MS Risk Blog

Ability of Islamic State to Exploit Conflict in Northern Somalia – Less Certain than First Feared?

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Concern continues to be raised about the potential ability of jihadist actors to exploit the on-going stand-off between Somaliland and Puntland over the town of Tukaraq. The town which is at the centre of this crisis is located in the Sool region was (re)captured by forces belonging to the self-declared region of Somaliland in January 2018. Highlighting the importance with which regional and international actors view the situation – not only in regards to this threat but the wider impact that a worsening conflict may have on these two regions and their inhabitants – was the recent 28-30 July visit to Garowe and Hargeisa by the United Nations Special Representative for Somalia, Mr. Michael Keating, and the the Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s Special Envoy for Somalia Dr. Mohamed Ali Guyo. The town itself has has been a frequent flashpoint in a two-decades long dispute between Puntland and Somaliland over the regions of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn. Puntland has also sought to assert its own right to govern them based on the clan affiliation of local inhabitants; this being primarily Dhulbahante and Warsangali who are part of the Darod/Harti clan family to which the dominant clan in Puntland, the Majerten, also belongs This latest episode in the long-standing conflict between Puntland and Somaliland over these regions has brought them both to the brink of open war and caused thousands of civilians to be displaced.

Rise of terror groups in the region

It is in the context of this already complex and volatile environment that concerns have been raised by observers such as the International Crisis Group that the local affiliate of the Islamic State in Puntland- known variously as Abnaa al-Khalifa (sons of the caliphate), Islamic State in Somalia and Wilayat as-Somaal (meaning the Somali Province of the Islamic State) – could exploit the crisis to strengthen and expand its own presence in northern Somalia.

Such concern is not without cause

The Bari region of Puntland, which lies on the north-eastern corner of Somalia on the tip of the Horn of Africa, has remained a poorly governed space. Local authorities and their security forces have been able to maintain only a weak presence in this region allowing a mixture of jihadist insurgent groups, including both al-Shabaab and the Islamic State, along with clan militias and criminal networks with considerable freedom to operate. Puntland has had limited success in containing this threat and there are genuine reasons to be concerned that a worsening of the crisis, especially if it became open war, could lead to further strain on its already overstretched military resources. This could not only lead to a lessening of military pressure  but also result in a worsening of existing inter and intra-clan rivalries and conflicts all of which may create openings that the Islamic State could be expect to exploit. However, even in the ever of such developments the local operational context in Puntland may not on fact be as permissive as may be first feared.

Can Islamic State thrive in Northern Somalia?

This is not to say that the group is not well positioned to try and take advantage of a worsening of the current crisis. Although still relatively small the group under the leadership of its leader Abdul Qadir Mu’min has already displayed a remarkable level of resilience. It has grown in size from several dozen men when it first defected from al-Shabaab in 2015 in response to the announcement by the Islamic State that it had re-established the Caliphate and now has an estimated 200-300 fighters. Since first emerging as a separate jihadist faction the Islamic State in Puntland has also managed to successfully maintained good relations with local clans in the Bari region despite military and diplomatic pressure from both al-Shabaab and the Puntland administration. Nevertheless, there are three key factors that could limit – perhaps even threaten – the ability of the Islamic State to exploit an eroding security situation and expand beyond its existing area of operations in the Golis and Bari mountains.

Shifting clan loyalties could mitigate support for IS

The first of these factors is the continued reliance of the Islamic State group on the hospitality (perhaps better described as tolerance) given to it by the Majerteen/Ali Saleeban and other minority clans. This hospitality has been offered to the group because of kinship ties and the belief that its activities serve local interests. Other groups, such as al-Shabaab, Abdisamad Mohamed Gallan (former governor of Bari in an ongoing state of semi-rebellion), and the Qandala-Hafun network of pirates and smugglers also rely on these local clans for support. Support is given to these groups, including the Islamic State, because local clans are engaged in their own long-standing dispute with the Puntland administration over issues of political and economic marginalization. The Islamic State affiliate in Puntland is seen as one of several useful proxies and a potential future bargaining chip by local clans in their conflict with Garowe. In the context of Somali clan politics, it would not be unheard of to see the loyalty shown Puntland’s IS leader Abdul Qadir Mu’min (a member of the Ali Saleeban clan) superseded by other loyalties and interests.

For this reason any success by the Islamic State in strengthening and expanding its presence in the Bari region could be seen by local clans as upsetting the current balance of power between jihadists, clan militias, and criminal networks operating in the region. This could provoke resistance from these same clan actors if it is felt that their own interests and influence are threatened by this development. Such a desire to maintain a balance between the various forces operating in their territory may have been the reason behind the seemingly reckless and ultimately disastrous attempt by al-Shabaab in May 2016 to send hundreds of fighters from south-central Somalia by boat to the region. If local clans welcomed, or at least were willing to tolerate, the establishment of the Islamic State as another anti-government actor then the leadership of al-Shabaab may have felt that its hand was forced to act. This would explain why al-Shabaab attempted reinforce its local branch in Puntland with hundreds of fighters despite already possessing an overwhelming advantage in numbers and firepower over its jihadist rival. It may have been feared by al-Shabaab that it would not be ‘allowed’ to destroy Abdul Qadir Mu’min and his (then) small band of fighters and that it would also need to guard itself against any potential backlash from local clans; not only for being seen to act against their political interests but for killing their relatives who are members of the group.

IS could no longer be viewed as supporting local interests

A second factor that may threaten the ability of the Islamic State to exploit a worsening of the conflict between Puntland and Somaliland concerns the potential of the group to try and organize and influx of foreign fighters. This been a long-standing concern since the emergence of the Islamic State as a separate jihadist faction in Puntland and has been raised by various observers including the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea. Such a development would further reduce the groups reliance on the Ali Saleeban and other local clans for recruits; representing an acceleration of a process already underway as it draws fighters from across a broader range of clans and sub-clans. But this would not be without its own risks.

The greater the reliance on non-local leaders and fighters, the less the Islamic State will be seen as a representing local interests. This may already be a growing problem as the group has drawn increasing numbers of fighters from other clans and sub-clans from across Somalia. There is a risk that this could place the group in a situation similar to that experienced by al-Qaeda when it first attempted to establish and embed itself in Somalia during the early 1990’s. Even if Islamic State were to be successful in adding dozens if not hundreds of new fighters to its ranks such an influx of foreign fighters could actually undermine its position as it faces an increasingly lukewarm or even hostile reaction from local clans because of being seen as ‘foreign’. Not only would this present al-Shabaab with an opportunity that present itself as a defender of local interests but also undermine what protection (or tolerance) the Islamic State has enjoyed because of the ties of kinship enjoyed by Abdul Qadir Mu’min and other members of the group.

Other groups seeking growth amid the security vacuum

A third factor that needs to be considered is that the Islamic State is not the only group that would be well positioned to take advantage of a worsening of the security situation in the Bari region. Any vacuum emerging in the wake of the redeployment, retreat or defeat of  Puntland’s military and security forces in the region would also offer similar opportunities to these other actors. This would not only include Abdisamad Gallan and his militia but also smugglers and arms dealers like the members of the Qandala-Hafun network.These other actor s, unlike al-Shabaab, may choose to ally themselves (if only temporarily) with Puntland authorities in order to protect their own interests. But perhaps of greater concern would be the problem of al-Shabaab almost certainly devoting significant political and military efforts to contain (and if possible, destroy) its Islamic State rival while taking advantage of its own opportunities to expand its presence across the region.

It is also important to note that even in an environment in which Puntland’s military and security forces have been significantly weakened, this would not necessarily present equal opportunities to each group. Some (including the Islamic State) may face advantages or indeed disadvantages due to the current location of their forces, relations with local clans, financial resources and access to arms. These would also be important factors that may limit the ability of the Islamic State to exploit any worsening of the current crisis.

As such, although there is no question that a conflict between Puntland and Somaliland ‘could’ be exploited by the Islamic State, the actual ability of the group to do so may in fact be more limited than observers and analysts have feared. The local factors that may advantage or disadvantage a group such as the Islamic State in the Somali context are highly complex, and may shift quickly in response to local, regional and sometimes even external developments. This may present challenges to external observers but it is important that they are understood and included in any assessment of the Islamic State and current efforts to establish a sustained presence not only in Puntland but across other regions of Somalia as well.