Somalia Faces Critical Threat As Islamic State Group Expands In Puntland

Somalia Faces Critical Threat As Islamic State Group Expands In Puntland

The Islamic State group in Somalia’s Puntland region reportedly has gained ground from al-Shabaab, its longtime rival.

The IS claims to have taken control of the Al Miskaad mountain range. The groups have vied for control of strategic territory in the Bari district for eight years, according to a new report by the Emirates Policy Center.

Al Miskaad’s location in northeast Somalia offers heavily forested cover near a clan with ties to Somali IS leader Abdul Qadir Mumin, which offers protection to the group. It is a remote, sparsely inhabited area with few permanent settlements.

“The expansion of ISIS in Puntland provides the group with a significant propaganda boost to bolster its recruitment efforts and attract foreign fighters,” Ahmed Khalid, counterterrorism analyst at the Emirates Policy Center, told Somali radio station and news website Horseed Media.

The expansion also allows the group greater access to the sea, more opportunities for taxation and financial operations, and potential coordination with an IS offshoot in Yemen, Khalid, lead author of the new report, wrote.

It also may help IS exploit the increasing activities of Somali pirates. Al-Shabaab has done this by reportedly offering to protect pirates in exchange for a share of ransom proceeds. After a six-year lull in attacks, Somali pirates launched a resurgence last year.

IS Wages a Comeback

Al-Shabaab, al-Qaida’s Somalia-based branch, is viewed as the stronger group. It has far more members and drove the IS south for years. By 2022, observers say, the IS appeared to be on the verge of collapse in Puntland.

However, when Somalia’s government launched an offensive against al-Shabaab in southern Somalia last year, the shift in focus inadvertently offered a lifeline to the IS. Al-Shabaab had to divert its resources and attention away from the Al Miskaad mountains, according to news website The Somali Digest.

This led to fierce fighting between the rivals. The IS claimed control of the mountain range in April after a three-month offensive that killed 50 al-Shabaab fighters, including key commanders.

The campaign began on January 28, when IS fighters armed with machine guns repelled an attempted al-Shabaab advance in the Walisoor valley.

According to the Middle East Media Research Institute MEMRI, the IS then went on the offensive, successfully attacking al-Shabaab positions and ambushing rival fighters as they tried to plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The IS captured ammunition and military equipment during these operations.
Complicating Counterterrorism Efforts

The IS conducted “da’wah” activities in some of the villages they captured during Ramadan. Da’wah is an Arabic term that roughly means proselytizing. In these areas, the IS dismantled IEDs left by al-Shabaab and conducted Eid al-Fitr prayers with villagers.

As Caleb Weiss noted in the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, terror groups often try to convert people to their version of Islam and build goodwill in communities, even those they seize.

As the conflict between the rivals intensifies, security in Puntland and the rest of Somalia remains fragile. IS gains in Puntland could alter the dynamics of ongoing security operations across Somalia, complicating counterterrorism efforts.

Khalis wrote that Puntland administrators need to contain the IS threat within the state “through increased intelligence work and community engagement, aiming to prevent further deterioration of the security situation,” dry up the funds for IS and “undermine its cross-border organizational ties.”

Puntland security sources estimate that IS ranks have grown to between 200 and 300 fighters, mostly Ethiopian nationals.

The IS and its supporters have amplified media productions and translations since 2022 in prominent languages spoken in Ethiopia, such as Amharic and Oromo, according to the Institute for the Study of War.