The al-Qa’ida affiliated terror group has moved hundreds of fighters into Ethiopia – why?
Two small towns on the border of Somalia and Ethiopia in the Bakool region were attacked by al-Shabaab a few weeks ago. No-one paid much attention: no-one pays much attention to the rural province of Bakool at the best of times. Al-Shabaab regularly attacks towns there and elsewhere in Somalia’s hinterland and then moves on, a standard ‘hit-and-run’ approach.
The al-Qa’ida terrorist group did indeed move on – into Ethiopia. Daring? Or incredibly foolish, given the combat power that Ethiopia can wield? It seemed like the latter, as somewhere between one and two hundred al-Shabaab fighters in ‘technicals’ (armed pick up trucks) were mercilessly pounded by Ethiopian soldiers, artillery and airstrikes.
But as time passed the former seemed to be more likely, as a number of other columns of al-Shabaab fighters, maybe another two hundred, perhaps as many as one thousand, appeared, moving through the Somali region of Ethiopia (also known as the Ogaden), and then further and further into Ethiopia towards the Oromo highlands. It seemed, in fact, that the two columns that crossed the border from Bakool region were a feint, to distraction from the main body. (Although it seems unlikely that the al-Shabaab fighters in those columns were told they were to be fodder for Ethiopian guns and bombs.)
So what are al-Shabaab planning? It seems that the group has been quietly making approaches to ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia, and to disaffected members of the Oromo as well. These are significant developments.
Linked to this are the dramatic effects of drought in the parts of Somalia that al-Shabaab control. The Oromo highlands are considerably more hospitable than the parched stretches of southern and central Somalia that live under the brutal yoke of the terror group: there is food, water, space to set up camps and ample foliage under which to hide.
The Ethiopian Response
Why aren’t the Ethiopians doing something about these unwelcome interlopers? Partly they are distracted by the ongoing situation in within their own borders in Tigray, which might reignite at any moment. The Ethiopia security forces, for all that they are large, well equipped and effective, is thinly spread internally and in Somalia. Unlike Kenya, which has tried to create a buffer in the neighbouring Somali Federal Member State, Jubbaland, Ethiopia’s attempt to create a similar buffer involves not just Jubbaland but also Southwest, Hirshabelle & Galmudug States, (and, to be honest, the more settled northern states, Puntland and Somaliland, which nonetheless lack proper border controls). That is a lot of geography to cover.
The worry now is that al-Shabaab has set up an operating base outside the country is operates in, creating something of a safe haven where it can rest, recuperate, plan, train and recruit (just as the Afghan Taliban did in Pakistan). And that safe haven is an easy jumping off point not just for operations back into Somalia, but for operations in Ethiopia itself, into the Sudans, Uganda and even Kenya. It also lies on a migrant route that ultimately winds its way north to North Africa, the Mediterranean and into Europe. The organised people smuggling gangs are unlikely to have any qualms about dealing with terrorists if there is money to be made.
Nor should we forget al-Shabaab’s affiliation with al-Qa’ida, whose Emir, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, was recently killed in a drone strike in Kabul. With the global terror group looking for a new leader (some suggest that the leader of al-Shabaab, Diriye, may be in with a chance) and, potentially, a base for operations, the loose links between the two terror groups might rapidly become considerably tighter. And then everyone will have something to worry about.