AL-QAEDA EXPANDS TO PUNTLAND IN ANTICIPATION OF OIL BOOM
Under military pressure from Kenyan forces, the African Union Mission in Somalia and various Somali militias and government forces campaigning in its traditional area of operations in southern Somalia, al-Shabaab has announced an expansion into Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in northern Somalia that has so far been better known as a center for offshore piracy than for Islamist militancy. Nevertheless, a dirty, low-level war of assassinations, bombings and clashes between Islamist gunmen and local security forces has been going on for several years.
The announcement, which follows last month’s unification of al-Shabaab with al-Qaeda, came in the form of a proclamation from Yassin Khalid ‘Uthman (a.k.a. Yassin Kilwe Yuma), the self-described “Amir of the Mujahideen in the Golis Mountains [an area of caves and rough terrain in northwest Puntland]” that his fighters have joined al-Shabaab and pledged loyalty to its leader, Shaykh Ahmad Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr.” The “Amir” was clear that his group was aligning itself with al-Qaeda: “I want to praise God for the unity of our Shabaab brothers with al-Qaeda fighters… I want to declare today that we are joined with our al-Shabaab brothers who are devoted to the jihad in Somalia” (al-Andalus Radio, February 26; al-Kataib Media, February 27). The new al-Shabaab/al-Qaeda chapter in Puntland may have announced its presence in a more material way on March 3, when at least nine people were killed at a Puntland security checkpoint near the commercial capital of Bosasso (25 miles from the Galgala region) during an attack by militants (Reuters, March 3).
Yassin Kilwe is thought to be part of the Galgala militia that operates in the Golis Mountains in a diminished capacity since it was targeted by a three-month military offensive by the Puntland Intelligence Service.  The militia, if not a formal part of al-Shabaab, has traditionally operated in sympathy with al-Shabaab’s objectives.
Puntland frequently accuses neighboring Somaliland, with which it has several territorial disputes, of providing support for the Galgala Islamists, while Somaliland accuses Puntland of seeking military dominance in northern Somalia. The known leader of the Galgala militants is Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Atam, who routinely denies any formal ties between his group and al-Shabaab, assertions that have been confirmed in the past by al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage “Ali Dheere” (VOA Somali Service, July 29). However, it was also Ali Dheere who welcomed the merger of the “Mujahideen in the Golis Mountains” with al-Shabaab (Dayniile, February 27).
Yassin Kilwe’s claim to be Amir of the Galgala militants immediately raised speculation regarding the leadership role of Shaykh Atam, who has not made any statement since Yassin Kilwe’s announcement (Raxanreeb.com, February 25). There were reports that many of the Galgala militants were unhappy with the merger with “a terrorist group,” and Kilwe may represent a new faction that has split from the main Galgala group to join al-Shabaab/al-Qaeda (Somalia Report, February 28). A Puntland government spokesman said the merger “doesn’t have any effect on Puntland’s peace and tranquility and the armed forces who already made them weak are ready to fight them” (Puntlandi.com, February 26). The Puntland administration has said that they already knew that the Galgala militants were part of al-Qaeda (a common refrain in government comments on the militants) and security has been tightened in the areas of oil exploration operations (Dayniile, February 27). AMISOM is expected to make a decision within days on whether to deploy African Union peacekeepers from an expanded force in Puntland.
Canada’s Africa Oil Corp. and its Australian partners Red Emperor and Range Resources began drilling in northern Puntland in January, the first oil operations in Somalia for two decades. The Nugaal and Dharoor fields are believed to have as much as 300 million to 4 billion barrels of oil, the first of which is expected to flow within a month (Reuters, February 25; Observer, February 25). There may be much more oil in offshore fields off Puntland’s coast. Galgala and other parts of the Bari region are also above the Majiyahan Ta-Sn Deposit, a zone rich in minerals such as Albite, Quartz, Microcline, Tantalite, Tapiolite, Cassiterite, Spodumene and Muscovite. Somali prime minister Abdiweli Muhammad Ali has promised a cut of his nation’s natural resources in exchange for foreign investment and reconstruction assistance: “There’s room for everybody when this country gets back on its feet and is ready for investment,” though he also noted: "The only way we can pay [Western companies] is to pay them in kind, we can pay with natural resources at the fair market value." (Observer, February 25). Britain’s BP has been mentioned as the foreign oil company of choice for Somalia’s transitional government, but so far the firm has downplayed rumors it is working on a major deal for the offshore reserves. The British government has also denied charges that its sudden interest in Somalia (hosting international conferences on Somalia, providing humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance, etc.) is part of an effort to gain commercial considerations for British firms in Somalia (Garowe Online, February 27).
Last week, al-Shabaab began sending internet and Twitter messages warning that “Somali oil carries death” (SAPA-AP, March 1). The movement has said that it is canceling the licenses of Western oil and gas firms operating in Puntland, possibly the first step in a new campaign of attacks on Western exploration facilities.
1. See Andrew McGregor, “Puntland’s Shaykh Muhammad Atam: Clan Militia Leader or al-Qaeda Terrorist?,” Militant Leadership Monitor, September 29, 2010, https://mlm.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews[swords]=8fd5893941d69d0be3f378576261ae3e&tx_ttnews[any_of_the_words]=atam&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=36982&tx_ttnews[backPid]=539&cHash=fa328428d5b609a8f08dc9e4994e3535
GAZA’S HAMAS ENTERS ROCKY RELATIONSHIP WITH EGYPT AS IT TRIES TO RESHAPE ALLIANCES
With geo-political realities surrounding Gaza in flux due to the rise of Sunni political parties in the Middle East, the Syrian meltdown and the Iranian nuclear crisis, Ismail Haniyeh and the rest of the Hamas leadership are in the midst of a strategic reassessment of its alliance with Syria and Iran in favor of stronger ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. However, Hamas’ historical ties to Shiite and Alawite political movements have led to sharp condemnation by Egypt’s Salafists.
While in Cairo on a recent visit, Haniyeh was roundly denounced in a February 24 statement issued by Egypt’s largest Salafist group, al-Da’wa al-Salafiya (The Salafist Call) that also condemned the Muslim Brotherhood for arranging his visit to Egypt in the first place:
We reject Haniyeh leading the prayer in Egypt’s largext Sunni mosque after he shook hands with the Shiites. Egypt is the country of the Sunni al-Azhar [the world’s preeminent Islamic university] and we do not accept a man who put his hand into the hand that kills Sunnis in Iraq and Syria… What is the difference between Jews, Hezbollah and Iran when they are all gathered in going against God’s word and wish to break down Islam? (Bikya Masr [Cairo], February 25).
During his visit to al-Azhar, Haniyeh declared that his movement’s resistance to Israel would continue so long as that nation persisted in aggressive policies and the occupation of the Palestinian territories (Egyptian Gazette, February 25). The Hamas leader was speaking at an event held in response to recent attacks on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque by Israeli settlers under police protection (Ahram Online, February 24; al-Jazeera, February 19).
Egypt is in the middle of a somewhat chaotic reassessment of its relationship with the United States that will ultimately have a great deal to do with its approach to Hamas. Some Egyptian Islamists was considering revising Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in the face of American pressure to release 18 American nationals accused of using foreign funds to instigate unrest in Egypt, allegedly under the guise of operating “civil society” NGOs. Washington threatened to halt its annual contribution of $1.5 billion to Egypt ($1.3 billion of which is earmarked for military aid) unless the detainees were freed. Though the Egyptian leadership is no longer as pliable as it was under Mubarak and his cronies, they have yet to come up with a practical and viable replacement for these funds, which are generally regarded in Egypt as a payoff for maintaining peace with Israel.
Salafist preacher Muhammad Hassan responded to the American “humiliation” of Egypt by introducing an initiative to replace the American aid with local donations: "If America wants to cut military aid, very well; Egypt isn’t less than Iran which is self-dependent when it comes to producing its own military equipment…The Egyptian people will not be broken anymore” (El Nahar TV, February 11; Ahram Online, February 15). Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri and the Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyeb, have both come out in support of Hassan’s initiative (Egypt State Information Service, February 17). However, Hassan’s projection of $1 million in private donations will leave a significant shortfall in making up the lost $1.5 billion in U.S. aid.
Hamas has met unexpected criticism elsewhere in Egypt. On February 22, Egypt’s former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, claimed in court that Hamas and Hezbollah had sent infiltrators into Egypt last year to foment political discontent and manipulate the Egyptian uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. Haniyeh responded to the charges immediately: “Hamas did not interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs, either before the revolution or after” (MENA, February 22; AFP, February 22).
Hamas has since come out against the Syrian regime as its leadership relocates to Cairo, Doha and Beirut. Hamas, based on the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, found itself in the difficult position of being seen to back the Syrian regime’s violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Hamas deputy leader Moussa Abu Marzouk rejected the Syrian approach to political dissent but noted the Hamas position would have a price: “Our position on Syria is that we are not with the regime in its security solution, and we respect the will of the people… The Iranians are not happy with our position on Syria, and when they are not happy, they don’t deal with you in the same old way” (BBC, February 28). Since 2007, Gaza has relied on Iranian financial aid for its continued existence in the face of Israeli military strikes and an economic blockade designed to force the democratically elected Hamas government from Hamas. With less Iranian funding available, Hamas has been forced to raise taxes on imported goods to raise the difference, despite wide public opposition to such measures. Hamas may seek to replace essential Iranian funding with financial assistance from the Sunni-dominated Gulf states.
Muhammad Mursi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Ḥizb al-Ḥurriya wa al-‘Adala (Freedom and Justice Party) welcomed the relocation of the Hamas leadership: "Egypt is the custodial mother of the Arab nation and the Palestinian cause in particular since the late forties and it’s our duty to support the Palestinians" (Alresalah [Cairo], March 1).
After his return to Gaza, Haniyeh turned on Egypt, blaming it for crippling power shortages that have left many households and businesses with power for only six hours a day. The fuel shortage has led to the repeated shutdown of Gaza’s only power plant and the region’s 13 hospitals are running on generators with fuel provided on an emergency basis by the Red Cross (Guardian, March 1). The energy shortage has also led to a dramatic drop in available water as well as impacting the sewage treatment system. Gaza has suffered energy shortages since 2006, when Israel bombed the region’s lone energy plant.
Currently, Gaza receives much of its fuel through a network of smuggling tunnels. Egypt, however, wants Hamas to import its fuel through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom border crossing, where the Palestinian Authority rather than Hamas imposes import taxes. Besides the loss of revenues, the fuel would cost more than smuggled fuel and its availability would be subject to the whims of Israeli border officials. There are also concerns that the fuel issue is Egypt’s way of pressuring Hamas to accept an Egyptian-sponsored unification with the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank (Reuters, March 2).