Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Primacy of Puntland

A few days ago, the Reuters news agency reported on the movement of al-Shabaab militants from the south of the country to the semi-autonomous region of Puntland in the north. Embattled Shabaab fighters fleeing the onslaught in the south is certainly nothing new, and the timing of the article probably had more to do with a visit by the EU Special Envoy to Puntland's capital of Garowe than any spike in the trend.

When I was editor of the now defunct Somalia Report, we would routinely hear rumours of al-Shabaab fighters fleeing to Puntland's Galgala hills from the south, and even as far as to Yemen. Probably the most credible report we received came this past January, when elders along Puntland's northern coast claimed to have spotted 12 skiffs carrying 80 Shabaab militants heading to the Yemeni port of Zinjibar. Despite being backed up only by the usual hodgepodge of eyewitness accounts that fuel much Somali news, the elders' story made some sense. With the impending military defeat of al-Shabaab in the south and the looming loss of Kismayo, the Shabaab leadership was securing an escape route, particularly members of Shabaab's extreme internationalist faction—many of whom do not belong to southern clans, and thus were not overly comfortable relying upon the hospitality of the Rahanweyne fighters who make up the majority of Shabaab forces south of Galguduud.

The Galgala hills

The additional advantage of a northward migration was to keep a clean line of communication open with the allied group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which operates in southern Yemen.

The future importance of the northern bastion had become clear by February, when al-Shabaab took control of Said Atom's organization and announced the appointment of a new leader of the Puntland-based branch of the insurgency, Yassin Kilwe, with theretofore London-based cleric Abdikadir Ali Mumin as his deputy. The Galgala "chapter" has since expanded to the Golis mountain range, which runs west of Bosaso along Puntland's northern coast.

Puntland President Abdirahman Farole, who was elected in January 2009, has been remarkably successful in transforming himself from a tribal chief of a fiefdom on the point of collapse to a statesman at the head of a quasi-independent state (a visit to Puntland by an EU Special Envoy in 2008 would have been unimaginable). Farole's rise to international legitimacy has been partly on the back of a successful PR campaign detailing both the severity of piracy and his administration's efforts to combat it—from the clampdown on Eyl to the creation of the Puntland Marine Police Force (PMPF) and the raids against pirate strongholds near Garacad.

Now that pirate attacks have dwindled, Farole has turned to another international bugaboo: Islamic militancy. In the Reuters article, he estimates the number of al-Shabaab fighters in Puntland at 400, which would place the force at about one-tenth the strength of Puntland's militia, the Darawish. Given Farole's interest in boosting Puntland's international relevance the figure seems understandably inflated, though by no means outside the realm of possibility.

Once again, Puntland lies at the centre of an issue of global import, and once again the Puntland president is doing his very best to make the rest of the world aware of it. And who can blame him?