March 8, 2012
Under military pressure from Kenyan forces, the African Union Mission in Somalia and various Somali militias and government forces campaigning in its traditional area of operations in southern Somalia, al-Shabaab has announced an expansion into Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in northern Somalia that has so far been better known as a center for offshore piracy than for Islamist militancy. Nevertheless, a dirty, low-level war of assassinations, bombings and clashes between Islamist gunmen and local security forces has been going on for several years.
Puntland Security Forces on Parade
The announcement, which follows last month’s unification of al-Shabaab with al-Qaeda, came in the form of a proclamation from Yassin Khalid ‘Uthman (a.k.a. Yassin Kilwe Yuma), the self-described “Amir of the Mujahideen in the Golis Mountains [an area of caves and rough terrain in northwest Puntland]” that his fighters have joined al-Shabaab and pledged loyalty to its leader, Shaykh Ahmad Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr.” The “Amir” was clear that his group was aligning itself with al-Qaeda: “I want to praise God for the unity of our Shabaab brothers with al-Qaeda fighters… I want to declare today that we are joined with our al-Shabaab brothers who are devoted to the jihad in Somalia” (al-Andalus Radio, February 26; al-Kataib Media, February 27). The new al-Shabaab/al-Qaeda chapter in Puntland may have announced its presence in a more material way on March 3, when at least nine people were killed at a Puntland security checkpoint near the commercial capital of Bosasso (25 miles from the Galgala region) during an attack by militants (Reuters, March 3).
Yassin Kilwe is thought to be part of the Galgala militia that operates in the Golis Mountains in a diminished capacity since it was targeted by a three-month military offensive by the Puntland Intelligence Service.  The militia, if not a formal part of al-Shabaab, has traditionally operated in sympathy with al-Shabaab’s objectives.
Puntland frequently accuses neighboring Somaliland, with which it has several territorial disputes, of providing support for the Galgala Islamists, while Somaliland accuses Puntland of seeking military dominance in northern Somalia. The known leader of the Galgala militants is Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Atam, who routinely denies any formal ties between his group and al-Shabaab, assertions that have been confirmed in the past by al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage “Ali Dheere” (VOA Somali Service, July 29). However, it was also Ali Dheere who welcomed the merger of the “Mujahideen in the Golis Mountains” with al-Shabaab (Dayniile, February 27).
Greater Puntland – Includes disputed territories
Yassin Kilwe’s claim to be Amir of the Galgala militants immediately raised speculation regarding the leadership role of Shaykh Atam, who has not made any statement since Yassin Kilwe’s announcement (Raxanreeb.com, February 25). There were reports that many of the Galgala militants were unhappy with the merger with “a terrorist group,” and Kilwe may represent a new faction that has split from the main Galgala group to join al-Shabaab/al-Qaeda (Somalia Report, February 28). A Puntland government spokesman said the merger “doesn’t have any effect on Puntland’s peace and tranquility and the armed forces who already made them weak are ready to fight them” (Puntlandi.com, February 26). The Puntland administration has said that they already knew that the Galgala militants were part of al-Qaeda (a common refrain in government comments on the militants) and security has been tightened in the areas of oil exploration operations (Dayniile, February 27). AMISOM is expected to make a decision within days on whether to deploy African Union peacekeepers from an expanded force in Puntland.
Canada’s Africa Oil Corp. and its Australian partners Red Emperor and Range Resources began drilling in northern Puntland in January, the first oil operations in Somalia for two decades. The Nugaal and Dharoor fields are believed to have as much as 300 million to 4 billion barrels of oil, the first of which is expected to flow within a month (Reuters, February 25; Observer, February 25). There may be much more oil in offshore fields off Puntland’s coast. Galgala and other parts of the Bari region are also above the Majiyahan Ta-Sn Deposit, a zone rich in minerals such as Albite, Quartz, Microcline, Tantalite, Tapiolite, Cassiterite, Spodumene and Muscovite. Somali prime minister Abdiweli Muhammad Ali has promised a cut of his nation’s natural resources in exchange for foreign investment and reconstruction assistance: “There’s room for everybody when this country gets back on its feet and is ready for investment,” though he also noted: “The only way we can pay [Western companies] is to pay them in kind, we can pay with natural resources at the fair market value.” (Observer, February 25). Britain’s BP has been mentioned as the foreign oil company of choice for Somalia’s transitional government, but so far the firm has downplayed rumors it is working on a major deal for the offshore reserves. The British government has also denied charges that its sudden interest in Somalia (hosting international conferences on Somalia, providing humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance, etc.) is part of an effort to gain commercial considerations for British firms in Somalia (Garowe Online, February 27).
Last week, al-Shabaab began sending internet and Twitter messages warning that “Somali oil carries death” (SAPA-AP, March 1). The movement has said that it is canceling the licenses of Western oil and gas firms operating in Puntland, possibly the first step in a new campaign of attacks on Western exploration facilities.
1. See Andrew McGregor, “Puntland’s Shaykh Muhammad Atam: Clan Militia Leader or al-Qaeda Terrorist?,” Militant Leadership Monitor, September 29, 2010.
This article first appeared in the March 8, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.