Admiral of the Desert – Muhammad Omar Osman and the Ogadeni Rebellion

Andrew McGregor

May 28, 2010

The ongoing destruction of Somalia by clan warfare, sectarian conflict and foreign intervention continues to dominate international headlines; yet across Somalia’s border with Ethiopia there is an ongoing conflict involving ethnic Somalis in a remote and inhospitable region that has had a negligible amount of media coverage. The decades-old struggle between the Ethiopian government and the Somalis of Ethiopia’s Somali Region (known as Haraghe Province until the administrative reforms of 1995) is one of brutal attacks and retaliations conducted out of sight of foreign media, which is banned from the region. Though it is best known as the Ogaden conflict, after the ethnic-Somali Ogadeni clan that leads the rebellion, ethnic-Somalis actually fight on both sides of the dispute.

Ogaden Rebellion 1Muhammad Omar Osman

The Somali Region is the second largest of Ethiopia’s nine regions and is home to over four million people. Since its conquest by imperial Ethiopia in the nineteenth century, the region has experienced very little in the way of development or improvement. In addition, it has remained the focus of Somali nationalists who seek the creation of a “Greater Somalia” incorporating Somalia, Somaliland, Djibouti, the Somali Region of Ethiopia and the ethnic-Somali northeastern districts of Kenya. Pursuit of this goal led to the Ogaden War of 1977-78, when Somali dictator Siad Barre committed four mechanized brigades to support armed Somali separatists in the region. The conflict quickly grew out of hand, with airlifts of Soviet military equipment and 10,000 Cuban regulars tipping the scales in favor of the Marxist Derg regime (1975-1987) in Addis Ababa. Though Ethiopia eventually inflicted a devastating defeat on the Somali military, the dominant theme in its policy in the Somali Region and towards Somalia proper has been the avoidance of any repetition of such a costly and threatening episode. Since the 1991 overthrow of the Derg, Ethiopia has been ruled by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an umbrella group dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Even the name of Ethiopia’s Somali region is in dispute – Ethiopia’s official name is “the Somali Region,” though it also calls it the “Fifth Region”; Ogadeni clan Somalis call it “the Ogaden region” (a name rejected by the non-Ogadeni Somali clans of the region); and the pre-revolution Somali government referred to it as “Western Somalia.” The leader of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Admiral Muhammad Omar Osman, rejects the idea that the name “Ogaden” implies the superiority of that clan; “This is the internationally recognized name, which is shown on world maps. The Front sees no use in creating a new name for the region and then introducing it to the world anew. The former Somali government called the region Western Somalia, but few people in the region know this name.” Nonetheless, Osman says it is possible the name might still be changed “after liberation” (Asharq al-Awsat, October 12, 2009).

From Desert Tribesman to Somali Admiral

Now 70-years-old, Muhammad Omar Osman has led the ONLF since his appointment at a party congress in 1998. As a member of the Ogadeni clan, he was born within the borders of Ethiopia, but by the time he was a teenager he was attending school in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Osman turned to a military career and pursued military studies in Egypt and the Soviet Union. As an officer of Somalia’s armed forces, Osman assumed a position within Siad Barre’s Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Soviet-inspired Marxist-Leninist political wing of Barre’s military regime. Founded in 1976, the party’s leadership was dominated by military officers and Osman eventually rose to a prominent position in the party’s five-member Politburo (Bartamaha, October 12, 2009). Loyalty to the Siad Barre regime resulted in Osman’s appointment to Admiral of Somalia’s tiny navy of Soviet-built fast-attack craft. After the overthrow of the Siad Barre regime, Osman returned to his homeland, where he joined the ONLF.

Clan Militia or National Liberation Movement?

The ONLF was formed in 1984 after the collapse of the separatist Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF). The movement entered into politics in 1991 with some initial success, though the rise of the rival and more broadly-based Ethiopian-Somali Democratic League (later the Somali People’s Democratic Party) and the ONLF’s open policy of secession created strong opposition from Addis Ababa and drew support away from the ONLF, which then began a program of armed resistance to the Ethiopian state in 1994. Besides attacks on Ethiopian troops, the movement has been blamed for a series of bombings in Addis Ababa and the regional capital of Jijiga, leading the central government to designate the ONLF as a terrorist organization with alleged (but so far unsubstantiated) ties to al-Qaeda. Despite Ethiopia’s role as an American military ally, the Ethiopian regime’s characterization of the ONLF and its activities as “terrorism” has failed to bring about a U.S. or EU designation of the ONLF as a terrorist organization.

Unlike the region’s Islamic Nasrullah resistance movement of the 1960s, the ONLF is notably secular and nationalist in orientation, though there remains a subtext of tension between the Christian rulers of Ethiopia and the Muslim clans of the Ogaden region. Some reports maintain that the ONLF portrays itself as a secular movement for external consumption, but increasingly relies on an emphasis on Muslim identity and calls for jihad in its recruiting. [1] In discussions with the Arab press, Osman has not hesitated to describe the Ogaden issue as “an Arab-Islamic cause because the Ogaden people are an Arab Muslim people” (Asharq al-Awsat, October 12, 2009).

Osman calls for a “free referendum” on independence, consolidation with Somalia or a continued presence within Ethiopia for the Somali Region, though he says negotiations with the Ethiopian government are possible, so long as they take place in the presence of a neutral third party in a neutral location (Asharq al-Awsat, October 12, 2009).

Despite being personally based in Eritrea amidst widespread allegations of Eritrean military training and support for the ONLF, Osman denies any suggestion that his movement acts as a proxy in the ongoing rivalry between the leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia; “The Ogaden Region and Eritrea were under Ethiopian occupation, and we began the war before Eritrea was liberated and also before the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict. There is no connection between this conflict and the ONLF struggle” (Asharq al-Awsat, October 12, 2009).

Many local Somalis not belonging to the Ogaden clan (a sub-clan of the Darod) reject the ONLF as an attempt to enforce Ogadeni rule in the region. Pro-government clan militias have been formed by the government (sometimes through coercion) from members of the Isaaq, Dir and non-Ogadeni Darod clans to combat the ONLF. There were reports of heavy fighting between the ONLF and clan militias supported by government troops in late April (Jimma Times, April 30; Ogaden Online, April 24). The poorly trained and equipped clan militias typically take heavy casualties in clashes with the ONLF.

Without outside observers it is extremely difficult to assess the accuracy of battle reports from either side. For example, ONLF forces claimed a major success last year in capturing the town of Mustahil, killing 100 government soldiers while capturing another 50. A government spokesman termed the claim “absolutely false” and maintained ONLF forces were on the run (Shabelle Media Networks, March 8, 2009; Garowe Online, March 9, 2009; Somaliweyn, March 10, 2009). Only rarely do accounts bear any similarity to each other; more often one side will claim victory and the infliction of great losses on the enemy while the other side will respond with a statement saying they know nothing of any such encounter.

The ONLF frequently refers to military actions undertaken by its “Special Forces” units, such as the Dufaan commando or the Gorgor (Eagle) unit (Mareeg Online, March 7, 2009). The latter was reported to have captured the Malqaqa garrison along the road between Jijiga and Harar in mid-May, killing 94 soldiers, freeing 50 civilian detainees and seizing 192 light and heavy machine guns (Ogaden Online, May 17). As usual, these figures are impossible to verify.

Resource Exploration Intensifies the Conflict

Though the arid expanses of Ethiopia’s Somali Region offer little more economic activity than herding and other agricultural pursuits, there has been a great deal of recent speculation regarding potentially exploitable mineral deposits and oil and gas reserves. Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, Canadian and Swedish exploration companies have all become active in the region under government protection after concluding deals in Addis Ababa without local consultation. The ONLF has advised foreign exploration companies that the government does not control the region and their security guarantees are worthless (Afrol News, November 14, 2006). The movement backed up these warnings with a major attack on a Chinese-managed oil exploration site at Obala in the northern Ogaden region in April 2007 that killed 65 Ethiopian soldiers and nine Chinese oil workers. It also resulted in the short-term abduction of seven Chinese oil workers (BBC, April 14, 2007; ONLF Communiqué, April 24, 2007). The scale of the attack led to speculation that Eritrean advisors and weapons had been part of the operation. According to Osman; “If the occupation authorities exploit these resources, they will not use them to develop the region. Rather, they will use them to destroy the region and repress the people” (Asharq al-Awsat, October 12, 2009). Further warnings to foreign companies were issued last month (Shabelle Media Network, April 25).

Though the Obala operation finally gained the movement international attention, it served to justify an extremely severe crackdown on the region by Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) troops operating under the concept of collective punishment. Though outside observers were banned during the operation, refugees and local informants of human rights organizations reported summary executions of civilians, destruction of villages, torture and blockades of food and humanitarian aid. In what is clearly a “dirty war,” ONLF forces have been accused of similar human rights abuses in dealing with the civilian population.

Leadership Disputes within the ONLF

Internal disputes within the party came to a head with the January 2009 killing of the head of the ONLF’s Planning and Research Department, Dr. Muhammad Sirad Dolal. A committee of ONLF members produced a report on Muhammad Sirad Dolal’s murder in March. The report suggested that cronyism and tribal favoritism began to permeate the movement’s leadership after Muhammad Omar Osman became ONLF Chairman in 1998. Differences arose between the party leader and Muhammad Sirad Dolal after the latter opposed the Chairman’s attempt to remove Muhammad Abdi Yasin from his post as Liason for the Diaspora Community, allegedly for reasons based on tribal animosity.

Ogaden Rebellion 2Dr. Muhammad Sirad Dolal

In 2005 Osman claimed Dr. Dolal was preparing to defect to the Ethiopian government and issued orders that he was to be killed, orders that were subsequently ignored by fighters who did not believe the Chairman’s allegations. As the party began to split over the growing animosity between the two, Osman dismissed Dr. Dolal from the movement’s leadership. An unsuccessful assassination attempt on Dr. Dolal followed at an ONLF-dominated refugee camp in Kenya in 2008. Between November 2008 and January 2009 there were a number of clashes between the Chairman’s supporters and supporters of Dr. Dolal. Eventually Osman sent three commando teams to kill Dr. Dolal after informing them Dolal was an Ethiopian agent. After the successful conclusion of their mission on January 17, 2009 it was decided to let local government security forces take credit for the killing (, March 23; Sudan Tribune, March 16, 2009). Dr. Dolal’s daughter has openly accused Muhammad Omar Osman and party leaders Abdirahman Mahdi Madayi, Muhammad Ismail and Adani Hiromooge of organizing his death (, January 11). While it appears Osman’s supporters had little input to this report, it nevertheless provides background for the subsequent split in the movement.

Regardless of who was responsible, the death of Muhammad Sirad Dolal divided the ONLF. A senior movement member, Abdiwali Hussein Gas, announced the appointment of a new ONLF chairman, Salahudin Ma’ow, with the promise that the new leader would bring Osman to account for breaking up the ONLF (Jimma Times, March 3, 2009). For his part, Osman denies that any split has taken place in the movement, suggesting those who mention it are those who would like to see such a split occur (Asharq al-Awsat, October 12, 2009).

A smaller Somali movement, the United Western Somali Liberation Front (UWSLF, a local successor group to al-Itihad al-Islami) has finally capitulated to the Ethiopian government after 18 years of sporadic armed struggle (Reuters, April 9;, May 7). Under its leader, Shaykh Ibrahim Muhammad Dheere, the UWSLF will now operate as a peaceful political movement within the terms of the Ethiopian constitution (Walta Information Center, May 6). The ONLF has criticized Ethiopian attempts to represent this event as the end of hostilities in the region (Jimma Times, May 7).


Amidst rumors of new challenges to his leadership from within the ONLF, Muhammad Omar Osman, the Admiral turned rebel leader, faces major difficulties in sustaining his movement’s struggle in the face of a deeply divided membership, local opposition, an unsympathetic public image, unrestrained retribution from the Ethiopian military, a lack of foreign support from any quarter other than Eritrea and general international opposition to violent movements even rumored to be linked to radical Islamists.


  1. See Mohammed Mealin Seid, “The Role of Religion in the Ogaden Conflict,” SSRC, January 26, 2009,

This article first appeared in the May 28, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor

Conflicting Reports on Heavy Fighting in Ethiopia’s Oil-Producing Ogaden Region

Andrew McGregor

March 26, 2009

For several weeks now, there have been reports of heavy fighting between government forces and rebels in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, home to a majority population of ethnic Somalis. Government officials have denied most such reports as fabrications, while asserting in other cases that government troops were not involved in the clashes.

Ogaden 1The fighting would be the latest episode of political violence since Abyssinian troops occupied the region in the late 19th century. Ogaden residents complain of a lack of development initiatives in the region and oppose the rule of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the leading element in Ethiopia’s coalition government (known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front – EPRDF). A number of Chinese, Malayasian and Indian corporations have concluded deals with Addis Ababa to exploit the region’s oil and mineral reserves without the input of local communities.

