Al-Shabaab has struggled and largely failed to establish itself in the independent but unrecognized Republic of Somaliland. There, the government has, with limited means, denied al-Shabaab the operational space it requires through the implementation of a virtuous circle that builds on local buy-in and uses HUMINT as a force multiplier. However, despite its successes in its war against al-Shabaab, Somaliland faces a formidable foe that is increasingly active along its border with Puntland where this virtuous circle is under increasing strain. The efficacy of Somaliland’s security forces in these border areas is limited
Analysts and officials have made frequent predictions about the decline and demise of al-Shabaab over the years. However, the al-Qa’ida-allied terrorist group has not only survived but continues to thrive in much of Somalia. On September 30, 2019, al-Shabaab launched attacks on two high-profile targets. It attacked a military base that hosts U.S. Special Forces soldiers at Balegdole in Lower Shabelle (southern Somalia), and then its operatives also targeted an Italian armored convoy carrying military advisers in Mogadishu. Both attacks failed. Al-Shabaab did not succeed in penetrating the outer defenses of the military base nor did they did injure or kill any of the military advisers.2 However, both attacks demonstrate al-Shabaab’s ability to target extremely well-guarded sites and individuals.
Since 2006, when al-Shabaab began to coalesce as an organization, billions of dollars have been spent by the United States and the international community to fight the group. The expenditure of vast sums of money and the eventual deployment of 22,000 soldiers by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), however, have failed to defeat the organization.
The key to al-Shabaab’s resiliency and its resurgence is two-fold. First, the failure of the Somali Federal Government to police and govern its territory consistently and effectively provides al-Shabaab with a high degree of operational freedom. Second, al-Shabaab’s ever-increasing organizational competence allows it to out-govern the government and other armed factions in many parts of Somalia. This competence extends well beyond its war-fighting capabilities. While important, these are not as critical as the group’s ability to operate what is in effect a shadow government that is often more effective, efficient, and predictable than the Somali Federal Government. It is the presence of this often efficient shadow government, far more than its armed operations or ideology that arguably allows al-Shabaab to maintain its influence across much of Somalia.
Notably, al-Shabaab has failed to establish an enduring foothold in the unrecognized Republic of Somaliland.
There, the government of Somaliland exerts consistent control over most of the territory that it claims. Al-Shabaab has not launched a large-scale attack in Somaliland since 2008 when it struck the presidential palace, the Ethiopian consulate, and UNDP offices in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital. The reasons for al-Shabaab’s failure, at least so far, to establish a foothold in Somaliland are due in large part to the Somaliland government’s ability to disrupt al-Shabaab’s attempts to insert itself and its operatives into communities where it could then establish its shadow government.b This ability is predicated on the Somaliland government’s fostering of a virtuous circle. This virtuous circle begins with effective, locally derived governance that supports broad community buy-in. This then provides the critical human intelligence (HUMINT) that allows the government to combat militancy. This capacity to combat militancy contributes to the security and governance that yields the broad support that allows the circle to perpetuate itself.
In Somalia, on the other hand, it is uneven, unpredictable, and often corrupt governance that gives al-Shabaab the space it requires to operate so effectively. Al-Shabaab, much like the Taliban in Afghanistan, mixes brutality with efficiency and predictability to secure the support—often through fear and terror—required to survive and thrive in many parts of Somalia. The government of Somaliland understands this, and despite severe limitations on its national budget, it has largely managed to thwart al-Shabaab’s efforts to expand its influence in the territory that it controls. However, Somaliland faces a growing list of challenges that include stalled governmental reforms, refugee and migrant inflows from Yemen and Ethiopia, climate change, and worryingly high youth unemployment. It is in Somaliland’s relatively undeveloped and less well-governed border areas where its efforts to counter al-Shabaab are most in danger of being compromised and overwhelmed.
Battling Militancy with Governance
Somaliland, which declared its independence from Somalia in 1991, has spent nearly three decades building its capacity to govern. The former British protectorate was briefly independent in 1960 before it joined with what was Italian Somalia. Almost immediately after its union with Somalia, friction arose between Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, and Mogadishu over the centralization of power and other issues. These tensions only increased with the rise of Siad Barre, Somalia’s president turned dictator. The Somali National Movement (SNM) was formed in 1981 with the goal of overthrowing Barre. The SNM was most active in northern Somalia where Barre launched a brutal war that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 civilians.
After Barre was overthrown in 1991, the SNM was instrumental in Somaliland’s decision to declare its independence. Many of the leaders of the SNM went on to play important roles in what was to become the government of Somaliland. The formation of the government of Somaliland was fraught in its early years as officials grappled with clan and inter-clan rivalries, the disarmament of militias, and the creation and formation of the structures of governance. However, by 2003, Somaliland had transitioned to a multi-party democracy that has subsequently held parliamentary elections and has elected three presidents.
Somaliland has adopted a kind of hybrid government that is very much of its own making. Clan elders continue to play formal and informal roles in governance and are represented in Somaliland’s upper house of parliament, the Guurti. It is this hybrid form of government and the fact that Somaliland has had to contend with little outside interference that have most contributed to its relative stability. However, Somaliland, just like Somalia, has battled and continues to combat the pernicious threat of al-Shabaab and, more generally, militancy.
Between 2003 and 2004, jihadis murdered four foreign aid workers in Somaliland—an Italian nurse (2003), two British teachers (October 2003), and a Kenyan aid worker (March 2004). The attacks prompted the government of Somaliland, with some assistance from the United Nations and United Kingdom, to create the Special Protection Unit (SPU), a police force tasked with protecting foreign organizations in its territory and those who work for them. At the same time, Somaliland began to build up its intelligence-gathering capabilities in response to the increased threats from militant groups.
On October 29, 2008, suicide bombers launched coordinated attacks on three targets in Hargeisa and one in the neighboring semi-autonomous Puntland State of Somalia. In Hargeisa, the presidential palace, Ethiopian consulate, and UNDP offices were all bombed, leaving 25 dead.5 While al-Shabaab never claimed credit for the attacks, U.S. authorities and officials in Somaliland blamed the group and al-Qa`ida for the attacks.
For officials in Somaliland, the attacks were a wake-up call. It was after these attacks that the government began to focus more of its limited resources on local governance, counterterrorism, and community-driven intelligence initiatives.17 Officials within the executive branch and the ministries of interior and defense recognized that they had been lulled into a false sense of security by the relative stability that Somaliland had enjoyed since 1997. Efforts to strengthen local and district governance and to build ties between these communities and the police and military were redoubled following the 2008 bombings.
The link between effective, predictable, and reliable governance—especially at the local level—and counterterrorism efforts was recognized at the most senior levels of government. To that end, the government of President Dahir Riyale Kahin focused on formalizing and funding—to the extent possible at the time—government structures from the community level up to the district level. Each substantive village in Somaliland has a community leader who may also be a clan elder. The community leader, in turn, answers to authorities at the district level who are accountable to regional officials. The structure for local governance has existed since 2002, though much of it was informal and inadequately funded.
At the same time that these structures were being formalized after 2008, efforts were underway to build up Somaliland’s capacity for gathering and acting on intelligence. Local buy-in and participation were fundamental to this effort and were encouraged through more responsive governance. Even community leaders can gain access to officials at the national level if they feel they have not received an adequate response from district- and regional-level authorities. While this closeness is at times problematic since it subverts the chain of command, it does facilitate swift responses and the rapid collection and dissemination of human intelligence
Somaliland’s Force Multiplier: HUMINT
Accurate, rapid, and actionable HUMINT is Somaliland’s force multiplier in its war against al-Shabaab and other militant groups. Somaliland has no air force, no helicopters, and no drones, and its police and military struggle with minimal budgets that are not likely to increase.c Somaliland already spends an estimated 35 percent of its national budget on its security services, police, and military. Somaliland’s army is small with an estimated total force of under 8,000 soldiers. The Somaliland police field a nationwide force of under 6,000 men and women. Housed within the police force are the Special Police Unit (SPU), which guards foreign organizations and those who work for them, and the Rapid Response Units (RRU), which are dedicated counterterrorism forces. The Somaliland Police and the SPU have and continue to receive aid and training from the United Kingdom. The Somaliland military and coast guard also receive some aid and training from the United Kingdom and the European Union.
In 1992, in response to the civil war in Somalia, the United Nations imposed an open-ended arms embargo on the country that is still in place. Since the United Nations considers Somaliland to be a part of Somalia, it cannot import weapons or materiel that might be used for kinetic operations. This means that Somaliland’s army and police forces suffer from acute shortages of critical equipment. Communications equipment is in particularly short supply.d Recruits to Somaliland’s police and army are required to supply their own personal weapon or purchase one before enlisting.e This is partly due to budget constraints and the embargo and partly a means of removing small arms from general circulation. Despite these shortages and budget constraints, Somaliland’s police and army have proved themselves to be effective at combating al-Shabaab.
One of the keys to their success are the formal and informal intelligence gathering capabilities of Somaliland’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) and the army’s and police’s own intelligence officers.f Informal intelligence gathering networks are extant throughout Somaliland where they are nested within local communities. Formal networks led by officers from the NIS, army, and police exist alongside and in conjunction with the informal networks that act as early detection systems or tripwires.
Somaliland employed a similar approach with its anti-piracy efforts during the period of 2007-2010, when the threat from pirate gangs was at its most pronounced. Somaliland’s coast guard set up observation posts along its 528 miles of coastline. However, given the distances and its limited resources, the coast guard could only actively monitor limited portions of the coastline. To overcome this, the coast guard, in conjunction with local police, trained and deputized coastal residents as shoreline monitors. These citizen monitors were given cellphones if they did not have them and numbers to phone to report suspicious activity. The low-cost program, which continues to operate, proved effective. To date, there have been no recorded acts of piracy originating from Somaliland’s coast. However, much like its counterterrorism efforts, Somaliland’s under-resourced coast guard faces growing challenges. The coast guard is largely unable to patrol the coastal areas near Puntland. Consequently, both al-Shabaab and ISS use small vessels to move men and materiel into Somaliland from small ports in Puntland.
Somaliland’s broader intelligence effort was largely modeled on its anti-piracy program. Citizen monitors and field officers report suspicious persons and activity to designated officials or community leaders. When a possible or confirmed threat is detected and reported, the authorities decide whether to set up surveillance or to bring the suspected individual or individuals in for questioning.g If the threat detected warrants it, authorities dispatch either the police or an RRU to apprehend suspects. By and large, the response by authorities is swift and measured. The level of trust between many citizens, their community leaders, and the police is such that it is not unheard of for relatives to inform authorities on a family member that they fear may be subject to recruitment by al-Shabaab.
It is this quick, generally reliable, and targeted response that helps secure citizen participation. Somaliland’s efforts to combat al-Shabaab hinge on citizen participation and the HUMINT this provides. If trust is lost or if authorities fail to respond in measured and accurate ways, then the virtuous circle breaks down and al-Shabaab gains a point of entry, whether that be with an individual or an entire community.
It is these points of entry that al-Shabaab is expert at detecting. While al-Shabaab has not successfully launched a large-scale attack in Somaliland since 2008, the organization has operatives and informants in both urban and rural Somaliland. Since 2008, Somaliland’s intelligence service, working with the police and army, has prevented at least three attacks al-Shabaab was attempting to orchestrate. The attacks were disrupted due to the human intelligence that was collected by formal and informal networks.
This is no easy feat given that al-Shabaab’s own intelligence and security apparatus, the Amniyat, is highly capable. In Somalia, the Amniyat has agents and informers in most, if not all, of Somalia’s various ministries and security services. Al-Shabaab devotes considerable resources to the Amniyat and its operatives and officers are drawn from the most capable and best educated recruits. Over the last five years, al-Shabaab has worked to further professionalize, formalize, and expand the Amniyat. Within the Amniyat there are compartmentalized units that are tasked with internal security and with identifying individuals and communities that might be vulnerable to being recruited by al-Shabaab. Amniyat operatives also identify areas and communities where clan and inter-clan rivalries can be exploited and leveraged by al-Shabaab. Just like the government of Somaliland, al-Shabaab recognizes that HUMINT and the deep socio-cultural understandings that should inform it, are fundamental to its success.
As part of its efforts to out-maneuver and combat al-Shabaab, the government of Somaliland looks to identify areas where clan conflict is likely. To do this it uses many of the same networks that it relies on to detect suspicious activity and persons. Authorities within the government and the NIS recognize that clan and inter-clan conflict are readily exploited by al-Shabaab in both Somalia and Puntland.42 Therefore, detecting and mitigating conflict in Somaliland is a core part of the Somaliland government’s counterterrorism efforts. To this end, the government tailors local governance and policing to particular areas. In some areas where it is deemed beneficial and necessary, the government makes use of less formal and more traditional forms of governance. A failure to respect clan and inter-clan politics as well as traditional seats of power can be just as problematic as an absence of governance.
It is in the borderlands that Somaliland’s virtuous circle is under strain. Here, HUMINT is especially critical given the inaccessibility of much of the area. Yet, in these borderlands, Somaliland is struggling to compete with al-Shabaab with respect to governance and the delivery of basic services, both of which are vital to securing the kind of broad community buy-in that leads to the provision of timely and actionable HUMINT. Somaliland’s lack of air assets and a limited number of off-road vehicles means that police and army units are often unable to quickly follow up on the intelligence they do receive.57 This in turn dissuades many who might contribute to the government’s efforts to combat al-Shabaab since there is no guarantee that there will be a response. If Somaliland fails to implement the virtuous circle that has served it well in other parts of the country, al-Shabaab and even ISS may be able to take full advantage of the vulnerabilities that exist in Somaliland’s border areas. This, in turn, might well allow them to move north
The case of Somaliland demonstrates what can be done when a government works closely with its citizens to combat militancy. The case of Somaliland also shows the critical importance of HUMINT. Somaliland has steadily built up its capacity to govern despite the limitations imposed on it by its non-recognized status. However, as is evidenced in the borderlands, the government is butting up against some of these limitations. It is there that Somaliland’s capacity to govern is less well-developed. Consequently, al-Shabaab, and, to a lesser degree, ISS are concentrating their efforts on these areas. It is unlikely that al-Shabaab or ISS will be able to move from these areas to other parts of Somaliland over the near or medium term. The government of Somaliland enjoys significant public support, support that will not be easily eroded or co-opted.
However, Somaliland’s stability and security should not be taken for granted. As is evidenced by al-Shabaab’s recent attacks on hardened targets in Somalia, the militant group is highly capable, and it is steadily enhancing these capabilities. This is especially the case with respect to its intelligence and infiltration capabilities. In Somalia, al-Shabaab benefits from and readily exploits uneven and frequently corrupt governance. Al-Shabaab’s ability to out-govern the federal government in many parts of Somalia, far more than its military capabilities, is what gives al-Shabaab the advantages that it enjoys.
Somaliland faces numerous challenges going forward. Its unrecognized status puts great pressure on its national budget since it cannot receive international loans, and many international investors remain wary due to the legal limbo of non-recognition. Somaliland is also grappling with climate change and a youth bulge. Youth unemployment in Somaliland exceeds 70 percent. Somaliland must also contend with the fallout from the war in neighboring Yemen. It is now home to more than 25,000 Yemeni refugees, in addition to an estimated 100,000 Ethiopian migrants and refugees. The war in Yemen has also led to a dramatic increase in weapons trafficking as small and medium arms make their way out of Yemen to the Horn and other parts of East Africa where prices are much higher than in Yemen.
So far, al-Shabaab has had little success with gaining support or establishing itself in Somaliland’s territory. However, without well-targeted and appropriate international assistance, the virtuous circle that Somaliland relies upon to fight militancy could be compromised. What is certain is that al-Shabaab will seize on the opportunities that any instability—even if localized—might provide.
Michael Horton is a fellow at The Jamestown Foundation where he focuses on issues related to Yemen and the Horn of Africa. He has advised members of government and senior policy makers. Horton has completed numerous in-depth, field-based studies in Somaliland, Somalia, and Yemen