Al-Shabaab cross-border clashes with Ethiopian troops: An analysis

Al-Shabab Aato

Since last week, Al-Shabaab (AS) launched several attacks in towns straddling the borders of Somalia and Ethiopia, sparking heavy clashes that claimed the lives of dozens of people.

Some suggested that this was a comprehensive campaign by AS to establish a new front in Ethiopia, but this ignores a number of realities.

First, AS’ is historically aware that Ethiopia has limited convergence of ethnicity and religious beliefs unlike Kenya where religion, ethnicity, and space are closely linked.

It knows that it will have a limited appeal in Ethiopia and, more importantly, will have to share space with several other secular nationalist groups that will inevitably challenge AS’ presence there.

Indeed, the group often places its cross-border operations within a conducive territorial framework (i.e., ungoverned spaces, historical repression against a religious minority, and incompetent security apparatus) and leverages certain strategies to maximise impact.

My earlier research paper on Al-Shabaab’s provocation and attribution strategies examines this.

So why did AS stage such massive attacks in Yeed and Aato and venture some distance into Ethiopia? First, Yeed and Aato are heavily contested border towns that hold a significant role in AS’s propaganda campaign.

Beyond the clan dynamics, the group has continually repeated that these Somali border towns have had their “Somali identity” erased.

Their narrative was reinforced by a former Somali MP Mohamed Iidle Geedi who, in 2018, alleged that Aato has an Ethiopian administration and the Somali flag is visibly absent.

Second, their latest attacks in Yeed and Aato have the same signature motive usually found in their complex attacks in Somalia, i.e., signalling ‘power and influence ‘.

Indeed, a day after the initial attack, their “military spokesperson”, Abu Mus’ab, paid homage to the El-Baraf attack that targeted African Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) Burundian troops three months back and confirmed that this “operation” is simply a continuation of that attack.

Moreover, the group relied on propaganda photos that are often released following a complex attack to dominate the media narrative but they didn’t bank on being massively outclassed by the counter-propaganda efforts of Ethiopia’s Somali Region.

The Somali Region’s media response successfully initiated a public backlash and won the hearts and minds of Somalis in Ethiopia and Somalia as seen in the flurry of public-generated videos on social media showing overwhelming support for the Liyu Police.

Al-Shabaab’s Bakool Governor had to release a separate audio statement today, seemingly to address this “popular backlash” by “clarifying” that they were not against the communities living in those areas and were merely “targeting” security forces.

AS staged a counter-attack today to dominate the media waves and weaken Liyu Police’s counter-propaganda, but the group’s miscalculations have rendered it ineffective.

Some important lessons can be drawn from the Somali Region’s compelling counter-narrative campaign.