Islamic State deepens foothold in Somalia’s Puntland state
A year after a faction of al-Shabaab defected to IS, the group has exploited state disorder to seize a stretch of Somalia’s coast.
On 26 October, more than 50 heavily-armed Somali Islamic State (IS) fighters seized the town of Qandala in Puntland federal state. It was a small, but highly symbolic, step forward for the group and demonstrates again how armed extremists exploit state disorder and local tensions to develop safe havens and rebuild after defeats. Unless Puntland treats this threat seriously and resolves internal tensions and conflicts with neighbouring federal states, IS in Somalia could grow in strength and destabilise much larger parts of the country.
The takeover of Qandala comes one year after the IS leader in Somalia, Sheikh Abdulqadir Mumin, defected from country’s main Islamist group al-Shabaab, which is aligned with al-Qaeda. While Mumin’s pledge of allegiance to IS failed to split al-Shabaab, which remains a far larger movement and still dominates areas outside government control in South and Central Somalia, it did stir up internal ructions that now threaten to undermine its organisational and ideological cohesion.
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IS’s expansion to Qandala, 75km east of Bosaso, the main port of Puntland, wins not just symbolic and propaganda value for the small group, but also the logistical advantages of an outlet to the sea, new financial opportunities, and better connections to southern Yemen. However, the move is not without operational risks, considering its limited military capabilities and the superior firepower of the forces arrayed against it. This includes the US, which has significantly stepped up its drone strikes across Somalia in recent years.
The emergence of IS factions represents a serious threat to jihadist unity in Somalia, though al-Shabaab’s leaders have so far resisted bids by IS to switch their allegiance from al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab’s security and intelligence wing, Amniyat, has been hard at work quashing IS sympathisers and factions operating in southern Somalia. Many suspected IS supporters have either been arrested or killed, among them the prominent al-Shabaab commander Abu Nu’man Sakow. This purge coincided with the Somali Federal Government’s own anti-IS sweeps, which led to the arrest of four suspected pro-IS militants operating in Interim South West Federal State in September.
The IS faction’s success in Qandala, in the Bari region, exploits clan grievances and the government’s failure to consolidate its foothold in Puntland since October 2015 when IS leader Mumin went into hiding to begin recruiting and training his faction. Qandala is also home to Mumin’s clan (Majerteen Ali Saleban) as well as other minority clans increasingly aggrieved by perceived marginalisation by the Puntland government.
The largest active clan militia is led by the former Bari region governor, Abdisamad Mohamed Galan, an outspoken critic of the current Puntland administration. He hails from the same clan family as Mumin and enjoys the support of other minority clans. He and other armed clans in the region operate largely outside the control of the Puntland government.
Despite territorial gains in South and Central Somalia, al-Shabaab has also failed to gain a significant foothold in Puntland. In March 2016, Puntland’s local paramilitary “Darawiish” forces, fighting alongside those of the Galmudug Interim Administration, thwarted an attempt by al-Shabaab to infiltrate the Mudug coast. Al-Shabaab was apparently pursuing rival IS-affiliated factions hiding in the Golis Mountains. The following month, IS released a propaganda video showing militants training for combat. Recruitment also increased from around 30 this time last year to roughly 200.
Deteriorating relations between Puntland and the Galmudug Interim Administration have helped IS grow. Both administrations engaged in heavy fighting in the historically divided city of Galkayo in November 2015, and large-scale armed combat resumed in October 2016, killing more than 50 civilians, wounding hundreds, and displacing tens of thousands. A new federal government, African Union (AU), UN and European Union (EU) brokered ceasefire agreement was signed in Galkayo on 13 November after a UAE-brokered ceasefire collapsed.
Both sides deploy propaganda and disinformation, and accuse each other of supporting al-Shabaab. In August 2016, the Galmudug administration accused Puntland of providing military fatigues to al-Shabaab, while Puntland accused Galmudug of facilitating two deadly al-Shabaab suicide bomb attacks in Galkayo that killed more than 20 people. The latest fighting was triggered by a September 2016 US airstrike that it admitted killed ten Galmudug troops. The Galmudug interim administration accused Puntland of duping the US into launching the attack.
Puntland’s security forces are now severely overstretched with: policing the long frontier with South and Central Somalia; keeping an eye on rebellious clans in Sool and Sanaag (regions also claimed by neighbouring Somaliland); battling hostile armed groups in Galkayo (against Galmudug forces); fighting al-Shabaab in the Galgala Mountains; and combating Galan’s militia in Qandala.
This turbulence has given IS the space to reorganise and operate more freely than they had before. Mumin was until now a marginal figure, unable to attract a significant following. His bold takeover of Qandala along a strategic stretch of the coastline coincides with the rise of IS in Yemen and is certain to raise his profile and perhaps also his ability to attract recruits and funding.
The prospect of an emboldened IS poses an additional security worry for the authorities in Puntland and neighbouring states. Such threats can no longer be dismissed as insignificant. A concerted and multi-pronged response by both the federal government and its member states is now urgently required – at the top of which must be a genuine political initiative to address local clan grievances, build inclusive local governance institutions, and find a lasting solution to the renewed armed hostilities in Galkayo.
Zakaria Yusuf is a Somalia analyst at International Crisis Group.
Abdul Khalif is a research assistant for Horn of Africa at International Crisis Group.
This article was originally published on ICG.