Mogadishu, Somalia (AP) — Al-Shabaab extremist group In recent weeks, a senior U.S. military commander has warned that they are taking advantage of the civil unrest in Ethiopia to cross the border from neighboring Somalia to launch an unprecedented attack.
Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country and has long been seen as a security pillar in the Horn of Africa, and the deadly incursion into Ethiopia is the latest sign of a recent war in northern Tigray. and other ethnic conflicts make the country more vulnerable.
Ethiopia has long resisted such cross-border attacks by the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab, in part because of the deployment of troops inside Somalia, where the extremist group controls much of rural areas in the country’s southern and central regions. But Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and its security forces have been battling unrest at home, especially since the conflict in Tigray began in late 2020.
Al-Shabaab, also emboldened by the instability of the previous Somali government, is seizing the opportunity to expand its footprint and claim to have killed dozens of Ethiopian security forces, experts say. But the group is also feeling pressure from a renewed push by Somalia’s new government and the return of U.S. troops to the country following the withdrawal of former President Donald Trump.
Matt Briden, a security analyst at the Sahan Foundation think tank, told The Associated Press that turning to Ethiopia is a major strategic shift for al-Shabaab. The extremist group has never conducted a major operation inside Ethiopia.
“Reports of clashes on the Ethiopia-Somali border are only a small part of the overall picture,” Brydon said. “We know that planning for this offensive began more than a year ago, when the Ethiopian government appeared to be on the verge of collapse” as rival Tigray forces pushed toward the capital, Addis Ababa. The forces later withdrew, and both sides moved toward peace talks.
Bryden asserts that al-Shabaab has trained thousands of fighters for its Ethiopian “command”, mainly Somalis and Oromos in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s federal government has said it is concerned that al-Shabaab will join forces with the Oromo Liberation Army, which has been designated as a terrorist group, although other security experts see this as unlikely.
Brydon said hundreds of al-Shabaab fighters had infiltrated Ethiopia in the last week alone and had been spotted near several communities including El Kari, Jaraati and Imey. The invasion began in late July.
“There are also credible reports of al-Shabaab forces deploying in the direction of Moyale,” the main border post between Ethiopia and Kenya, he said.
Former Somali President Mohammad Abdullahi Mohammed has avoided any major conflict with al-Shabaab. But the new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, said his government would launch an offensive against the group’s thousands of fighters, backed by returning U.S. troops.
“As a result, al-Shabaab faces a greater military challenge than ever in Somalia, and thus begins this Ethiopian campaign to retain some of its forces and build strategic depth,” Bryden said.
He warned that if al-Shabaab established a stronghold in southeastern Ethiopia, “the consequences for peace and security in the region could be very serious indeed.” The fighters would be well-positioned to penetrate deep into Ethiopia, Kenya and even Uganda to the west. Al-Shabaab has carried out several high-profile and deadly attacks inside Kenya over the years.
The outgoing commander of U.S. Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend, warned last month that al-Shabaab’s activities inside Ethiopia were not “one-off” and said the militants had penetrated 150 kilometers into the country.
Al-Shabaab has long regarded Ethiopia as an enemy because of its long-standing military presence in Somalia to fight militants. Through its Radio Andalus media arm, the extremist group claimed to have killed at least 187 Ethiopian regional troops in the attack and confiscated military equipment.
Ethiopian officials were shocked. More than 600 al-Shabaab fighters have been killed, the country’s Somali regional chairman, Mustafa Omar, told a regional conference on Tuesday.
He said the region is engaged in a protracted war with extremists, not just a conflict, and “the Ethiopian federal army is currently involved in the fight against terrorists … we will also work with Somalia.”
The goal, he said, was to create a security buffer zone inside Somalia to prevent further incursions. “We shouldn’t wait for the enemy to invade,” he said.
Also on Tuesday, the Somali region announced that Ethiopian military officials had arrived in the Somali town of Beledweyne to discuss strategies to counter the al-Shabaab invasion. Ethiopia will deploy AU peacekeepers in Somalia to fight extremists, the statement said.
Residents of Yeed, a Somali town near the Ethiopian border, told The Associated Press that they had witnessed the losses suffered by al-Shabaab fighters in last week’s attack in Ethiopia. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Isaac Yarrow, a resident of Somalia’s Bakur region, said Ethiopian military planes carried out airstrikes in the village of Garas Ween, an area where Ethiopian and al-Shabaab fighters clashed.
The Ethiopian military has claimed to have killed three key al-Shabaab figures, including the head of its propaganda, but the extremist group has denied this.
While Al-Shabaab’s ultimate goal in Ethiopia has yet to be determined, its new operations demonstrate its “ambition, regional capabilities and opportunism to exploit regional geopolitics, especially as the Abiy Ahmed government strives to contain various insurgencies in Ethiopia. situation,” security analysts Caleb Weiss and Ryan O’Farrell wrote late last month.
“President Hassan Sheikh Mohammed’s immediate priority is to root out al-Shabaab,” security analyst Ismail Osman, a former deputy at Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Service, told The Associated Press, warning that in this new In a stable situation, regional tensions may worsen.
An Associated Press writer reported from Nairobi, Kenya.