On March 19, Ethiopia claimed that both the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the allied Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) had been completely destroyed as they attempted to regroup in the southeast of the country. Security forces claimed to have killed Dr. Muhammad Serri, who led a devastating ONLF attack on a Chinese oil installation at Obala in the northern Ogaden region in April 2007 (Sudan Tribune, March 16). 65 Ethiopian soldiers and nine Chinese oil workers were killed in the Obala attack.

Government spokesmen also claimed to have captured a major OLF military leader in the offensive. Despite these assertions of government success, other sources claim government conscript militias drawn from non-Tigrean communities have mutinied after suffering heavy losses. The mutineers claim they were misled about ONLF capabilities. Reports say 486 mutineers have been arrested and detained in Qabri Dahar (Ogaden Online News, March 11; March 23). Rebel sources also claim to have killed Colonel Manos and “Wadna Qabad,” both prominent government militia leaders, in a battle six kilometers outside the garrison town of Wardheer (Ogaden Online News, March 20). Many of the government troops involved in the fighting were recently redeployed to the Ogaden region after withdrawing in January from a two-year deployment in Somalia.

Ogaden 2ONLF Fighters

Earlier this month, the ONLF claimed to have captured the town of Mustahil (near the Somali border) in a battle involving heavy weapons, though a government spokesman said the claim was “absolutely false” and rebel forces were on the run (Shabelle Media Networks, March 8; Garowe Online, March 8; BBC, March 9). ONLF sources said their fighters were well trained and equipped with modern arms, enabling them to kill at least 100 government soldiers and capture another 50 in the fighting for Mustahil (Somaliweyn, March 10).  Commercial and private vehicles were reported stuck at the border as Ethiopian troops closed roads while they conducted counter-insurgency operations in the area (Garowe Online, March 9).

In a military communiqué, the ONLF reported its “Dufaan” (“Storm”) commando unit was involved in heavy fighting around Degah Bur in northern Ogaden and had captured a quantity of arms and ammunition from the government garrison (Mareeg Online, March 7). The Dufaan unit is best known for leading the 2007 attack on the Chinese oil facilities at Obala. The Ethiopian government denied its forces were involved in the fighting around Degah Bur, insisting the clashes were between locally-raised pro-government militias and “local terrorists” (AFP, March 7). A government official later said the rebel statements were issued because the ONLF was “embarrassed with the fact that the ongoing peace, development and democratization efforts in the state are becoming effective” (Walta Information Center [Addis Ababa], March 16).

Ethiopia refers to both the ONLF and OLF as “terrorists,” though neither group appears on the U.S. or EU list of designated terrorist groups. The rebel movements claim Ethiopia is a colonial regime that has done little to develop outlying regions such as Ogaden.

This article first appeared in the March 26, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Ethiopia Faces Ethnic Fallout from Somalia Intervention

Andrew McGregor

June 5, 2007

During the month of May, Ethiopia faced a series of attacks from its own ethnic-based rebel groups. The attacks come as a consequence of its invasion of Somalia last December, as the groups are attempting to take advantage of the Ethiopian army’s entanglement. The U.S.-backed government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi now faces a new phase of armed resistance in the Muslim Ogaden region, which occupies nearly a third of modern Ethiopia and is home to four million ethnic Somalis. The recent discovery of substantial oil and mineral resources in the Ogaden region has complicated an already long-standing dispute over the territory’s status. In the Ogaden, China and Malaysia are intent on reproducing their success in dominating Sudan’s oil industry.

Ogaden MapThe Orthodox Christian Amhara and Tigrean ethnic groups form 40% of Ethiopia’s population and have traditionally formed the power base for the Ethiopian government. Zenawi’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is the leading element in the coalition government, known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In May 2005, the EPRDF reassessed the results of a general election in which the regime was apparently defeated. The recount resulted in an EPRDF majority, and opposition to the result was ruthlessly repressed. Opposition forces regularly point out that most senior government positions are in Tigrean hands, even though Tigreans represent only six percent of Ethiopia’s population of 75 million.

