Was the Battle for Galkayo a Clan Dispute or a Victory for Puntland over al-Shabaab?

Andrew McGregor

September 16, 2011

A gun battle between militants and Puntland security forces in Galkayo (the capital of Mudug region) on September 1 and 2 has left 68 dead and 153 wounded. The administration of the autonomous Somali province of Puntland announced the defeat of a group of al-Shabaab fighters in the battle in Puntland’s second-most populous city, but there are serious questions as to whether security forces were engaged with al-Shabaab or were actually fighting in a clan-based conflict.

The insistence of both President Abdirahman Muhammad Mohamud “Farole” and Puntland security minister Kalif Isse Mudan that Puntland security forces were battling al-Shabaab militants was challenged by the president’s own terrorism advisor, General Muhammad Dahir Shimbir, who said his unit’s investigation of the incident had revealed only local residents “mostly from one clan” involved in the fighting. The General further suggested that the massive number of killed and wounded could not be justified (Raxanreeb Radio, September 11).  A hospital and various hotels were also reported to have suffered from damage inflicted during the fight and subsequent looting by government forces (RBC Radio, September 10). Mortars and artillery are reported to have been used by Puntland forces.

The fighting was concentrated in the Garsor village district of Galkayo, populated mainly by the Leelkase sub-clan of the Darod (RBC Radio, September 10). One report claims that a police unit made up of men belonging to a rival sub-clan was deployed to Galkayo several weeks ago, heightening tension in the town (Horseed Media, September 8). The southern part of Galkayo is administered by Galmudug, an autonomous region of central Somalia with an uneasy relationship with Puntland. Puntland claims that South Galkayo, under the Galmudug administration, is a base for militancy in North Galkayo and supplied the fighters in North Galkayo with  “safe refuge, medical assistance and even ammunition” (Horseed Media, September 5; Radio Garowe, September 4). [2]

To confirm their version of events, Puntland authorities displayed a group of men they alleged were al-Shabaab fighters captured in two separate operations in the Garsor neighborhood of Galkayo. A police official informed journalists that all the men had pleaded guilty and were awaiting arraignment in court (SUNA Times, September 8). Puntland officials say the Garsor neighborhood is a base of operations for assassinations and violence across Puntland. Some of the prisoners displayed were said to have been captured during a raid on an al-Shabaab safe-house in Galkayo as they planned further acts of violence, while other prisoners were said to have been arrested while engaged in combat against Puntland security forces (Horseed Media, August 8). Journalists in attendance apparently did not talk to the prisoners.

A video of young men fighting the security forces in Galkayo did not show the organized and heavily-armed veteran fighters of al-Shabaab, but rather a line of young men hugging a building while waiting for their turn to fire off one of two weapons in their possession. [1] Al-Shabaab has not issued a statement regarding the fighting, odd for a movement that has rarely shied away from admitting its participation in battles against Somali authorities.

Puntland also condemned Galmudug leader Muhammad Ahmad Alim for telling the BBC the fighting in Galkayo was “clan-based” and asserted that the men killed or arrested by security forces in Galkayo came from a number of different areas and belonged to several different clans.

Most of the fighting on behalf of the Puntland government was carried out by the Puntland Intelligence Service (PIS), the strongest armed group in Puntland, where it absorbs an enormous amount of the annual budget. The PIS is formed largely from the Osman Mahmud sub-clan of the Majerteen (which also dominates the Puntland administration) and has been accused of inciting clan warfare against the Warsangeli clan of the Darod in Bosaso. In the summer of 2010 the PIS engaged in battles against a militia led by Islamist Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id “Atam”(a Warsangeli) in the mountainous Galgala district of Puntland’s Bari Region (for a profile of Shaykh Atam, see Militant Leadership Monitor, October 2, 2010). Local radio reported on September 7 that Puntland security forces had engaged in an hour-long gun battle with militants led by Shaykh Muhamamad Sa’id Atam that killed five people (Radio Shabelle, September 7, 2010). The PIS has been targeted by al-Shabaab in the past, most notably with a pair of suicide car bombs that struck two PIS anti-terrorism offices in Bosasso, the economic capital of Puntland, killing six PIS agents (AFP, October 30, 2008).

According to a report in the Somaliland Press (generally unsympathetic to the regime in Puntland), the conflict started as a traditional dispute over water wells by members of the Issa Mahmud sub-clan of the Majerteen/Darod (the sub-clan of President Farole) and the Leelkase sub-clan of the Darod. The conflict spread to Galkayo, where members of both sub-clans live, before the government sent in troops and armor to subdue the Leelkase, dubbing them al-Shabaab fighters in the process (Somaliland Press, September 5). However, Puntland President Farole stated: “There was no clan fighting in Galkayo. Our forces were fighting against terrorists who target our citizens. This is our duty. Our government stops clan wars. We spend massive resources and manpower to stop clan wars, and presently our forces are deployed in many regions of Puntland to prevent clan wars. But al-Shabaab terrorist group is notorious for using the clan card, for hiding under local greivances, similar to methods they used during the Galgala conflict” (Radio Garowe, September 4).

Puntland officials never fail to point out that al-Shabaab’s leadership is in the hands of members of the Isaaq clan of Somaliland, and insist that the campaign of bombings and assassinations plaguing Puntland are organized and funded in Somaliland (Garowe Online, September 10). The town of Burao, in particular, is often mentioned as the source of al-Shabaab plots against Puntland (Radio Garowe, September 1).

There is very little incentive for regional governments such as Puntland to admit to clan-based clashes when it is more profitable to claim threatening incursions by al-Shabaab/al-Qaeda and watch the military support and funding roll in, strengthening the hand of the regional government against its neighbors. Admitting to clan clashes is also an acknowledgement that serious clan differences exist, an uncomfortable admission for a government almost entirely based on a single sub-clan. Though Puntland has undoubtedly been a target of al-Shabaab in the past, the ongoing series of killings and bombings is every bit as likely to have its motivation in pre-existing clan rivalries or in disputes over the unprecedented amount of cash that is rolling into Puntland as a result of the Puntland-based piracy industry


  1. Video provided by Waagacusubmedia on Sep 2, 2011, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awoaw7Ax2Bk&feature=related.
  2. Press Release, Ministry of Security and DDR, Government of Puntland, September 2, 2011.
  3. Press Release, Communications Office, the Puntland Presidency, August 28, 2011.

This article first appeared in the September 16, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor