Will Al-Shabaab Respond to Somaliland’s Red Sea Agreement with Ethiopia?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 22 Issue: 3

Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, and Muse Bihi Abdi, President of Somaliland. (Source: Addis Standard)

Executive Summary

  • Ethiopia and Somaliland signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) granting Ethiopia access to build a naval base on Somaliland’s coast. This was offered in exchange for Ethiopia recognizing Somaliland as an independent state, drawing condemnation from al-Shabaab.
  • Al-Shabaab has failed to establish itself in most of Somaliland due to effective community-based counterterrorism efforts, but the MoU may exacerbate internal Somaliland tensions that al-Shabaab could exploit, especially in the contested Sool and Sanaag border regions.
  • Protests against the MoU have taken place outside the border region and Somaliland’s defense minister resigned over it, indicating some political opposition, but most Somalilanders likely oppose al-Shabaab and closer Ethiopia-Somaliland military cooperation could counterbalance risks.

In early January, Ethiopia and Somaliland announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that grants Ethiopia secure access to the Red Sea as well as the right to build a naval base. In exchange, Ethiopia is expected to recognize Somaliland as an independent state (Addis Standard, January 1). Somaliland has been autonomous but unrecognized since its secession from Somalia in 1991.

The text of the MoU has yet to be released in full. However, it has the potential to further complicate the Horn of Africa’s already volatile political and militant landscape. Closer relations between Ethiopia and Somaliland may also provide al-Shabaab with new operational opportunities.

Condemning the MoU

Following the initial announcement of the MoU, al-Shabaab condemned the deal for violating “Somali sovereignty” and called on both followers and the Somali public to violently oppose the MoU’s imposition (The Horn Observer, January 4). Ethiopia has long been an opponent of al-Shabaab and a victim of its attacks. Despite having a large Somali and Muslim population, Ethiopia is often portrayed as a “Christian” invader of Somali lands. Ethiopia has carried out military operations in Somalia to combat militant Salafists in 1996 and again from 2006 to 2009. Since 2009, Ethiopia has remained an important ally for the Somali government in its efforts to combat al-Shabaab. As such, Ethiopia has become one of the group’s main enemies.

Similarly, Somaliland has long been a determined and effective opponent of al-Shabaab. The group last carried out a large-scale attack in Somaliland’s capital of Hargeisa in 2008 (BBC, October 29, 2008). Since then, al-Shabaab has for the most part failed to expand its operational footprint in Somaliland. However, the organization maintains operatives tasked with gathering intelligence in Somaliland. Al-Shabaab operatives have also successfully infiltrated into Somaliland’s volatile border areas in the states of Sool and Sanaag. [1]

Since December 2022, the government of Somaliland has been battling clan-based militias in Sool and Sanaag, who oppose the administration of these areas by Somaliland. Members of the Dhulbahante sub-clan, whose traditional territory encompasses much of Sool and Sanaag, want to form an autonomous region allied to Somalia rather than Somaliland (Al Jazeera, February 20, 2023). Much of the fighting has been concentrated around Las Anod, the regional capital of the state of Sool. In August 2023, the clan militias that control Las Anod launched a successful offensive against Somaliland government troops. This allowed the militias to secure territory around the city (The Horn Observer, August 25, 2023).

Exploiting Clan Divisions

Given al-Shabaab’s expertise in exploiting divisions within Somalia’s clans and sub-clans, the group almost certainly has inserted both political and military operatives into Sool and Sanaag. Al-Shabaab has long been focused on establishing itself in Somaliland’s Cal Madaw Mountains and the Gorof Hills which are located in Sanaag. These areas sit astride important smuggling routes that connect the Gulf of Aden with the interior. The rough terrain also offers excellent cover for permanent bases. [2]

Due to a shortage of resources and now clan tensions, Somaliland has struggled to police these more remote areas. In contrast, Somaliland’s well-established counter-terrorism initiatives have excelled at policing and interdicting al-Shabaab in the majority of the territory that Somaliland controls. Somaliland’s counter-terrorism efforts rely heavily on community-sourced intelligence. For years, this approach has proven successful, as evidenced by al-Shabaab’s inability to establish itself in most of Somaliland or carry out attacks. The signing of the MoU and the resulting cooperation between Ethiopia and Somaliland may give al-Shabaab more opportunities to exploit clan divisions in the latter. While the MoU and the Somaliland government of President Bihi have considerable support for the agreement among Somalilanders broadly, there are indications that some clans and sub-clans are questioning the deal (The Horn Observer, January 8). Notably, Somaliland’s defense minister resigned in response to the MoU (Africa News, January 8).

There are also concerns about what the agreement may mean for Somaliland’s sovereignty. The MoU purportedly grants Ethiopia the right to build a naval base on Somaliland’s west coast. Some Somalilanders view this as the government giving up territory to a neighbor that is, relative to Somaliland, an economic and military superpower. Since the MoU was announced, protests have taken place in a number of areas well outside of the contested border region (Garowe Online, January 10).


Given that most of Somaliland’s population remains resolutely opposed to al-Shabaab and its ideology, it is doubtful that the group will be able to establish itself in Somaliland in the short or even medium-term. However, if the political and clan fractures within Somaliland grow, there is a risk that al-Shabaab will find ways to exploit them, just as it has in Somalia and Puntland. Further, if the MoU is implemented, al-Shabaab will also have an abundance of new targets as Ethiopia begins to build the proposed facilities. Al-Shabaab is framing and will continue to frame the building of military facilities in Somaliland by Ethiopia as an “invasion” of sovereign Somali territory. If Ethiopia, which still has troops in Somalia fighting al-Shabaab, uses the military facilities to counter al-Shabaab, the invasion narrative will be even more potent.

Somaliland has a history of effectively combating al-Shabaab through astute and careful community-centric efforts. The MoU and the internal tensions resulting from its implementation may exacerbate and test Somaliland’s counter-terrorism efforts by offering al-Shabaab new opportunities to exploit growing divisions. However, these opportunities will likely be offset by the economic development and closer military cooperation between Ethiopia and Somaliland that will also result from the MoU.



[1] Author interview with Somaliland based security expert and analyst, January 2024.

[2] See Michael Horton, “How Somaliland Combats al-Shabaab,” CTC Sentinel, Vol. 12, Iss. 10, November 2019, https://ctc.westpoint.edu/somaliland-combats-al-shabaab/

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