Islamic State Routed in Somalia's Puntland, President Says

  • Regional head says faction has few fighters, threat limited
  • Militants occupied port town for about six weeks last year

An Islamic State faction in Somalia’s Puntland region numbers a maximum of 300 fighters and doesn’t pose a serious threat after its militants were driven out of a port town last year, President Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said.

The Islamist fighters are “scattered in the mountains” after being “kicked out” of Qandala by security forces in early December, Puntland’s leader said Tuesday in an interview in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The numbers of militants “vary from 100 to 200 to 300 -- they’re not a threat to us,” Ali said.

Puntland, which became semi-autonomous in 1998, is situated on the Gulf of Aden, near the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest shipping channels. While al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked group, has waged an insurgency in Somalia for the past decade, Islamic State has been trying to make inroads.

A United Nations group that monitors Somalia said in October that the Islamic State group, which it called a “new rival faction” of al-Shabaab, had “at most a few dozen fighters” when its leader Sheikh Abdulqader Mu’min swore allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliphate a year earlier. Mu’min had been an imam in London until returning to Somalia in 2010, according to the UN report.

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The U.S. State Department on Aug. 31 declared Mu’min a “specially designated global terrorist” and placed him under financial sanctions. It said he “expanded his cell” of Islamic State supporters “by kidnapping young boys aged 10 to 15, indoctrinating them, and forcing them to take up militant activity.” Al-Shabaab has waged a campaign to purge Islamic State supporters within its own ranks.

‘Bold Move’

Islamic State’s seizure of Qandala in October was the first time the group has occupied a major settlement in Somalia. The town is in Puntland’s Bari region, about 80 kilometers (49.7 miles) east of the commercial capital, Bosaso.

Ali-nur Hussein Ali, a senior adviser to Somalia’s Ministry of Internal Security, said that Islamic State is a “major threat” to the broader country. Puntland’s leadership “should not brush it off,” he said by email. “Anyone trying to underplay that reality is not being honest.”

Somalia’s new government led by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed should create a strategy to expel Islamic State in the region “and not leave the Puntland forces alone to deal with it,” he said.

The Puntland Intelligence Agency said in November there was “reason to believe” its own institutional weakness and the “bold move” by the Islamic State faction might be related. The militant group’s expansion in Bari “is a threat to global maritime trade routes along the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb strait,” the agency said in a statement.

Economically Disenfranchised

Islamic State can operate freely across “large swathes of land” in Puntland, giving it opportunities to plan attacks, according to Mukhtar Ainashe, an independent analyst and former security adviser to Somalia’s government.

“The people in those towns and villages feel disenfranchised economically and politically by the Puntland government,” making them potentially receptive to Islamic State’s ideology, he said by phone from Norway’s capital, Oslo.

Regional forces are battling al-Shabaab in the Galgala area, while the remaining Islamic State fighters are “in those remote areas near Qandala,” Ali said.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command said that Mu’min’s group “likely ceded the ground” in Qandala “in favor of taking refuge in nearby mountainous areas to regroup and explore future options to expand influence.” The group “probably has around 250 fighters and relies significantly on Mu’min’s local clan ties for recruits and safe haven,” spokeswoman Robyn M. Mack said in an emailed response to questions.

The president also denied reports in Puntland media including Garowe Online that soldiers had staged mutinies earlier this year over unpaid salaries and a lack of benefits, seizing the central bank, parliament compound and a customs office.

“There is no real mutiny,” Ali said. The government is “confident that our military and troops are able” to fight the Islamist groups, he said. “There are no unpaid salaries.”

The UN monitoring group in October said Puntland’s administration had responded to a budgetary crisis by paying its security forces and civil servants in counterfeit currency. The PIA said in November that PIA officers and soldiers hadn’t been paid for seven months.

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