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Is al-Shabab looking to Ethiopia?

Martina Schwikowski
October 16, 2019

Al-Shabab has mostly struck Kenya when attacking outside of Somalia's borders. But after recent arrests of alleged al-Shabab fighters in Ethiopia, is the Islamist group turning to Ethiopia as a new target?

Ausschnitt | AMISOM-Kommandant Tigabu Yilma Wondimhunegn beim Truppenbesuch in Dhoobley

The al-Shabab militant group has sown fear and terror in Eastern Africa for more than a decade. The terrorist group is fighting to oust the Somali government and establish a society based on a rigid interpretation of Islamic Shariah law. Its original leadership was affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Although based in Somalia, al-Shabab frequently launches terror attacks in other African countries, most notably in neighboring Kenya. It has struck there more than 20 times in the past five years, killing at least 300 people.

In January 2019, 21 people died when al-Shabab gunmen attacked a hotel and office complex in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Most recently, Kenyan police shot and killed three alleged al-Shabab members and arrested seven. The men were suspected of planning attacks in the coastal city of Mombasa earlier in October.

Al-Shabab fighters display weapons as they train in Mogadishu
Despite long-running military offensives against the group, Al-Shabab still still has a significant capability to carry out terrorist attacks (File: 2010)Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. A. Warsameh

Al-Shabab says its strikes on Kenya are in retaliation for its troops crossing into Somalia: Kenya first sent soldiers into Somalia in 2011 to target al-Shabab fighters and in 2012 it officially joined the African Union's peacekeeping mission in Somalia, known as AMISON.

Ethiopia so far evaded large-scale al-Shabab attacks

Similarly to Kenya, al-Shabab also has an antagonistic relationship with neighboring Ethiopia.

Ethiopia, backed by the United States, invaded Somalia in December 2006, capturing the capital Mogadishu and helping the Somali interim government drive out the loose-knit Union of Islamic Courts, which controlled the capital and much of southern Somalia.

Ethiopia also decided in 2013 to send troops to Somalia to join AMISON. In retaliation for this move, al-Shabab renewed its call for 'jihad' against Ethiopia

Ethiopian troops serving under AMISOM
Ethiopian troops first started serving as part of AMISOM in 2014Image: AMISOM

Despite this, Ethiopia has been targeted far less than Kenya and has so far managed to evade large-scale attacks.

Six years ago, Ethiopia was spared bloodshed when two Somali suicide bombers accidentally blew themselves up in central Addis Ababa. Security officials assume they were preparing to kill football fans during Ethiopia's World Cup qualifying match against Nigeria that was to take place later that day. Back then, the country's vulnerability to extremists' attacks even became the subject of a written question in the European Parliament. 

Ethiopia arrests militants

In September this year, however, Ethiopian security officials announced the arrest of a number of alleged al-Shabab suspects. The suspects aimed to attack "hotels, religious festivities, gathering places and public areas" in the capital Addis Ababa, Ormomia and Ethiopia's Somali region, according to a statement by the country's National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) read out on state television.

NISS did not specify how many people it detained, but the state broadcaster reported that it was 12. The suspects were said to have entered Ethiopia through Djibouti and Somalia, as well as the breakaway state of Somaliland.

Berhanu Jula, deputy chief of Ethiopia’s military, told the state-owned Ethiopian News Agency that there is evidence al-Shabab "has recruited, trained and armed some Ethiopians."

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had also recently warned about attempts by the Somalia-based al-Shabab extremists to make inroads into Ethiopia, according to the Associated Press news agency.

Is Al-Shabab taking advantage of political changes?

Al-Shabab could be benefiting from increasing ethnic violence and the fraught political transition sweeping the country since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ushered in a series of reforms when he came to power in April 2018.

"There were highly significant political changes in Ethiopia that led to wholesale changes in the federal government leadership and the leadership of the security apparatus as well," said William Davison, Senior Analyst for Ethiopia at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.  

Portrait photo of Willaim Davison, International Crisis Group
William Davison, Senior Analyst for Ethiopia, International Crisis GroupImage: CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

"The security posts have been re-staffed and it takes time for such a system to be rebuilt."

It could be that al-Shabab perceives the security apparatus as weak as a result, and is seeking to take advantage of this, Davison said.

As such, the arrests and the televised statement about them could be read as the Ethiopian government putting its ability to fight terrorism on display.

However, there is still no clear indication of the identity of the detainees or the circumstances, Davison said.

Under the previous regime, international observers were concerned with how the government used the fight on terror to crack down on dissent, Davison pointed out.

There's currently no sign of that, but he criticizes that even though the anti-terror law has been revised, the broad scope of what "encouraging terrorism" means under that law makes it "open to be used against political dissidents by the authorities."

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