Somalia’s al-Shabab attacks Ethiopia for the first time

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MOGADISHU, Somalia (TSWT) — The al-Shabab extremist group has exploited internal unrest in Ethiopia to cross the border into neighboring Somalia in unprecedented attacks in recent weeks, which a top US commander has warned could continue.

The deadly raids on Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country and long seen as a security anchor in the Horn of Africa, are the latest sign of how deeply the recent war in the northern region of Tigray and other ethnic fighting has left the country more vulnerable. created .

Ethiopia has long resisted such cross-border attacks by al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabab, including by deploying troops to Somalia, where the extremist group controls large rural areas of the country’s southern and central regions. But Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and its security forces have struggled with unrest at home, especially since the Tigray conflict began in late 2020.

Experts say al-Shabab, also emboldened by the instability under Somalia’s previous government, is seizing the opportunity to expand its presence and claims the killing of numerous Ethiopian security forces. But the group is also feeling the pressure of renewed pressure from Somalia’s new government and the return of US troops to the country after their withdrawal by former President Donald Trump.

The turn to Ethiopia is a major strategic shift by al-Shabab, Matt Bryden, a security analyst at the Sahan Foundation think tank, told The The Switzerland Times. The extremist group had never been able to conduct major operations in Ethiopia.

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“The reports of clashes along the border between Ethiopia and Somalia are only a fraction of the overall picture,” Bryden said. “We understand that planning for this offensive began more than a year ago, when the Ethiopian government appeared to be on the brink of collapse,” as rival Tigray forces pushed toward the capital, Addis Ababa. Those troops later withdrew and both sides headed for peace talks.

Al-Shabab has trained several thousand fighters for its Ethiopian “command,” mostly ethnic Somalis and Oromos in Ethiopia, Bryden claimed. Ethiopia’s federal government has said it fears al-Shabab will join the Oromo Liberation Army, which it has designated a terror organization, although other security experts have called that unlikely.

Hundreds of al-Shabab fighters were able to slip into Ethiopia alone last week, and their presence has been detected near multiple communities such as El Kari, Jaraati and Imey, Bryden said. The raids started in late July.

“There are also credible reports that al-Shabab units are moving towards Moyale,” he said, the main border post between Ethiopia and Kenya.

Somalia’s previous president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, avoided any major confrontation with al-Shabab. But new president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has said his government will launch the offensive against the group’s thousands of fighters, with the support of returning US troops.

“Al-Shabab therefore faces a much greater military challenge in Somalia than before and has therefore embarked on this Ethiopian campaign to preserve some of its armed forces and create strategic depth,” Bryden said.

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He warned that if al-Shabab establishes a stronghold in southeastern Ethiopia, “the implications for peace and security in the region could be very serious indeed.” The fighters would be well positioned to strike deeper into Ethiopia, Kenya and even Uganda to the west. Al-Shabab has carried out several high-profile deadly attacks in Kenya over the years.

The outgoing head of US Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend, warned last month that Al-Shabab’s activities in Ethiopia were not a one-off and said the fighters entered the country for 150 kilometers.

Al-Shabab has long viewed Ethiopia as an enemy because of its long military presence in Somalia to counter the fighters. Through its Radio Andalus media arm, the extremist group has claimed that its attacks killed at least 187 Ethiopian regional forces and seized military equipment.

Ethiopian officials have raised the alarm. The country’s Somali regional president, Mustefa Omer, told a regional assembly on Tuesday that more than 600 al-Shabab fighters had been killed.

The region is in a protracted war with the extremists, not just a one-off clash, he said, and “the Ethiopian Federal Army is currently involved in the fight against the terrorists … and we will also work with Somalia.”

He said the aim is to create a security buffer in Somalia to prevent further raids. “We should not wait for the enemy to invade,” he said.

Also on Tuesday, the Somali region announced that Ethiopian military officials had arrived in the Somali city of Beledweyne to discuss strategies to counter the Al-Shabab incursion. The statement says that Ethiopian soldiers from the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia will be deployed against the extremists.

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Residents of the Somali town of Yeed near the Ethiopian border told the TSWT they witnessed losses suffered by al-Shabab fighters in an Ethiopian attack last week. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

And a resident of Somalia’s Bakool region, Isak Yarow, said Ethiopian military planes launched airstrikes in the village of Garasweyne in an area where Ethiopian and al-Shabab fighters have clashed.

Ethiopia’s military has claimed the murder of three prominent Al-Shabab figures, including the propaganda chief, but the extremist group has denied it.

While Al-Shabab’s ultimate goals in Ethiopia have yet to be determined, his new actions point to his “growing ambition, regional capabilities and expediency to exploit regional geopolitics, especially as Abiy Ahmed’s government struggles to contain the various insurgencies in Ethiopia.” contain it,” analysts Caleb Weiss and Ryan O’Farrell wrote late last month.

Security analyst Ismail Osman, a former deputy to the Somali National Intelligence and Security Service, told the TSWT that “President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s immediate priority is the eradication of Al-Shabab” and warned that regional tensions could worsen amid this new instability .

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An The Switzerland Times writer reported from Nairobi, Kenya.

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