Mogadishu, Somalia (AFP) – The extremist group Al-Shabab He took advantage of internal turmoil in Ethiopia to cross the border from neighboring Somalia in unprecedented attacks in recent weeks that a senior US military commander has warned will continue.
The deadly incursions into Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country and long seen as an anchor for security in the Horn of Africa, are the latest sign of how deep the recent war has gone into the northern region of Tigray. Other ethnic fighting has made the country even more vulnerable.
Ethiopia has long resisted such cross-border attacks by al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab, in part by deploying forces inside Somalia, where the extremist group controls large rural parts of the country’s southern and central regions. But Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and its security forces have battled turmoil at home, especially since the outbreak of the Tigray conflict in late 2020.
Emboldened by instability under the previous Somali administration, experts say al-Shabab is seizing the opportunity to expand its presence and announces the killing of dozens of Ethiopian security forces. But the group is also feeling the pressure of renewed push by the new Somali government and the return of US troops to the country following the withdrawal of former President Donald Trump.
Matt Bryden, a security analyst at the Sahan Foundation think-tank, told The Associated Press that the shift to Ethiopia is an important strategic shift by al-Shabab. The extremist group was not able to conduct major operations inside Ethiopia.
“Reports of clashes along the border between Ethiopia and Somalia are only a small part of the overall picture,” Bryden said. “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 Tigrayan forces pushed toward the capital, Addis Ababa. These forces subsequently retreated, and both sides are moving toward peace talks.
Bryden emphasized that al-Shabab has trained several thousand fighters for its Ethiopian “leadership”, most of whom are ethnic Somalis and Oromos within Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s federal government has said it fears al-Shabab’s association with the Oromo Liberation Army, which it has designated a terrorist organization, although other security experts have described this as unlikely.
Bryden said hundreds of al-Shabab fighters managed to infiltrate Ethiopia last week alone, and their presence was revealed near multiple communities such as Kari, Grati and Emi. The incursions began in late July.
“There are also credible reports of Al Shabaab units being deployed in the direction of Moyale,” the main border point between Ethiopia and Kenya, he said.
Former Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed has avoided any major confrontation with Al-Shabab. But the new president, Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud, said his government would launch an offensive against the militants with the support of returning US forces.
“Consequently, al-Shabab in Somalia faces a much greater military challenge than before, and so it embarked on this Ethiopian campaign in order to preserve some of its forces and establish strategic depth,” Bryden said.
He warned that if al-Shabab establishes a stronghold in southeastern Ethiopia, “the consequences for peace and security in the region could already be very serious.” The fighters would be well positioned to strike deeper in Ethiopia, in Kenya and even Uganda in the west. Al-Shabaab has carried out several high-profile deadly attacks inside Kenya over the years.
The outgoing head of the US Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend, warned last month that al-Shabab activities inside Ethiopia were not a “one-off” and said the fighters had reached as far as 150 kilometers inside the country.
Al-Shabaab has long considered Ethiopia an enemy of its long military presence inside Somalia in the face of the militants. The extremist group, through its media arm of Radio Andalusia, claimed the killing of at least 187 Ethiopian regional forces and the seizure of military equipment in its attacks.
Ethiopian officials expressed concern. On Tuesday, the country’s Somali regional president, Mustafa Omar, told a regional council that more than 600 al-Shabab fighters had been killed.
He said the region is locked in a long war with extremists, not just a one-off clash, and “the Ethiopian Federal Army is currently engaged in fighting terrorists…we will also work with Somalia.”
He said the goal was to create a security barrier inside Somalia to protect against further incursions. “We must not wait for the enemy to invade,” he said.
The Somali region also announced, on Tuesday, the arrival of Ethiopian military officials to the Somali town of Beledweyne to discuss strategies to confront the incursion of Al-Shabab. The statement said that Ethiopian soldiers in the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia will be deployed against the extremists.
Residents of the Somali town of Yad near the Ethiopian border told the Associated Press they witnessed losses suffered by al-Shabab fighters in an Ethiopian attack last week. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
A resident of Somalia’s Bakool region, Isaac Yaro, said that Ethiopian military planes launched airstrikes on the village of Garasween in an area where Ethiopian fighters and Al-Shabab fighters clashed.
The Ethiopian army claimed responsibility for the killing of three prominent figures in Al-Shabab, including the head of the propaganda, but the extremist group denied this.
While al-Shabab’s ultimate goals within Ethiopia have yet to be determined, its new actions indicate its “growing ambition, regional capabilities, and opportunism to exploit regional geopolitics, especially as Abiy Ahmed’s government struggles to contain the various insurgencies within Ethiopia.” Analysts Caleb Weiss and Ryan O’Farrell wrote late last month.
Security analyst Ismael Osman, former deputy of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency, told the AP that “President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s immediate priority is to eliminate al-Shabab” and warned that regional tensions could worsen amid the new instability.
An Associated Press writer reports from Nairobi, Kenya.