In April, ISIS claimed its first attack on Somali soil. An improvised explosive device targeted a military vehicle belonging to African Union peacekeeping forces on the outskirts of Mogadishu. In early May, as recorded in the Global Extremism Monitor, ISIS claimed a second attack against Somali troops in Sinkadir. Having witnessed the group's first attacks in the country, what can be said about ISIS' standing in Somalia, and its intentions?
When the first group of fighters in Somalia swore allegiance to ISIS in October 2015, it reportedly had between 20 and 30 members. That number appears to have grown to between 100 and 150 members. The group has a base in the Bari Mountains in Puntland, the northeastern highlands of Somalia. Such a secluded location offers the militants a degree of security, but could also relegate the group to irrelevance. This provides ISIS with space to progress, train its fighters, and develop logistics.
Abdi Hassan Hussein, ex-director of the US-funded Puntland Intelligence Agency, stated in early May that ISIS in Somalia is receiving financial and military support from Yemen. The group has acquired new uniforms, vehicles, supplies, and livestock, according to Hussein. He also claimed a weapons shipment was delivered by sea from the Yemeni port city of Mukalla in February or March this year.
ISIS has to yet to cause major damage in Somalia.
Somalia is in a prime location for ISIS to establish a foothold in sub-Saharan Africa. The country is a major hub of regional conflict where militants are highly active, as the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' report Milestones to Militancy found. It is also close to one of the world's biggest shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden, borders key East African countries that host international troops, and offers access to Africa's longest coastline. The allure of adding this "province" to ISIS' books is strong.
However, ISIS has local rivals. Al-Shabaab has been the dominant jihadi force in Somalia for some time. Having al-Shabaab on side would help gain territory and secure existing networks. So much so, that ISIS has invested in courting al-Shabaab. In December 2014, ISIS published a pamphlet urging al-Shabaab to pledge allegiance. ISIS has also released videos urging more Somali "brothers" in al-Shabaab to join the group. For now, however, al-Shabaab's leader Ahmad Omar chooses to remain affiliated with ISIS' rival, al-Qaeda.
Although the vast majority of al-Shabaab members have remained loyal, several key figures have defected. Hassan Mohammad, previously an al-Shabaab commander known as Hassan Fanah, reportedly defected and joined ISIS in October 2015. Abdiqadir Mumin, another senior commander also reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, taking about 20 followers with him.
Meanwhile, a new group called Jahba East Africa emerged in Somalia and gave bayah, an oath of allegiance, to Baghdadi in April. They acknowledged him as the "rightful khalifa [caliph] of all Muslims." Although very little is currently known about the group, its allegiance reveals the potential ISIS has to be influential in Somalia and further afield. Whether or not Jahba East Africa is a group to be reckoned with remains to be seen.
Somalia is highly vulnerable to the rise in extremist groups. Not only have its economic and government infrastructures been devastated by decades of civil war, but unemployment is high, at 67 per cent among youth. With all these, armed groups have fertile ground in which to develop. ISIS could capitalise on this.
Somalia is highly vulnerable to extremist groups.
Nonetheless, establishing a base in Somalia would be no easy task. Security forces, whether the Somali military or the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), are active across the country.
The first major contest from the Somali military occurred in early May when they destroyed a pro-ISIS training camp in Janaale town, about 120 km south of of Mogadishu. A spokesman for the military claimed 12 ISIS fighters were killed in the operation. The fact that the army deployed troops against ISIS reveals that ISIS is, at the very least, on the radar of security forces.
According to an interview with a Somali militant in Dabiq, ISIS' English-language propaganda magazine, there is increasing support for ISIS within Somalia, though it is hardly suprising that the group would put a positive spin on Somali support in its own publication. Abu Muharib claimed that there was a "phase of coordination and cooperation," achieving a "synchronized media effort, tactical manoeuvring of forces, and securing logistics to achieve strategic aims." He stated that there are groups in northern Somalia that have openly pledged allegiance to ISIS (possibly indicating Mumin and his men). However, as al-Shabaab has threatened to kill defectors, others may not be able to do so openly.
As things stand, ISIS has not caused major devastation in Somalia. Setting off an IED and attacking intelligence agency troops is no great operational feat. However, these events testify to ISIS' presence, and its existing support on the ground. ISIS' recent movements also indicate it aims to make inroads in a war-torn region dominated by its opponent, al-Shabaab.
Resources are currently focused on the Somali al-Qaeda affiliate. But they must also be channelled against ISIS before the group becomes too entrenched in the region. ISIS in Libya stared out as a trifling assembly of militants, intent on establishing another province. If left to grow, ISIS in Somalia could follow in the footsteps of its comrades in Libya.