SOMALI ISLAMIC STATE SUPPORTERS LAUNCH REPORTED ATTACK IN PUNTLAND
Supporters of the Islamic State group reportedly carried out one of their first attacks in Somalia this month, in a potentially significant development that may presage the group spreading into other parts of East Africa. The incident occurred in Puntland, an autonomous self-governing region in the northeast of Somalia, where government sources were reported by local media as saying that at least seven people were killed in a clash between government troops and an pro-Islamic State militia (Horseed Media, November 27). Although details were sparse, local reports said that the attack occurred near the village of Galgala, and began when the Islamist fighters shelled a military encampment. The rebels are believed to be former members of al-Shabaab who retreated to the mountainous region when the movement was driven out of central Somalia. These subsequently evolved into two separate groups, one loyal to the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Shabaab and one which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and is led by Shaykh Abdul Qadir Mumi, a former al-Shabaab spiritual leader (VOA, November 25). Mumi had earlier pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an audio recording released online and Mumi’s active followers are believed to number around 20 (Reuters, October 23).
The violence occurred against the backdrop of fighting in Galkayo City between the Puntland government and rival clans from Galmudug, which the Puntland authorities have claimed are backed by the country’s federal government (Horseed Media, November 19). This development underscores that Islamist militant groups are continuing to evolve, and in some cases become even more extreme, despite the group being driven out of both Mogadishu and central parts of Somalia. The fresh violence also shows that Puntland, whose self-declared autonomous government is weak in part because it is not internationally recognized, remains potentially vulnerable to extremist movements. The Islamic State had previously in October released a video, “From the Land of al-Sham [Syria] to the Mujahideen in Somalia–Wilayat al-Khayr,“ aimed at encouraging Somalis, both in Somalia and in the Somali diaspora, to support the group (Jihadology, October 3). The video featured Somali Islamic State members, apparently in Iraq or Syria, and included one British-Somali man telling viewers in English that “establishing Khilafah [caliphate] in Somalia will not only benefit you, but will benefit the Muslims in Somalia and East Africa.” Tellingly, however, most of the video was delivered in either English or Arabic, suggesting that the Islamic State has limited Somalis willing and able to star in its media productions. This factor seems likely to limit the group’s ability to wean fighters away from al-Shabaab, a group which is not only long established in Somalia, but which is also extensively embedded in Somalia’s tribal landscape.
Nonetheless, the emergence of the Islamic State in Somalia has the potential to pose a substantial distraction to al-Shabaab, which is already beleaguered by increasing military pressure from African Union (AU) troops and from increasingly numerous and effective Somali government forces. Indicative of this is that al-Shabaab has threatened to “cut the throat“ of any of its members who join the Islamic State (Capital FM [Nairobi], November 24). Al-Shabaab’s senior spiritual guide, Shaykh Abdalla, also reportedly warned in a broadcast on the group’s “Radio Andulus,” that suspected Islamic State supporters would be “immediately beheaded” (The Star [Nairobi], November 25). Backing up its threats with actions, al-Shabaab has reportedly killed a number of former members who have defected to the Islamic State, notably killing Shaykh Hussein Abdi Gedi and four others near Gududley village in Middle Jubba region (VOA, November 22). Gedi was formerly al-Shabaab‘s deputy governor of the Juba region and was a significant figure within the movement, indicating how seriously al-Shabaab is taking the emerging Islamic State threat to its position as Somalia‘s premier jihadist group.
TURKEY-PKK VIOLENCE CONTINUES TO COMPLICATE ISLAMIC STATE FIGHT
Violence between Turkey and the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê—PKK) during recent weeks has continued to complicate regional and international efforts to the tackle the Islamic State militant group and the spread of other hardline Islamist groups in Syria. During recent weeks, fatal violence between the PKK and the Turkish military has continued on an almost daily basis in Turkey’s Kurdish-minority southeastern provinces. This violence has had important broader consequence for Turkey and region. One outcome is a hardening of Turkish popular feeling against Kurdish nationalist groups, including those PKK-linked groups such as the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel—YPG) fighting against the Islamic State in Syria. Another result is to prompt the Turkish military to adopt ever more drastic measures in pursuit of security and perceived national interests, which, as demonstrated by the Turkish military’s downing of a Russian military aircraft along the Turkey-Syria border, has the potential to lead to significant regional destabilization.
Much of the ongoing violence between the government and the PKK occurs in relatively remote areas in southeastern Turkey. In one typical incident, for instance, on November 30, the Turkish government reported that three PKK members and one government soldier were killed clashes in Derik district in Mardin Province, while three more PKK fighters were killed in Sirnak Province, reportedly after a police patrol discovered a PKK unit that was preparing to launch an attack (Anadolu Agency, November 30). While such incidents rarely cause civilian casualties, another significant trend is for PKK fighters to attack the construction of Turkish checkpoints and observation points, particularly in border regions, which are intended to control and limit PKK activity in the region. For instance, on November 24, PKK fighters attacked a construction team working on one Turkish military facility near Cizre, a town known for its strong PKK presence, killing one civilian worker (Anadolu Agency, November 24). In a bid to stop such violence and to disrupt PKK attacks, Turkey also launched airstrikes within Turkish territory, for instance, bombing what the military described as PKK shelters and supply points in Şemdinli district of Hakkari Province on November 23 (Hurriyet Daily News, November 23). As a result of this violence, officials have said that 180 members of the security forces have been killed in fighting with the PKK since July, while more than 1,700 PKK fighters are believed to have been killed in the same period, both in Turkey and as a result of Turkish airstrikes in Iraq (Anadolu Agency, November 30).
The increasingly bitter mood that this fighting is causing in Turkey, both among Kurds and ethnic Turks, is evidenced by the growing brutality and randomness of much of the violence. In the latest example, a prominent Kurdish human rights lawyer, Tahir Elci, was killed on November 28 in Cizre apparently by local police who opened fire on individuals who had attacked them with guns, prompting them to open fire on a nearby crowd (Today’s Zaman, November 28). His death prompted large Kurdish demonstrations. Moreover, there have been reports of a pro-Turkish Islamist group, known as Esedullah (“Allah’s Lions”), apparently supporting the police and intimidating and carrying out violence against Kurdish activists, prompting questions in parliament by Kurdish MPs and members of the secularist CHP party (Al-Monitor, November 12). Meanwhile, in another unusual but noteworthy development, videos purportedly taken recently of Turkish paramilitary forces in the region show masked police units firing into the air and chanting “Allah Akbar,” in a manner that some commentators argue is reminiscent of the Islamic State itself, a marked departure from the traditional rigid secularism of the Turkish security forces (YouTube, November 17). These and other such incidents underline that the ongoing fusing of Islamist and Turkish nationalist ideologies under the country’s ruling Islamist-leaning AKP party has the potential not only to complicate and deepen the conflict between the government and Kurdish separatists, but also to hamper international efforts to combat the Islamic State, a struggle which remains heavily dependent armed Kurdish separatist groups in Iraq and Syria, many of which have close links with the PKK.