Political violence has afflicted the Ogaden region since its conquest by Ethiopia in the late 19th century. Ethiopia is determined to avoid a repetition of the Ogaden War of 1977-78, which began when Somali dictator Siad Barre committed four mechanized brigades in support of ethnic-Somali separatists in the Ogaden. An airlift of military equipment and aircraft from the Soviet Union and the deployment of 10,000 Cuban regulars allowed the Ethiopians to repel the invasion after more than a year of intense fighting. Today, the armed resistance is led by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

The Ethiopian government’s presence in the Ogaden has been almost entirely military in nature since its conquest, with little effort extended to develop the region. Ogaden human rights groups complain of the brutal military rule that has disrupted traditional social systems and devastated the local economy (Ogaden Human Rights Committee, Press Release, April 29). The government has also been accused of mismanaging local wildlife resources, exploiting limited water resources and allowing the charcoal industry to raze the region’s forests. The people of the Ogaden have also been denied a voice in the development of promising mineral and petroleum deposits. Contracts are negotiated in Addis Ababa, and the exploration companies arrive with large detachments of government troops. Last November, Swedish oil company Lundin Petroleum was warned by the ONLF that its exploration activities in the Ogaden were “both unrealistic and unwelcome.” The ONLF advised foreign exploration companies that Ethiopia does not control the Ogaden and that their security guarantees are worthless (Afrol News, November 14, 2006). Malaysia and India, likewise, have oil exploration firms active in the Ogaden region.

On April 24, the ONLF’s “Dufaan” commando unit attacked a well-guarded Chinese-managed oil exploration site near Obala in the northern Ogaden region, resulting in the deaths of 65 Ethiopian soldiers. Nine Chinese workers were killed while a further seven were abducted “for their own safety,” but released a week later (ONLF Communiqué, April 24). After the attack, Ethiopia’s parliament blamed the ONLF’s backers in Asmara, accusing the Eritrean regime of engaging in “international terrorism activities” (Ethiopian News Agency, May 10). According to rebel sources, the ONLF followed up its oil-field attack by taking the town of Kefalo on May 15 (

The ONLF accuses Prime Minister Zenawi of currying favor from Western states by presenting himself as an ally in the “war on terrorism” and by suggesting that the ONLF has ties to al-Qaeda. The ONLF denies using terrorism, emphasizing that the movement restricts itself to attacking only legitimate targets of the regime.

The ONLF has entered into an alliance with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) to confront “Abyssinian colonialists.” Unlike the Somalis of the Ogaden, the indigenous Oromos have mixed with their Amharic neighbors since the 17th century. Today, Oromos can be found in all parts of Ethiopia and many modern Ethiopians are at least part Oromo. Not all Oromos support the creation of an independent “Oromia”—the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization remains part of the EPRDF ruling coalition. With nearly equal numbers of Orthodox Christians and Muslims (and a small Protestant minority), the Oromo movement is nationalistic rather than religious in character. The OLF encourages all of Ethiopia’s disparate opposition groups to join a new umbrella group, called the Alliance for Freedom and Democracy.

Rebel reports claim that a joint OLF/ONLF operation in the Ogaden’s Warder province killed 82 government soldiers and wounded a further 75 during six days in May (Voice of Oromo Liberation, May 17). The Ethiopian government denied these reports, describing them as simple attempts to gain media attention (Daily Monitor [Addis Ababa], May 23).

Ethiopia is following an ambitious long-term project to become a major East African energy supplier through oil exports, to construct five major hydroelectric dams and to provide a connection between the North African and South African power grids. In the meantime, the Zenawi government depends on U.S. support for its survival. The armed resistance has perceived a window of opportunity, as a large number of Ethiopian troops and military resources remain engaged in Somalia and are unable to withdrawal without the arrival of a larger African Union peacekeeping force than the 1,500 Ugandans already deployed.

Despite the TPLF regime’s characterization of opposition movements as “terrorist” in nature, neither the ONLF nor the OLF appear on the U.S. or EU lists of designated terrorist organizations. These movements have been joined in their opposition to the regime by other ethnic-based opposition groups, including the Afar National Democratic Front, the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM) and the Ethiopian People’s Patriotic Front (Amhara). The TPDM claims to have inflicted 127 Ethiopian government casualties in a May 7 battle in the Tigrean homeland in northwest Ethiopia (Voice of the Broad Masses of Eritrea, May 12). Many of these groups receive support from the TPLF’s enemies in Eritrea.

Zenawi is currently faced with a dilemma: with no sign of AU reinforcements for Somalia, his U.S. sponsors are demanding that the Ethiopian army remain in Mogadishu despite the desperate need for these troops at home.

This article first appeared in the June 5, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor