Al-Qaeda Cell on Trial as Ethiopia becomes a Religious Battleground?

Andrew McGregor

May 31, 2012

Ten Somalis and one Kenyan are currently under trial in Addis Ababa for their alleged involvement in an al-Qaeda bombing plot after weapons and training manuals were seized in the Bale region of southeastern Ethiopia last December. The Kenyan, Hassan Jarsoo, has admitted his role in the alleged plot, but the others, who allegedly include several members of the army of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, have denied their involvement. Six of the defendants are being tried in absentia (Walta Info Online [Addis Ababa], May 20; Africa Review [Nairobi], May 22; AFP, May 18).

Ethiopia is one of the earliest homes of both Christianity and Islam, with its 85 million people being roughly 60% Christian and 30% Muslim. These communities have traditionally lived in harmony, but in recent years Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians and Sufi-based Muslims have come under destabilizing pressure from external sources, primarily from American backed Christian evangelists and Saudi/Kuwaiti backed Salafists. Both of these trends have caused dissension in the religious communities by describing traditional Ethiopian forms of worship as deviations if not outright heresy and insisting that their adherents must convert to these new, more fundamentalist forms of worship. Ill-considered intervention by the central government has only inflamed the situation, and the result has been a growing wave of religious violence in a nation that has prided itself on religious tolerance. 

Islam arrived in Ethiopia even before it had firmly established itself in Arabia, as the Prophet Muhammad urged his persecuted followers to flee Mecca in 615 and take refuge in northern Ethiopia, where he promised they would find protection from its just king and his Christian followers. While many returned when Mecca became safe for Muslims, there is some evidence that others stayed in Ethiopia, founding the first Muslim community in Africa. The first muezzin (prayer-caller) in Islam was the ethnic Ethiopian Bilal ibn Rabah (a.k.a. Bilal al-Habashi), one of the Prophet’s closest companions. The Ethiopian city of Harar is regarded in some traditions as the “fourth-holiest city in Islam,” with mosques dating back to the 10th century and over 100 shrines.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told parliament in April that the government was “observing tell-tale signs of [Islamic] extremism. We should nip this scourge in the bud” (Reuters, May 10). In response to fears of an incipient Salafist movement to establish an Islamic state in Ethiopia, the government is attempting to make a little-known and non-threatening Islamic sect known as al-Ahbash the dominant form of Islam in the country, a solution that has inflamed Sufis and Salafists alike.  The Ahbash movement was founded by Abdullah al-Harari (a.k.a. Abdullah al-Habashi, 1910-2008), a Harari scholar of Islam whose views were regarded locally as divisive, resulting in his being forced to leave for Lebanon in 1950. Al-Harari founded al-Ahbash, also known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, in the 1980s. Ethiopian Salafists have complained the government is importing Ahbash imams from Lebanon to teach local Muslims that Salafism is a non-Muslim movement (, April 29).

Abdullah al-Harari

The leading Islamic religious authority in Ethiopia is the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (IASC). Salafists no longer participate in the Council, which is in the process of having its representatives replaced by government appointed members of the Ahbash sect. Even authorities such as Dr. Ali Jum`ah, Grand Mufti of Egypt and Professor of the Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence at Cairo’s al-Azhar University, charge the movement with having “strange deviant views that have never been expressed by any Muslim sect, group or movement,” including the free intermingling of the sexes, unrestricted cooperation with non-Muslims and the issuing of fatwa-s that contradict the Koran and Sunnah. Salafists and orthodox Sunni scholars also charge al-Ahbash with allowing intercession with the dead (saint-worship), overlooking the need to observe the five pillars of Islam, declaring Salafist-favored scholars such as Ibn Taymiyah, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Sayyid Qutb to be kuffar (infidels) and obscuring their true beliefs by failing to commit them to print (, April 22). Seven Muslims were killed and scores wounded by Ethiopian police in late April when security forces surrounded a mosque in the Oromia Region in an attempt to arrest Salafist Shaykh Su’ud Aman following protests against the government’s efforts to impose Ahbashism (, April 29; VOA, May 21).

As in many other parts of the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have built numerous schools in underserved regions while Ethiopian workers have found employment in the Arabian Peninsula, where they have been exposed to highly conservative forms of Islam that differ greatly from those traditionally practiced at home. The religiously-inclined can find employment in Saudi-sponsored mosques in Ethiopia after taking advantage of generous scholarships to study Salafist Islam in Saudi Arabia. Local imams suffer from an educational and financial disadvantage in countering the Salafist scholars.

To offset the growing Salafist influence in Ethiopia, the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa attempted to have two works by Khalid Abou el-Fadl, a Kuwaiti Islamic scholar who teaches in the United States, translated into Amharic, Oromo and Somali, but were unable to find translators willing to undertake the work. The failed effort was part of an attempt to use “cultural programming” to turn “public opinion against activists who seek to overturn the existing order and import a brand of Islam that breeds conflict through its corrosive teachings that run counter to more orthodox interpretations of the Koran.” [1]

The Shrine of Shaykh Nur Hussein

In the Bale Region of Oromiya, dozens of Sufi shrines were reported to have been destroyed by Salafists in the 1990s before the Salafists turned their attention to the Shaykh Nur Hussein shrine, a religious center built around the tomb of a 12th century holy man. The shrine is the site of several important annual celebrations and, most importantly, has become a site of pilgrimage, an unforgivable violation of the Salafist code of Islamic worship, which only permits pilgrimage to the holy cities of the Hijaz in western Saudi Arabia. As part of its campaign to counter the Salafist trend, U.S. officials financed a major restoration of the shrine in 2007 at the same time Salafists were trying to force its closure (Ayyaantuu News Online, November 10, 2011). [2]

Local Muslims in Amhara Region then sought U.S. funding for restoration of the 18th century Jama Negus Mosque in Amhara Region, a project which had been denied funding from Gulf State NGOs on the grounds it had not only become a place of pilgrimage, but was also the center of annual celebrations of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (Moulid al-Nabi), which are also banned in the Salafist creed. [3]  Salafists despise the Jama Negus mosque as an alternative center of pilgrimage and Moulid celebrations, leading the Gulf States to refuse financial assistance to its physical rehabilitation and creating an opening for the United States to sap support from their Gulf State allies in the battle for “hearts and minds” in Ethiopia by providing reconstruction assistance. [4]

The introduction of non-Orthodox Christianity by Protestant missionaries has also created often violent dissension in both the Christian and Muslim communities. Evangelical Protestant churches and the homes of some evangelical Christians were burned down by in the town of Asendabo in southwest Ethiopia in March, 2011.  Residents of the dominantly Muslim region were incensed by rumors that members of the Pentecostal churches were using pages of the Koran as toilet paper (Radio Netherlands Worldwide Africa, March 20, 2011). Thousands were displaced in violence Prime Minister Zenawi blamed on a sect known as Kawarja. In Bale Region, a group of 17 Ethiopian Christian students were assaulted last year after they attempted to distribute Bibles to local Muslims (Ethiopian Review, March 2, 2011). There have also been Muslim attacks against evangelical Christians in the southern Ethiopian city of Besheno in November, 2010 and May 2011 (AsiaNews, May 2, 2011).


1. Wikileaks, U.S. Embassy Cable, 09ADDISABABA1675, July 15, 2009; U.S. Embassy Cable, 08ADDISABABA3230, November 26, 2008. The books in question were The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (2005), and The Place of Tolerance in Islam (2002).

2. Wikileaks, U.S. Embassy Cable, 08ADDISABABA3230, November 26, 2008.

3. Wikleaks, U.S. Embassy Cable 09ADDISABABA1672, July 15, 2009.

4. Wikileaks, U.S. Embassy Cable, 09ADDISABABA1675, July 15, 2009.

This article first appeared in the May 31, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Oromo Liberation Front Calls for “Egyptian and Tunisian-Style Revolution” in Ethiopia

Andrew McGregor

March 3, 2011

Political reverberations from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt continue to sweep through the Horn of Africa, which has already witnessed demonstrations against the Transitional Federal Government and its Islamist opponents in Somalia (see Terrorism Monitor Briefs, February 17). Now militants belonging to Ethiopia’s Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) have called for all of Ethiopia’s ethnic and religious groups to emulate the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts and unite in deposing the Tigrayan-dominated government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, leader of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, the major element of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition.

Oromo LFRebels of the Oromo Liberation Front

In a statement broadcast in both Afan Oromo and Amharic, the OLF maintained that only a revolution in the streets could command the attention of the West: “Until [Addis Ababa] becomes the next Tunis or Cairo, their ears will not listen,” though “most of the superpower countries, the hitherto supporters and handlers of the tyrannical regimes, were forced to quickly abandon their darlings and side with the people in revolt.” Most importantly, the Oromo must unite with Ethiopia’s Amharic speakers to provide a long-term solution to the country’s ills (Jimma Times, February 27).

The Oromo are the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia and dwell principally in central and southern Ethiopia, though there is a high degree of social integration with Ethiopia’s Amharic-speaking peoples, the traditional rulers of the nation until 1991. The Oromo are religiously diverse, with members of the ethnic group following Islam, Christianity and traditional religions, but not all Oromo opposition leaders and parties agree on the necessity of a revolution.

In recent days, a joint operation along the border by Ethiopian and Kenyan military forces that began last November is reported to have resulted in the arrest of at least 120 OLF fighters and the seizure of a quantity of arms, grenades and missiles. The existence of a cross-border Oromo community is reported to have complicated efforts to identify OLF members; according to a local Kenyan provincial commissioner, “These people speak the local dialect and it may be hard to distinguish them from the locals but the locals themselves are volunteering information that will lead to their arrest.” The operation will continue to search for other OLF members (Sudan Tribune, February 26).

The OLF began an armed struggle for Oromo self-determination and local autonomy from the Amhara monarchy in 1973. After dropping out of the coalition government formed after the conclusion of the Ethiopian civil war and the fall of the communist Derg regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, the OLF then took up arms against the new Tigrayan-dominated government. Addis Ababa classifies the OLF as a terrorist organization and has accused it of being responsible for a series of bombings in Addis Ababa in 2008, a claim denied by the OLF (see the OLF statement published in the Sudan Tribune, May 29, 2008).

Despite assertions by Ethiopian authorities that the military capabilities of the OLF and its armed wing, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), have been much diminished by constant pressure from government security services, the movement recently claimed that a special unit of the OLA operating in the OLF’s so-called “Eastern Zone” raided and destroyed a government military base in Kombolcha, killing 19 soldiers and injuring 25 others (Voice of Oromo Liberation Radio, February 25; OLF News, February 26; for OLF military capabilities, see Militant Leadership Monitor Briefs, January 29, 2010). The attack and the alleged casualties have not been confirmed by government sources. Kombolcha is 12km from the commercial center of Harar. The OLA has also claimed responsibility for the February assassination of a government intelligence official in the Eastern Oromia district who was accused of harassing members of the local Oromo community. An OLA statement warned: “Those who continue to be part of the TPLF killing machine will face the same death penalty unless they refrain from such evil acts” (OLF News, February 6; Jimma Times, February 9).

This article first appeared in the March 3, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor 

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

Slaughter in Mogadishu Mosque Inflames Somali Conflict

Andrew McGregor

April 30, 2008

A new wave of heavy fighting broke out in Mogadishu on April 19 that lasted for over 48 hours and left more than 80 dead. More residents continue to pour out of the city past Ethiopian tanks awaiting further attacks from the Islamists (al-Jazeera, April 21).

Ethiopian TankEthiopian Tank Rolls through Mogadishu

Numerous eyewitness reports claim that Ethiopian troops entered the al-Hidaya mosque in Mogadishu, where they killed 11 Somali civilians, including a number of preachers and the imam of the mosque, Shaykh Said Yahya. A further 10 civilians were killed outside the mosque. The preachers were members of the Tablighi Jamaat, a normally non-political Islamic missionary order that originated in India and has spread to East Africa, among other places. The Tablighis are not known to have played any part in the Islamist insurgency in Mogadishu. One of the surviving preachers, Shaykh Muhammad, claimed: “We believe the reason behind the attack was a fight against Islam, and to completely destroy areas where it is active, and make it stagnant” (Radio Shabelle, April 24).

In Washington on an official visit at the time, Somalia’s interim President Abdullahi Yusuf described Ethiopian clashes with “terrorist groups named al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda,” but claimed “there is no incident where soldiers entered a mosque and slaughtered the people inside” (Garowe Online, April 25). A spokesman for the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry stated that the account of Ethiopian troops killing civilians at the mosque was “a completely fabricated story designed to blackmail the Ethiopian army, one of the most disciplined forces anywhere in the world” (Guardian, April 25).

The throats of seven of the victims were slit, which Amnesty International described as “a form of extra-judicial execution practiced by Ethiopian forces in Somalia” (AI Press Release, April 23). A later statement from the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry eventually acknowledged the killings had taken place, but pinned the blame on the Islamist Shabaab militia: “The cutting of the throats of even enemies and mutilating bodies is not in the tradition of Ethiopian troops. On the other hand, the al-Shabaab [Islamist] terrorists have never been ashamed of these types of atrocities” (AFP, April 25). A December 2007 statement from Mogadishu’s dominant Hawiye clan deplored a number of “grave violations of human rights” committed by Ethiopian occupation troops, including “throat slitting” (Appeal by Hawiye Council in London, December 12, 2007).

Forty-one Quranic students in the mosque ranging in age from nine to 18 were taken away by Ethiopian troops and eventually transferred to the local police, where they were being investigated for terrorist activities (Shabelle Media Network, April 26); 37 of the students were released on April 24.

The massacre at al-Hidaya mosque has thrown the peace talks scheduled to begin in Djibouti on May 10 into doubt. A number of opposition leaders already in Djibouti, including Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmed, are reported to have left Djibouti after receiving reports of the mosque incident.


This article first appeared in the April 30, 2008 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

China’s Oil Offensive Strikes: Horn of Africa and Beyond

Andrew McGregor

August 10, 2007

In its efforts to expel an Islamist government and capture a handful of inactive al-Qaeda suspects in Somalia, the United States has risked its political reputation in the region through a series of unpopular measures. These include backing an unsuccessful attempt by warlords to take over the country, several ineffective air raids, and finally, the financing of an unpopular Ethiopian military intervention. As African Union peacekeepers struggle to restore stability in the capital of Mogadishu, China has stepped in to sign the first oil exploration deal negotiated by Somalia’s new government. The agreement is the first of its kind since the overthrow of the Siad Barre regime in 1991 began a long period of political chaos in the strategically important nation.

China Oil 1Chinese Oil Rig in South Sudan (Tong Jiang/Imaginechina)

China’s four major oil corporations have unlimited government support, allowing them to edge out the smaller Western oil companies that traditionally take on high-risk exploration projects like Somalia. Latecomers to the global oil game, the Chinese companies and their exploration offshoots have focused on oil-bearing regions neglected by major Western operators because of political turmoil, insecurity, sanctions or embargoes. China once hoped to supply the bulk of its energy needs from deposits in its western province of Xinjiang, but disappointing reserve estimates and an exploding economy have given urgency to China’s drive to secure its energy future. Twenty-five percent of China’s crude oil imports now come from African sources.

The Somalia deal is part of a decades-long Chinese campaign to engage Africa through investment, development aid, “soft loans,” arms sales and technology transfers. The European Union recently warned China that it would not participate in any debt-relief projects involving China’s generous “soft-loans” in Africa (Reuters, July 30).

Global demand for oil is expected to rise over 50 percent in the next two decades even as prices rise and reserves decline. To meet this demand, China and other Asian countries offer massive infrastructure developments in exchange for oil rights. President Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders are regular visitors to African capitals and Chinese direct investment in Africa totaled $50 billion last year.

Oil in Somalia?

Last month a deal was reached between Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and China International Oil and Gas (CIOG) to begin oil exploration in the Mudug region of the semi-autonomous state of Puntland (northeast Somalia) (Financial Times, July 17). Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which has yet to secure its rule, is to receive 51 percent of the potential revenues under the deal.

Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf (a native of Puntland) appears to have negotiated the deal in concert with Puntland officials but without the knowledge of the Prime Minister, Ali Muhammad Gedi, who is still working on legislation governing the oil industry and production-sharing agreements. Gedi insists that “in order to protect the wealth of the country and the interests of the Somali people, we cannot operate without a regulatory body, without rules and regulations” (Financial Times, July 17). The agreement with China may become an important test of the authority of the transitional government. China has effectively pre-empted the return of Western oil interests to Somalia, though it is unclear how the Chinese project may be affected by the passage of a new national oil bill. Somali negotiators assured the Chinese firms that new legislation would have no impact on exploration work due to begin in September (Shabelle Media Network, July 17).

Though Somalia has no proven reserves of oil, Range Resources, a small Australian oil company already active in Puntland, suggests that the area might yield 5 to 10 billion barrels (Shabelle Media Network, July 14). Somalia is also estimated to have 200 billion cubic feet of untapped natural gas reserves. Western petroleum corporations, however, conducted extensive exploration of potential oil-bearing sites in Somalia in the 1980s and found nothing worth developing.

Public unrest is already on the rise in Puntland as the local government grows increasingly authoritarian and the national treasury has mysteriously dried up. Discontent has accelerated as leaders of the one-party regime continue to sign resource development deals with Western and Arab companies without any form of public consultation. The new deal with China has the potential to ignite political unrest in one of the few areas of Somalia to have avoided the worst of the nation’s brutal political nightmare.

China’s Strategy in Africa

Last November, Beijing hosted an important summit meeting between Chinese leaders and representatives of 48 African countries. The African delegates gave unanimous support to a declaration endorsing a one-China policy and “China’s peaceful reunification” [1]. China in turn announced a $5 billion African development fund (administered by China’s Eximbank), with a promise of $15 billion more in aid and debt forgiveness to come. In exchange for secure energy supplies, China is also offering barrier-free access to Chinese markets, something Africans have been unable to obtain from the United States or the EU.

China Oil 2While China has had success in securing energy supplies in Africa, its oil offensive is by no means flawless. Chinese corporations working abroad provide little employment for local people and are remarkably tolerant of corruption and human rights abuses. Chinese overseas operations are also notorious for their disregard of environmental considerations. The latter is perhaps unsurprising, considering the environmental devastation afflicting China’s own industrial centers. Yet, the combination of all these factors tends to create unrest in nations where Chinese operations are seen as benefiting members of the ruling elite and few others. What is also notable is that of the five African countries where China is involved in major resource operations, only one, Angola, is not dealing with a major insurgency.


China continues to expand its operations in the Sudan, its most successful foreign energy project to date. Oil from southern Sudan currently supplies 10 percent of China’s imported energy needs. Chinese and Malaysian companies operating as a joint venture (with a minority Sudanese share) stepped up to take over the exploitation of Sudan’s vast oil reserves after international pressure forced out the Canadian Talisman Corporation. The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) recently announced the acquisition of a 40 percent share in a major exploration site off the Sudanese Red Sea coast. A 1997 embargo prevents U.S. companies from operating in the Sudan.

The Sudanese/Swiss ABCO Corporation claims that preliminary drilling in Darfur revealed “abundant” reserves of oil. These reserves have yet to be confirmed, but it appears that the rights may have already passed into Chinese hands (AlertNet, June 15, 2005; Guardian, June 10, 2005).


China and Malaysia, partners in the Sudan, are trying to replicate their Sudanese success in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. As a demonstration of goodwill—and to increase the incentives for cooperation—China and Ethiopia signed a debt relief agreement in May worth $18.5 million (Xinhua, May 30). In addition, a new convention center for the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa is being built with substantial Chinese assistance.

Following its usual practice, China imported its own labor to work in the Ogaden projects in preference to hiring local workers. Asian exploration companies tend to arrive in the region with large military escorts after negotiating contracts with the Tigrean-based government in Addis Ababa. The ethnic-Somali inhabitants of the Ogaden region have little input, making the operations a target of the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). A commando unit of the ONLF attacked a well-guarded Chinese oil exploration facility in northern Ogaden on April 24, killing 65 Ethiopian troops and nine Chinese workers. A further seven Chinese workers were abducted “for their own safety” and released a week later (ONLF communiqué, April 24)


In Niger the CNPC (already active in two other concessions) appears to be in the lead for the sole rights to the promising Agadem concession, to be awarded sometime this month. With financial support from the Chinese government, CNPC is offering to build a refinery and a pipeline in exchange for the rights, a commitment even Western oil giants like Exxon have shied away from. A Tuareg-based rebel movement in the resource rich north has declared Chinese oil and uranium operations “unwelcome” while accusing China of supplying the Niger army with weapons to pacify the region. Rebels attacked an armed supply convoy heading to a CNPC exploration camp in July, killing four soldiers (Reuters, July 31).


Last year, the CNOOC moved into territory previously dominated by major Western oil companies in the Niger Delta, paying $2.7 billion for a 45 percent share in an offshore oilfield expected to go into production in 2008 (Reuters, April 26, 2006). China is building $4 billion worth of oil facilities and other infrastructure in return for access to other promising Nigerian oil-fields, including the untapped inland Chad basin (BBC, April 26, 2006).

With a growing insurgency in the oil-rich Niger Delta threatening Nigeria’s oil industry, China has stepped in to supply weapons, patrol boats and other military equipment. Beijing does not share Washington’s reluctance to supply such hardware to a Nigerian military accused of corruption and human rights violations (Financial Times, February 27). The insurgents claim that Chinese, Dutch and U.S. resource companies fail to hire local labor and are devastating the local economy and environment through unchecked pollution. The world’s eighth largest oil exporter, Nigeria is also a major market for Chinese exports.


Beijing has been wooing oil-rich Angola through promises of aid and development. Its promise of $2 billion in soft loans brought a guarantee of uninterrupted oil supplies to China and offshore exploration rights for CNPC while enabling Angola to avoid Western pressure to restructure a corrupt and inefficient economy.

Competition with the United States

As China intensifies its economic engagement with Africa, the United States has been steadily increasing its military presence in Africa, supplying arms, training troops and opening new bases for U.S. personnel. Efforts such as the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative have brought U.S. forces into many countries for the first time as part of the global effort against al-Qaeda. The creation last February of AFRICOM, a new U.S. regional combatant command for Africa, reflects Washington’s new interest in the area. Despite the anti-terrorism rhetoric, it appears that the main function of AFRICOM will be to secure U.S. energy supplies in a region that is expected to provide a growing share of the United States’ future energy needs.

Ironically, U.S. arms and military training provided under the guise of “counter-terrorism assistance” may ultimately provide Chinese oil interests with the security they need to carry out operations in high-risk areas. An Ethiopian army financed and equipped by the United States for use against “Al-Qaeda terrorists in Somalia” is now being used to protect Chinese oil exploration efforts in the Ogaden region through military operations against ONLF rebels and punitive attacks on ethnic-Somali civilians.


So far, a visible disinterest in tying resource development contracts to social or economic reforms has aided China in securing its energy future in Africa. To be fair, this pattern of tolerance for corruption in regimes with desirable natural resources was set long ago by Western corporations and governments. China still employs the rhetoric of anti-colonialism in its relations with Africa, but many Africans are beginning to see China as an exploitive major power supporting corrupt regimes in the same manner as the former Western imperial powers. While China is taking some small steps to correct this impression, problems will persist unless Africans see immediate benefits from the Chinese presence, particularly in the field of employment. China’s success in presenting itself to the Third World as “the largest developing country” will eventually have limited currency if its business operations become indistinguishable from Western corporations. In the meantime, China’s rivalry with the West for control of Africa’s oil is certain to intensify.


  1. See the full text of the Declaration of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, available online at:

Battleground Somalia: America’s Uncertain Front in the War on Terror

Andrew McGregor

June 21, 2007

On June 14, Somalia’s National Reconciliation Conference (NRC) was postponed for the second time. It is now possible that the conference will never be held. The NRC has been long viewed by the United States, the European Union and others as Somalia’s last chance for peace and security, but the postponement will compel the United States to re-examine its long-term policy in Somalia. For external consumption, Somalia’s new Transitional Federal Government (TFG) describes the Somali conflict as a struggle against international terrorism; in reality, much of the fighting is due to historic animosity between some of Somalia’s largest clans. In Mogadishu, the Darod-dominated TFG is engaged in a running battle against the Hawiye clan, which were the largest backers of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), the Islamist government expelled from power by last December’s Ethiopian invasion.

Battleground MogadishuThe United States has released funding for the reconciliation conference while urging the TFG to reach out to the banned Islamists to encourage their participation. The TFG offered the Islamists a chance to register as elected clan representatives, but with no assurances of security. Islamist leaders, who claim the true aim of the conference is to “legalize the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia,” responded with demands for a neutral venue and the full withdrawal of Ethiopian troops (Goobjoog, May 24). In the meantime, roadside bombs explode daily and an intensive campaign of assassinations is taking a heavy toll on Somali leaders. Former ICU leaders are attempting to unite various opposition factions in a national movement for the liberation of Somalia from “foreign occupation” (The East African [Nairobi], June 18). The insurgency is also placing great pressure on formerly peaceful Somali territories like Puntland and Somaliland.

 U.S. Assault in Puntland

The TFG has given U.S. forces the “green light” to carry out counter-terrorist operations inside Somalia, such as the recent attack on Islamists in Puntland (a semi-autonomous region in northeastern Somalia). Set up in 1998 as a self-governing refuge from the chaos prevailing in the rest of Somalia, Puntland’s single-party government has become increasingly authoritarian in recent years as it tries to prevent political Islam from taking hold. Public unrest is growing as the national treasury grows mysteriously dry, services are curtailed and soldiers and civil servants go unpaid. The administration recently signed several natural resource exploration deals with Western and Arab companies without public consultation.

In the last days of May, the Puntland regional administration announced that two speedboats carrying 30 to 35 al-Qaeda “terrorists” had arrived in Baargaal district. Puntland officials claimed the foreign extremists came from the Ras Kamboni region of south Somalia, close to the Kenyan border. One of the men was said to be a suspect in the 1998 U.S. Embassy attacks, while insurgents from the United States, Sweden, Yemen, Morocco and Pakistan were allegedly part of the group. Six insurgents were reported killed by local troops, while the rest fled to the mountains near the Baargaal district where they were bombed on June 1 by U.S. warplanes and shelled by the five-inch gun of the U.S. destroyer Chafee (a now rare example of a ship-to-shore bombardment). There were reports of civilian casualties in a group of nomads, but no evidence that the militants sustained any damage from the bombardment (Puntland Post, June 2).

Religious elders from Baargaal gathered later to announce that no foreigners were part of a group of local fighters attacked by the United States and Puntland regional government forces, describing any assertion to the contrary as a “fabrication” (Somaaljecel, June 5). The assault on Baargaal came five months after similarly unsuccessful attacks near the Kenyan border by U.S. AC-130 gunships. Somali sources continue to report U.S. troop movements along the Somali side of the Kenyan border (Shabelle Media Network, May 22).

Al-Qaeda: Here, There and Nowhere

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer claims that U.S. intelligence has confirmation of 30 al-Qaeda members active in Somalia and neighboring areas (ANGOP [Luanda], June 5). The U.S. special envoy for Somalia, John Yates, also sees an al-Qaeda hand behind the violence: “Because of the kind of fighting going on in Somalia, we suspect that there are still al-Qaeda related individuals in Somalia” (Shabelle Media Network, June 1). Perhaps appealing for continued U.S. support, TFG Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Gedi described a threatening future for Somalia in which al-Qaeda will pursue its “satanic plan of turning the country into a breeding ground for terrorists from all over the world and a safe haven for all outlaws and violators of international legitimacy” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 5).

In early June, a car bomb set off by a suicide attacker nearly killed Gedi at his home in Mogadishu. It was the fourth attempt in recent months to kill the prime minister. Gedi described the attack (which killed seven guards) as the work of al-Qaeda: “The suicide bombing is a new and alien culture in Somalia…They collaborated with terrorist groups abroad and used technologies that the Somalis do not know” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 5). Likewise, U.S. special envoy John Yates observed that the tactics used in the May roadside bombing that killed four Ugandan soldiers “were very much like the tactics that al-Qaeda and other terrorist movements have used in the past.” A Ugandan government investigation, however, later concluded that al-Qaeda played no part in the attack (Shabelle Media Network, May 18; Shabelle Media Network, May 21).

Not all TFG officials agree on the al-Qaeda threat. On June 6, Mogadishu’s mayor, former warlord Mohamed Dheere, declared that “the Hawiye are now to blame for the bomb explosions in Mogadishu” (Shabelle Media Network, June 6). On the same day, TFG troops arrested the chairman of the Hawiye Committee, Haji ‘Abdi Iman Umar, during a series of raids and arrests. Haji ‘Abdi has denied any involvement of the Hawiye elders in the attacks (Radio HornAfrik, June 7). Bombings and assassinations of regional administration heads in Banadir district were attributed to Hawiye activity in a meeting of the regional council on June 3. In the Gedo region in southwest Somalia, local officials recently held talks with Ethiopian officials to refute allegations that al-Qaeda operatives were concentrating there for attacks on Ethiopia (HornAfrik, June 6).

Exit Ethiopia

The regime of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has realized that talk of an impending Ethiopian withdrawal only emboldened the insurgents while doing nothing to hasten the arrival of the balance of the African Union peacekeeping mission, known as AMISOM. According to Zenawi, “Our defense forces will remain until they accomplish their mission…However, this does not mean that we want or can stay in Mogadishu or in Somalia indefinitely” (Ethiopian TV, June 10). A day later, Zenawi appealed to the Security Council to fund the cash-short AU mission, referring to the “financial burden Ethiopia is shouldering” (Shabelle Media Network, June 11). The Ethiopian army is preparing new operations against ethnic Somali rebels and their Oromo allies in the Ogaden region, where oil exploration efforts are already underway. Zenawi describes these groups as tools of the Eritreans in their efforts to destabilize the Ethiopian regime. In response to retaliatory strikes on ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has promised to “become more vicious” in its attacks. There is always the possibility that Ethiopia may decide the best way to keep a lid on the resistance is to continue occupying Somalia until the Ogaden and its natural resources are secured, but Ethiopian troops targeted daily by roadside bombs and grenade attacks will have little appetite to stay put.

Lately, Zenawi seems to be suggesting that the eradication of terrorism in Somalia is not the objective of the Ethiopian occupation force. “It can be asked whether there exists a city where there are no terrorists,” he explained. “There can be terrorists hiding in other cities, let alone Mogadishu. So it is impossible to confidently say Mogadishu will be 100% free of terrorists. You cannot also be sure about Addis Ababa or New York, let alone Mogadishu…Even now the situation in the city is not that bad” (Ethiopian TV, June 10).

The assassinations and grenade attacks on Ethiopian troops have spread from the capital to Hawiye-dominated Beledweyn in central Somalia. In Somalia, there are many motivations for violence: the southern port of Kismayo is being fought over by TFG troops divided along clan lines; clan fighting in Mudug region erupted over a pool of rainwater during drought conditions; in Baidoa there have been horrific and unclaimed grenade attacks on a bank and a crowded cinema.

The Peacekeepers

On June 15, NATO offered to provide airlift services to AMISOM member nations to speed up deployment (Shabelle Media Network, June 15). Thus far, however, only a Ugandan Battle Group of 1,500 men has arrived from a projected AU force of 8,000. Burundi announced that it will send 1,820 troops to Somalia by French airlift in July, but Ghana appears to be waiting for a cease-fire in Somalia before it deploys, although it has also cited a lack of equipment and logistical support from the AU. The mission comes just as the AU mission in Darfur is on the verge of collapse, with Rwanda and Senegal threatening to withdraw their troops. UN Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe recently stated that the UN was considering taking over Somalia’s political direction and reconciliation efforts while seeking to reinvigorate the AU’s peacekeeping mission (Radio Simba, June 9). The Security Council also agreed there was an urgent need to prepare plans for a possible UN peacekeeping force. The TFG is now stating its preference for a UN force (Shabelle Media Network, June 15).


The U.S. hunt for largely inactive al-Qaeda suspects in Somalia is proceeding at great risk to its reputation in the area. Its open alliance with Ethiopia and support for the Ethiopian occupation force have created an atmosphere of mistrust in fiercely independent Somalia. Despite enormous material and political costs, not one of the three foreign al-Qaeda suspects alleged to be taking refuge in Somalia (and wanted by Washington for their roles in the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania) has been killed or captured.

In a May 23 webchat, Michael Ranneberger, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, seemed to be backing off from the “ICU equals al-Qaeda” equation that has dominated recent U.S. policy in the region and is impeding reconciliation efforts. “I recognize that the Islamic Courts did manage to establish a degree of order in Mogadishu,” he said. “However, the Islamic Courts never had broad support among the Somali people and, importantly, the Islamic Courts were moving in a very radical direction, which would not have been to the benefit of the Somali people” (USINFO, May 23).

If Ethiopia withdraws, there is no guarantee that Islamist forces may not return to power, especially if there is a return to political chaos and street violence. The AU peacekeeping intervention is largely a failure (despite the efforts of the Ugandans) with only a small chance of revival. The Islamists will be quick to remind Mogadishu’s beleaguered civilians of the security that prevailed under the administration of the Islamic Courts. The Islamist leadership is nearly intact and has found safe harbors in Eritrea, Yemen and some Gulf states. There are a number of options available to the United States in its relations with Somalia that may be followed singularly or in combination:

  1. Use of the U.S. military’s four bases in the region (Camp Lemonier, Djibouti; Manda Bay, Kenya; Bilate and Hurso, Ethiopia) to conduct pre-emptive military operations designed to collect local intelligence and to seize or assassinate individuals deemed threats to national security.
  2. Containment through continued naval operations and surveillance over-flights, while rebuilding the Somali navy to undertake coastal security duties.
  3. Consolidation of the Ethiopian military presence with U.S. funding.
  4. De-emphasis of the military option in favor of promoting inclusive national reconciliation and U.S. engagement in reconstruction efforts.
  5. Turning the problem over to the UN by encouraging and funding a UN peacekeeping mission to replace the faltering AU effort.
  6. Military occupation by U.S. forces (the most unlikely option).

Inclusive national reconciliation, support for AMISOM, increased development assistance and training for local security forces are the new cornerstones of a shifting U.S. policy in Somalia. The United States hopes for a transition to a democratically-elected government by 2009. In the meantime, the international community is waiting to see the results of the reconciliation conference before forming solid assistance plans. Anxious Somalis also wait to see if their country is destined for peace or to serve as the latest battleground in the war on terrorism.

This article first appeared in the June 21, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

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

Situation in Somalia Remains Precarious

Andrew McGregor

May 22, 2007

After several weeks of relative calm in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, expelled Islamist leaders now based in Eritrea have pledged to continue attacks despite setbacks suffered in battles with Ethiopian troops in March and April. Two-thirds of the original Ethiopian force has now been withdrawn, and a three-week old cease-fire between Ethiopian troops and Mogadishu’s dominant Hawiye clan appears to be holding. Some 1,500 Ugandan soldiers of the African Union’s peacekeeping force are patrolling Mogadishu, but the rest of the projected 8,000-man force has yet to materialize, despite pledges from Nigeria, Burundi, Ghana and Malawi. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry claims that 800-900 insurgents were killed in March and April, although this figure appears to include some of the 1,400 civilians killed in the fighting. Ethiopia also disputes the number of refugees, claiming the existence of only 80,000 displaced persons as opposed to UN estimates of 400,000 (SomaliNet, May 19). The UN’s relief chief for Somalia has described the refugee crisis as “worse than Darfur” (Shabelle Media Network, May 15).

Ethiopian TanksEthiopian Tanks in a Somali Market

Indiscriminate retaliatory shelling from Ethiopian troops, following attacks on their bases, devastated many Hawiye neighborhoods and cost the insurgency in terms of local support. After assessing their losses, the insurgents appear to have abandoned their preferred methods of hit-and-run mortar attacks and open gun-battles in favor of a shift to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and targeted assassinations. For example, a remote-controlled roadside bomb hidden in a pile of trash killed four Ugandan soldiers and injured five more on May 16. Four days later, a large roadside explosive device hidden in a plastic bag killed two civilians, while another bomb narrowly missed a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) convoy, killing two civilians instead. The main road through the Bakara market was closed the same day when another bomb was discovered close to a TFG base.

TFG Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Gedi was nearly killed on May 17 by a grenade thrown by a would-be assassin. Former warlord and new Mogadishu mayor Muhammad Dheere was targeted on May 20 by grenades thrown from an assassin in a tree. Dheere survived, noting: “It seems the Islamic insurgents are still active in Mogadishu, but we will get rid of them” (Shabelle Media Network, May 20). The TFG has responded with controversial new tactics of its own, including seizing and burning women’s veils to prevent insurgents from disguising themselves in women’s garments (al-Jazeera, May 9).

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has urged AU members to pursue a more vigorous form of “peacemaking” that is closer to conflict intervention than the traditional definition of “peacekeeping.” “If we follow the UN concept of waiting for peace to return before we deploy peacekeepers, then we are bound to lose many lives,” he explained. “We should deploy even when fighting is still going on” (Shabelle Media Network, May 16). Ugandan troops are struggling alone in Mogadishu, waiting for the arrival of the rest of the AU peacekeeping force. The deadly attack on a Ugandan convoy suggests that the insurgents regard any foreign detachment as an occupying force. It does not help that the AU headquarters are located in Addis Ababa. The trouble is that the AU deployment was intended to replace the much-hated Ethiopian army, not work alongside it. There is little alternative, however, as an immediate Ethiopian withdrawal would place an isolated Ugandan force in a precarious position, with little choice but to drive an evacuation column overland back to Uganda or to evacuate by sea from their base on Mogadishu’s waterfront. The AU’s and Addis Ababa’s U.S. patrons have warned the Ethiopian government against making a hasty withdrawal. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi complains of the “onerous” financial burden imposed on Ethiopia by keeping its troops there. According to Zenawi, the resistance has been broken and conditions have been established for peacekeepers “to do their job” (Shabelle Media Network, May 15). Zenawi has promised that Ethiopian troops will leave as soon as AU forces arrive in support of the Ugandans.

Mogadishu’s powerful business associations have begun to transfer small arms to TFG depots, but lacking confidence in the permanence of the new government, they have failed to turn over their heavy weapons or “technicals” (armored pick-up trucks equipped with anti-aircraft weapons) (Banadir, May 4). After several large-scale robberies by men wearing TFG uniforms, the businessmen are now demanding that Ugandans rather than TFG men provide security for the commercial district (Shabelle Media Network, May 17).

On May 17, the United States appointed career diplomat John Yates as special envoy to Somalia. Yates wasted no time in claiming that the roadside bombing that killed four Ugandans was evidence of al-Qaeda activity in Mogadishu (Reuters, May 18). A spokesman for the AU also alleged al-Qaeda responsibility for the attack (Shabelle Media Network, May 18). In Uganda, public opinion is quickly turning against the Somali mission as reports of casualties come in. There are calls in the Ugandan press for the AU to admit its inability to manage the Somali mission and turn over responsibility to the UN. The chairman of the AU Commission, Alpha Konare, conceded on April 27 that, “If other countries do not commit troops soon, it will be a disaster for Africa” (New Vision [Kampala], May 7).


This article first appeared in the May 22, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

Weapons and Tactics of the Somali Insurgency

Andrew McGregor

March 5, 2007

After being driven from the Somali capital of Mogadishu to the port city of Kismayo by Ethiopian troops in late December, Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed urged “Islamic Courts fighters, supporters and every true Muslim to start an insurgency against the Ethiopian troops in Somalia” (Shabelle Media Network, December 30, 2006). In mid-January, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) reorganized into an insurgent group with the name Popular Resistance Movement in the Land of the Two Migrations, or PRMLTM (, January 19). The insurgents are dedicated to removing the Ethiopian-imposed, but internationally recognized, Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) as well as expelling all foreign troops from Somalia. According to TFG President Abdullahi Yusuf, “Those who throw grenades at night are definitely the remnants of the Islamic Courts and we can defeat them” (Shabelle Media Network, January 14). The government estimates that 3,000 Islamist fighters are still active in Mogadishu. In light of these threats, it is important to assess the tactics that insurgents will use in their operations against TFG, Ethiopian and other foreign troops deployed to Somalia.

Somali Tactics 1Somali Technical (Peter Turnley/CORBIS)


Modern Somali combat tactics are typically based on the use of the “technical,” an armor-plated pick-up truck equipped with an anti-aircraft gun, used for firepower and battlefield mobility. Insurgents have largely abandoned the use of the technical in urban Mogadishu, where civilian vehicles attract less attention from Ethiopian patrols. ICU technicals in Mogadishu were returned by the Islamists to the clan militias that had originally donated them. Nearly 100 technicals in Kismayo were driven out of the city when the Islamists abandoned it on January 7. The technicals are, in any case, no match for Ethiopian armor. Insurgents are active mostly at night when the police, TFG troops and Ethiopians retreat to their compounds, but daytime attacks are not uncommon.

Somali insurgents prefer three types of operations against allied (TFG/Ethiopian) positions:

  1. Mortar or rocket assaults on allied positions are the most common form of attack, occurring on an almost daily basis in Mogadishu. The mortar is usually transported to a residential neighborhood by car or pick-up truck before deployment. Typically, a small number of rounds are launched before the target is engaged with automatic weapons fire, while the mortar is withdrawn. Firefights can last a few minutes or several hours, with government or Ethiopian forces generally reluctant to emerge from their positions until the firing has stopped. As the gunmen withdraw, retaliatory allied rocket or artillery fire targets the neighborhood from which the mortar fire came. TFG/Ethiopian troops may conduct a house-to-house search for weapons in the neighborhood the next day. At one point, TFG soldiers began to confiscate cell phones from people in the street, fearing that they might be used to direct mortar attacks (SomaliNet, February 21).
  2. Assassinations are the second most common tactic. Politically-inspired killings of government officials or police officers are often carried out in a “drive-by” fashion by gunmen in a car. Bombs may be used for significant targets, although it is much more common for a hand grenade to be tossed through a house or car window. A TFG spokesman claimed that assassinations are a long-standing technique of the Islamists: “Before Islamists took control of the capital, specific individuals were being assassinated and when they clutched control of the capital, assassinations halted. Now that they were defeated, killing has restarted” (Shabelle Media Network, January 28).

Somali Tactics 2Al-Shabaab RPG (Garowe Online)

  1. RPG and automatic weapons fire on TFG/Ethiopian convoys is rare in comparison, but offers the insurgents the best opportunity to kill allied troops outside their well-defended compounds. In a February 8 daylight RPG attack on an Ethiopian convoy, the grenade missed the convoy entirely and took out a civilian Toyota, killing two people. Ethiopian troops can overreact to such situations. On January 20, for example, a man fired a pistol at an Ethiopian convoy in a north Mogadishu market. While the man slipped away, Ethiopian troops opened fire on the market crowd, killing four and wounding many others. In early January, there were two instances of gunmen in cars or pick-up trucks attacking allied convoys or positions with RPGs and automatic weapons, but this tactic has been little used since (although passing cars may still lob a grenade into army positions).

The insurgents’ targets include police stations, the presidential compound, the Defense Ministry, hotels housing TFG, Ethiopian or AU officials (such as the Banadir Hotel, Hotel Kaah and the Ambassador Hotel), TFG/Ethiopian army compounds (including the Difger Hospital, commandeered for military use), the seaport (where Ethiopian troops are quartered) and the airport (the PRMLTM threatened to shoot down aircraft using the airport, but so far only mortar attacks have been carried out). Insurgent losses during operations in Mogadishu appear to be remarkably small. Those killed or wounded are apparently recovered before pulling out. No insurgent has been taken prisoner in the course of an operation in Mogadishu. Nearly all insurgent attacks occur in the Mogadishu region, with a small number of attacks in the port city of Kismayo. This does not, however, indicate a state of peace in the rest of the country, where clan fighting and battles between tribal militias and government forces claim as many lives as the insurgency.

A spokesman for the PRMLTM recently threatened the use of suicide attacks against AU peacekeepers: “We promise we shall welcome them with bullets from heavy guns, exploding cars and young men eager to carry out martyrdom operations against these colonial forces” (, February 25). So far, suicide attacks have been rare in a population little inclined to such methods. Iraq-style bombings directed at masses of civilians have also failed to appear in the Somali insurgency.

As the Ethiopians entered Somalia last December, Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad “Indha-Adde,” the ICU defense chief, made an appeal for foreign assistance: “The country is open to all Muslim jihadists worldwide. We call them to come to Somalia and continue their holy war in Somalia. We welcome anyone, who can remove the Ethiopian enemy, to enter our country” (Shabelle Media Network, December 23, 2006). At the time, TFG Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Gedi claimed that 4,000 foreign fighters had joined the ICU. While several scores of foreigners have been arrested at the Kenyan border, the prime minister’s tally seems to have been greatly exaggerated. There is no evidence yet that foreign fighters are involved in the current clashes in Mogadishu, although TFG military commander Saed Dhere accused unnamed foreign countries of financing the attacks (SomaliNet, February 24).

Despite disarmament efforts, arms can be found everywhere in Mogadishu. When the Islamists withdrew from the capital, they abandoned large stocks of arms that were then plundered by looters (Shabelle Media Network, December 28, 2006). Incredibly, the Bakara and Argentina arms markets in Mogadishu remain open, selling hand grenades, RPGs, machine guns, anti-aircraft guns and the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle. Several warlords who turned in their arms during the government’s disarmament campaign (including Mohamed Dheere, Muhammad Qanyare Afrah and Abdi Nur Siyad) have been observed stocking up on new RPGs, heavy machine-guns and other weapons (Terrorism Focus, February 27). The AK-47 remains the insurgents’ most common weapon, many of these having been seized from the police.


Deputy Defense Minister Salad Ali Jelle claims that the insurgents always target the civilian population in Mogadishu in order to create a perception of instability for foreign consumption (Shabelle Media Network, February 7). The insurgents actually do not target civilian areas so much as display ineptitude in finding the proper range with their mortars, leading to widespread destruction of civilian areas and large losses of life compared to the relatively few casualties they inflict on the government compounds. Further casualties are created when allied forces lash out blindly with artillery and rocket fire when they come under attack from residential neighborhoods. The wounded have difficulty reaching already overwhelmed hospitals due to continuous weapons fire or roadblocks erected by allied forces. Nearly half of the wounded perish after they finally reach medical care.

Religious and community leaders in Mogadishu have begged both sides to stop the devastation created by these endless rounds of attacks and counter-attacks. Sheikh Ali Haji Yusuf urged the formation of local security forces until the government can establish security in Mogadishu. The sheikh’s call was apparently heeded; in the evening of February 21, vigilante forces discovered and beat a team of gunmen attempting to deploy a mortar from their car to fire at government positions in Mogadishu. Some gunmen have found new careers as vigilantes for hire in different neighborhoods.

Mogadishu police retired to their compounds several weeks ago after a series of assassinations and have rarely emerged since, leaving control of the streets to gunmen, vigilantes, criminals and the well-armed security forces of Mogadishu’s business community. The TFG claims to have developed new teams of counter-terrorism specialists, but these appear to have had little effect so far.


Although Mogadishu’s Islamist insurgents may be willing to start a large-scale insurgency, their lack of training on most weapons more powerful than an AK-47 restricts the effectiveness of their attacks on allied positions. Just before the Ethiopian invasion, large numbers of students were handed arms from Islamist stockpiles. Predictably, Ethiopian regulars and warplanes quickly routed these inexperienced would-be jihadis on open ground. Mogadishu is another story. Here, TFG and Ethiopian troops have shown distaste for urban operations. TFG forces rely on Ethiopian firepower, while the Ethiopians are already in the process of withdrawal.

The first of 8,000 AU peacekeepers are scheduled to arrive on March 2. Uganda asserts that its contingent will include counter-insurgency veterans and is well trained in countering suicide attacks (, February 25). AU peacekeepers will have to be more aggressive than the Ethiopians to contain the Mogadishu insurgency, although such tactics might reinforce popular perception of the peacekeepers as an occupation army. TFG soldiers and police will also be certain to stand aside while AU troops do the heavy work. With time, the effectiveness of the insurgents will improve, leading to the possibility of intense fighting as long as the TFG refuses to include the Islamist leadership in the national reconciliation process, as urged by Ethiopia, the United States and the European Union.

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