Al-Shabaab: Why Somalia’s al-Qaeda Affiliate Wants Puntland

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 5

Al-Shabaab recruits

In contrast to the abundance of forecasts that predicted the weakening and eventual demise of al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliated group is resurgent in many parts of Somalia. This resurgence is particularly notable in Puntland, a semi-autonomous part of northern Somalia where al-Shabaab has for a long time maintained a limited presence. Significantly, over the last year, al-Shabaab has steadily intensified the tempo of its operations in the area, indicating the group is focusing its efforts on expanding its presence and influence in Puntland.

The reasons for al-Shabaab’s renewed focus on operations in Puntland are three-fold. First, it is intent on taking advantage of weaknesses within the Puntland government. Second, it is determined to gain access to the sea, which it has largely lost in southern Somalia. This access will allow it to deepen its links with lucrative dark networks and strengthen its ties to Yemen based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Third, al-Shabaab is determined to thwart the Islamic State’s (IS) attempt to establish itself in Puntland.


Al-Shabaab’s forces have been driven out of many population centers in Somalia, including the capital of Mogadishu. However, it has retained its ability to attack a range of targets. On January 15, 2016, al-Shabaab launched one of its most devastating attacks to date on a fortified military base of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces in El Adde, near the border with Kenya (al-Jazeera, January 15, 2016). The attack is particularly significant because of its complexity and because of the number of al-Shabaab fighters involved. While the Kenyan government has not released an official death toll, Somali officials claim more than 200 soldiers died in the attack (al-Jazeera, February 25, 2016). This attack — along with subsequent attacks on smaller fortified AMISOM bases — demonstrates that al-Shabaab has not only retained but also refined its ability to plan and execute complex attacks on hardened targets despite its loss of territory (al-Jazeera, July 11, 2016).

In addition to well-planned attacks on military targets, al-Shabaab continues to attack civilian targets across southern Somalia. The group has carried out multiple car bombings of hotels and markets and continues to assassinate journalists, government officials and members of the military and security services.

Al-Shabaab’s resilience and resurgence is due largely to the group’s links with the Somali countryside. Such links give it strategic depth and provide it with the ability to fight when and where it chooses. The sustained AMISOM offensive that gathered force with Operation Linda Nchi in October 2011 successfully pushed al-Shabaab out of most populated areas and impeded al-Shabaab’s ability to finance itself. However, despite its losses, al-Shabaab remained resilient because of its operatives’ ability to disappear into rural and remote areas, in particular the dense riverine forests along the Somali-Kenyan border.

From these areas, al-Shabaab bided its time and focused on re-building its organization. [1] Like any organization intent on survival, al-Shabaab’s leadership learned from its defeats and recognized the critical importance of maintaining low-density bases in remote and inaccessible areas like the riverine forests of southern Somali.

In addition, al-Shabaab benefited from refuges in Puntland’s rugged Cal Madow and Cal Miskaal Mountains. Following its expulsion from strongholds like the port of Kismayo in September 2012, al-Shabaab operatives fled north to Puntland as well as south. Since that time, al-Shabaab has maintained a presence in the semi-autonomous state of Puntland.

A Mountain Redoubt

Concurrent with its resurgence in the south, al-Shabaab is now more active in Puntland. The semi-autonomous state maintains its own government and security forces whilst continuing to support the Mogadishu-based Somali federal government. Because of the semi-autonomous nature of its government and security forces, Puntland receives limited amounts of international aid and its security forces are not as well trained, equipped or paid as their southern counterparts.

The limited and often sporadic funding of its loosely organized security forces means that the Puntland government has not been able or willing to consistently pursue al-Shabaab. The government is also plagued with corruption, and its intelligence service, the Puntland Intelligence Agency (PIA), has a history of playing both sides in the conflict with al-Shabaab. [2]

The Puntland government has been unable to regularly pay its soldiers. This was in evidence on February 26 when soldiers belonging to the Puntland Defense Force mutinied over unpaid salaries and took over government buildings in the capital of Garowe (Garowe Online, February 28). [3] Most of the government’s civil servants have not been paid for eight months (Garowe Online, August 18, 2016).

Roughly half of Puntlanders are nomadic, and at the same time as the government is facing a funding crisis, Puntland is experiencing a drought that has devastated the herds of livestock that many depend upon (UNHCR, February 21). The government has been widely criticized by the local media for its failure to organize an effective response to the drought.

Such disorder provides opportunities for al-Shabaab, which, like most insurgent organizations, thrives in ungoverned areas. Al-Shabaab has also, at times, excelled at providing the services, like emergency food aid, that Somalia’s federal and various semi-autonomous governments have often failed to provide.

The leadership of al-Shabaab is exploiting the weakness of the government and the worsening drought by consolidating its presence in the Cal Madow and the Cal Miskall mountains that partially encircle Puntland’s largest city and primary port, Bossaso.

The Puntland government has struggled to clear these mountains of insurgent forces allied with al-Shabaab since 2010. It enjoyed some success in 2014, when the Puntland Defense Force and allied militias launched a sustained offensive that succeed in evicting al-Shabaab operatives from the mountains (Hiirran Online, October 1, 2014). However, al-Shabaab has since worked to reassert its authority in the area, most especially in the Cal Madow Mountains. The mountains rise to altitudes of 7,000 feet (2,133 meters) and are riddled with caves and gorges. While the terrain is ideal, their proximity to the busy and loosely controlled port of Bossaso is likely the reason why al-Shabaab is interested in maintaining and strengthening its presence in the mountains.

Access to the Sea: Weapons and Allies

Like any insurgent organization, al-Shabaab must secure sufficient funds and materiel to ensure its survival and ability to grow, and al-Shabaab’s leadership has always prioritized its efforts to penetrate and exploit the numerous dark networks responsible for trafficking in a variety of licit and illicit goods through Somalia.

Before AMISOM’s sustained offensive and successful effort to retake southern Somalia’s urban centers, al-Shabaab had little trouble financing its operations. The organization excelled at administering a relatively comprehensive system that taxed both imports and exports from Somalia’s ports, most notably Kismayo, which al-Shabaab controlled up until September 2012.

After the loss of Kismayo, al-Shabaab maintained its involvement in the lucrative trade in aromatic charcoal and in sugar exports by imposing taxes on the merchants who traded in the goods (Daily Nation, July 26, 2014). However, the loss of Kismayo greatly diminished its ability to collect taxes. Since then, al-Shabaab has lost more of the coastline of southern Somalia, meaning the group finds it more difficult to secure weapons and materiel. Additionally, the loss of its access to ports has impeded al-Shabaab’s ability to interact with its regional ally, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Controlling territory so near the port of Bossaso and other informal ports nearby will enable al-Shabaab to tap into Puntland’s already well-established dark networks, most especially the illicit trade in weapons, and to reinvigorate its relationship with AQAP.

Largely because of the civil war in Yemen, AQAP is stronger and better funded than it ever has been. At the same time, Yemen, which was already awash with arms, has been flooded with arms and materiel by external participants in the war like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (al-Monitor, August 7, 2015). It is highly likely that many of these weapons, including more advanced weaponry like anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), will make their way to Somalia where prices for such weapons are higher than they are in Yemen.

Because of its proximity to Yemen just across the Gulf of Aden, and its abundance of informal ports, Puntland is a prime destination for arms traders who want to take advantage of higher prices.

Al-Shabaab’s leadership undoubtedly recognizes that maintaining a base of operations in Puntland is highly advantageous. It can easily tap into and extract fees and weaponry from the dark networks that abound in Puntland. At the same time, the proximity to southern Yemen, much of which is under AQAP control, means it will be more able to interact and potentially exchange skilled operatives with AQAP.

It is notable that al-Shabaab chose to feature a lengthy and fawning profile of AQAP-affiliated ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki in the most recent issue of its magazine Gaidi Mtanni. [4]

Al-Shabaab and AQAP have long maintained ties with one another and have benefited from an exchange of expertise in the areas in which they excel. For example, AQAP has learned a great deal from al-Shabaab about how to set up and manage an effective intelligence wing. Al-Shabaab’s Amniyat intelligence apparatus is formidable and has proved critical to al-Shabaab’s ability to control its membership and plan and carry out attacks in urban areas. In turn, over the last two years, AQAP has developed a wealth of experience with more advanced weapons systems and their use in set piece battles. Al-Shabaab can, and likely will, benefit both from this expertise and from increased access to more advanced weaponry.

The vulnerabilities and opportunities that can be exploited in Puntland mean that al-Shabaab is likely to continue to prioritize expanding its presence in the Cal Madow and Cal Miskall Mountains. These same opportunities — access to the coast and the ability to tap into lucrative dark networks — have also attracted the interest of IS.

Thwarting Islamic State

The IS presence in southern Somalia remains limited. Al-Shabaab is without question the dominant militant Salafist organization in Somalia. However, al-Shabaab, particularly in 2015, did experience a number of defections to IS. One of these was Abdul Qadir Mumin, a mid-level al-Shabaab operative who pledged baya to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2015 (see Militant Leadership Monitor, October 5, 2016; Somalia Newsroom, October 24, 2015). Mumin is a dual national who holds British citizenship and spent time in Sweden, where he became known for his fiery and increasingly radical sermons. Mumin left the UK in 2010 to join al-Shabaab. He is a member of the influential and commercially well-connected sub-clan Ali Saleban. Members of the Ali Saleban sub-clan are well-established merchants in both the port of Bossaso and Kismayo, in southern Somalia.

On October 26, 2016, IS fighters seized the small coastal town of Qandala, located 75km east of Bossaso (Garowe Online, October 26, 2016). The Puntland Defense Forces responded and sent troops to retake Qandala, but the estimated force of 50 IS fighters had already retreated to the northern part of the Cal Madow Mountains, which rise up behind Qandala. Rather than demonstrating its strength, the brief takeover of Qandala did more to show the weakness of IS in Puntland.

Mumin’s men likely number no more than 100 and lack the ability to take on even small contingents of the Puntland Defense Forces. However, IS does have the ability to launch hit-and-run attacks. This was evidenced by an IS-orchestrated attack on a hotel in Bossaso that resulted in the deaths of four guards and two IS fighters (Somalia Review, February 10). The attack, which occurred as Somalia was preparing to hold its long-delayed presidential election, was the first major attack on a civilian target in Bossaso.

The uptick in activity by IS in Puntland will not have gone unnoticed by al-Shabaab’s leadership. They acted decisively in 2015 and in 2016 to counter the threat IS posed by tasking the group’s intelligence wing, the Amniyat, with tracking, infiltrating and killing those who had defected from al-Shabaab. The effectiveness of the Amniyat and al-Shabaab’s size relative to IS in Somalia means that IS’ influence in Puntland is likely to remain limited. It may even be brought to an end completely. Al-Shabaab’s leadership in Puntland will focus its efforts on either co-opting or eliminating what is a relatively small contingent of IS fighters. The opportunities in Puntland are too important to al-Shabaab for it to tolerate a rival organization.

Looking Forward

Al-Shabaab’s efforts to expand its operations and influence in Puntland are unlikely to diminish in the near future. The weakness within the government of Puntland and the increasing disorder within its poorly paid and organized defense forces have provided an opening into which al-Shabaab has inserted itself.

This, combined with what looks to be a devastating drought that the government has failed to prepare for or respond to, will provide al-Shabaab with additional opportunities to demonstrate its ability to provide “services” and implement its own radical version of law and order.

At the same time, al-Shabaab will take full advantage of Puntland’s strategic location just across the Gulf of Aden from war-torn Yemen.

Due to the tightness of the market for weapons in Somalia, al-Shabaab has long struggled to secure adequate supplies of weapons and materiel. This may well change if it is able to tap into the burgeoning arms trade between Yemen and Somalia. Al-Shabaab will also benefit from an increased ability to interact and exchange expertise with its fellow al-Qaeda affiliate AQAP.

The only significant check on al-Shabaab’s influence and ability to operate in Puntland would be a clan-backed effort to combat the group. At the present time, such an operation appears unlikely. The convergence of government weakness, severe drought and a war in Yemen that has strengthened AQAP will ensure that al-Shabaab continues to prioritize its operations in Puntland.




[1] Al-Shabaab focused much of its energy and resources on refining and expanding its intelligence apparatus, the Amniyat. Amniyat operatives were and are fundamental al-Shabaab’s “stay behind element”. Despite the fact that it was forced to withdraw from towns and cities, the deployment of the Amniyat allowed it to maintain a covert presence in most urban areas.

[2] The Puntland Intelligence Agency (PIA), formerly the Puntland Intelligence Service (PIS), is suspected of having incorporated many former members of al-Shabaab who defected in 2010.

[3] The Puntland Defense Force (PDF) is also known as the Puntland Security Force (PSF). The Puntland Dervish Force is a paramilitary force that is nominally part of the Puntland Defense Force.

[4] See: