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MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — The extremist al-Shabab group has exploited Ethiopia’s internal unrest to cross the border from neighboring Somalia in unprecedented attacks in recent weeks that a top U.S. military commander has warned could to chase.
The deadly incursions into Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country and long considered a security anchor in the Horn of Africa, are the latest sign of the severity of the recent war in the region. northern Tigray and other ethnic fighting that made the country more vulnerable. .
Ethiopia has long resisted these cross-border attacks by al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab, in part by deploying troops inside Somalia, where the extremist group controls large rural areas in the southern and southern regions. center of the country. But Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and its security forces have been grappling with unrest at home, particularly since the Tigray conflict began in late 2020.
Experts say al-Shabab, also emboldened by instability under Somalia’s previous administration, is seizing the opportunity to expand its footprint and claim responsibility for the killing of dozens of Ethiopian security force personnel. But the group is also feeling the pressure of a fresh push from Somalia’s new government and the return of US forces to the country after former President Donald Trump withdrew them.
The shift to Ethiopia is a significant strategic shift for al-Shabab, Matt Bryden, security analyst at the Sahan Foundation think tank, told The Associated Press. The extremist group has never been able to carry out major operations inside Ethiopia.
“Reports of clashes along the Ethiopia-Somalia border are only a fraction of the bigger picture,” Bryden said. ‘We understand that planning for this offensive began over a year ago when the Ethiopian government appeared to be on the verge of collapse’ as rival Tigray forces marched towards the capital, Addis Ababa . These forces then withdrew and the two sides are moving towards peace talks.
Al-Shabab has trained several thousand fighters for its Ethiopian “command”, mostly Somalis and ethnic Oromos in Ethiopia, Bryden said. Ethiopia’s federal government has said it fears al-Shabab is associating itself with the Oromo Liberation Army, which it has designated as a terrorist organization, although other security experts have called this unlikely.
Hundreds of al-Shabab fighters were able to slip into Ethiopia in the past week alone and their presence has been detected near several communities such as El Kari, Jaraati and Imey, Bryden said. The incursions began at the end of July.
“There is also credible information about the deployment of al-Shabab units towards Moyale”, the main border post between Ethiopia and Kenya, he said.
Former Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed has avoided any major confrontation with al-Shabab. But new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said his government would go on the offensive against the group’s thousands of fighters, with the support of returning US forces.
“Al-Shabab therefore faces a much greater military challenge in Somalia than before and has therefore embarked on this Ethiopian campaign in order to preserve some of its forces and establish strategic depth,” Bryden said.
He warned that if al-Shabab establishes a stronghold in southeastern Ethiopia, “the consequences for peace and security in the region could be very serious”. The fighters would be well placed to strike deeper into Ethiopia, Kenya and even as far west as Uganda. Al-Shabab has carried out several high-profile deadly attacks inside Kenya over the years.
The outgoing head of US Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend, warned last month that al-Shabab activity in Ethiopia was not “one-off” and said fighters had penetrated up to 150 kilometers in the country.
Al-Shabab has long viewed Ethiopia as an enemy for its long military presence in Somalia to counter fighters. Via its media branch Radio Andalus, the extremist group claimed to have killed at least 187 members of Ethiopian regional forces and seized military equipment during its attacks.
Ethiopian officials have expressed concern. On Tuesday, the country’s Somali regional president, Mustefa Omer, told a regional assembly that more than 600 al-Shabab fighters had been killed.
The region is in a long war with the extremists, not just a one-off clash, he said, and “the Ethiopian federal army is currently involved in the fight against terrorists…and we will also work with Somalia “.
He said the aim is to create a security buffer inside Somalia to guard against further incursions. “We must not wait for the enemy to invade us,” 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-Shabab incursion. The statement said Ethiopian soldiers from the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia will be deployed against the extremists.
Residents of the Somali town of Yeed, near the Ethiopian border, told the AP they witnessed the casualties suffered by al-Shabab fighters in an Ethiopian attack last week. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
And a resident of Somalia’s Bakool region, Isak Yarow, said Ethiopian military aircraft carried out airstrikes in the village of Garasweyne in an area where Ethiopian and al-Shabab fighters clashed.
The Ethiopian army has claimed responsibility for the killing of three prominent al-Shabab figures, including its propaganda chief, but the extremist group has denied it.
While al-Shabab’s ultimate goals in Ethiopia remain to be determined, its new actions demonstrate its “growing ambition, regional capabilities and opportunism to exploit regional geopolitics, especially as the Abiy Ahmed government struggles to contain the various insurgencies in Ethiopia”. analysts Caleb Weiss and Ryan O’Farrell wrote late last month.
Security analyst Ismail Osman, a former deputy in the Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency, told the AP that “President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s immediate priority is to root out al-Shabab” and warned that regional tensions could worsen amid this new instability.
An Associated Press writer reported from Nairobi, Kenya.
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