September 26, 2023

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

The deadly incursions into 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 deep the recent war in the northern Tigray region has become. and other ethnic conflicts have made the country more vulnerable.

Ethiopia has long resisted such cross-border attacks by al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab, in part by deploying troops inside Somalia, where the extremist group controls large rural areas of the country’s south and central regions. However, 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-Shabaab, also emboldened by instability under Somalia’s previous government, is seizing the opportunity to expand its footprint and claim the killing of many Ethiopian security forces. But the group is also feeling the pressure of a new push from Somalia’s new government and the return of US forces to the country after former President Donald Trump pulled out.

The shift to Ethiopia is a major strategic shift by al-Shabaab, Matt Briden, a security analyst at the Shahan Foundation think tank, told The Associated Press. The extremist group has never been able to carry out major operations inside Ethiopia.

“Reports of clashes along the Ethiopia-Somalia border are only a fraction of the big picture,” said Bryden. “We understand that planning for this attack began more than a year ago, when the Ethiopian government appeared to be on the verge of collapse,” as rival Tigray forces pushed towards the capital, Addis Ababa. These forces later retreated and both sides are moving towards peace talks.

Al-Shabaab has trained several thousand fighters for its “rule” in Ethiopia, mostly Somalis and Oromos inside Ethiopia, Bryden claimed. Ethiopia’s federal government has said it fears al-Shabaab will link up with the Oromo Liberation Army, which it has labeled a terrorist group, although other security experts have called that unlikely.

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

“There are also credible reports of al-Shabab units deploying in the direction of Moyale,” the main border post between Ethiopia and Kenya, he said.

Somalia’s previous president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, avoided any major confrontation with al-Shabaab. But new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said his government would take the offensive against the group’s thousands of fighters, backed by returning US forces.

“Al-Shabab therefore faces a much greater military challenge in Somalia than before and has therefore launched this campaign in Ethiopia in order to maintain some of its forces and create strategic depth,” Bryden said.

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

The outgoing head of US Africa Command, General Steven Townsend, warned last month that al-Shabaab’s activities inside Ethiopia were not “unique” and said the fighters had reached up to 150 kilometers into the country.

Al-Shabab has long viewed Ethiopia as an enemy for its long military presence in Somalia, fighting back against the militants. Through Radio Andalus’ media arm, the extremist group claimed to have killed at least 187 Ethiopian regional forces and seized military equipment in its attacks.

Ethiopian officials have expressed concern. On Tuesday, Somalia’s regional president, Mustefa Omer, told a regional assembly that more than 600 al-Shabaab fighters had been killed.

The region is in a long-term war with extremists, not just a conflict, he said, and “Ethiopia’s federal army is currently involved in the fight against terrorists … and we will also work with Somalia.”

He said the aim is to build a buffer in Somalia to guard against further incursions. “We must 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 town of Beledweyne to discuss strategies to counter the al-Shabab invasion. The statement said Ethiopian soldiers in the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia would be deployed against the extremists.

Residents of the Somali town of Yeed near the border with Ethiopia told the AP they saw casualties suffered by al-Shabab militants in an attack in Ethiopia last week. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

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

Ethiopia’s military has claimed the killing of three prominent al-Shabaab figures, including its propaganda chief, but the extremist group has denied this.

While Al-Shabab’s ultimate goals inside Ethiopia have yet to be determined, its new actions signal its “increasing ambition, regional capabilities and opportunism to exploit regional geopolitics, especially as the Abiy Ahmed government struggles to contain the various uprisings within Ethiopia”. Analysts Caleb Weiss and Ryan O’Farrell wrote late last month.

Security analyst Ismail Osman, a former deputy of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Service, told the AP that President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s “immediate priority is to eliminate al-Shabaab” and warned that regional tensions could worsen amid it of the new instability.


An Associated Press writer reported from Nairobi, Kenya.

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