somali region's president, and a former UN staff member.


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