Al Shabab, the al Qaeda affiliate that has bedeviled the East African country of Somalia for a decade, is currently enjoying its most successful run of attacks in years against the Somali government. Since mid-August alone, the group has killed a number of high-ranking officials, including a senior intelligence officer, a district commissioner, and a general in the national army. Its intensified assault on the government comes in the middle of an electoral process that inaugurated a new parliament in December and is scheduled to bring a new president this month.
Disrupting the electoral process is consistent with an old al Shabab strategy of discrediting any competing sources of authority and legitimacy. However, something new is afoot as well: al Shabab has escalated its attacks in the north of Somalia this year, outside its preferred southern area of operations. The group’s history and ideology suggest the campaign is likely to accelerate once the electoral process finishes. There are a number of worrisome consequences of a northward lunge by al Shabab, the worst of which would be a renewal of ties with the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), historically the al Qaeda affiliate most focused on attacking the United States.
The change in al Shabab’s previously desultory approach to the north became clear in March 2016, when it landed as many as 600 fighters on the shores of the semiautonomous northern region of Puntland. The ultimately ill-fated campaign was an unprecedented investment of manpower outside al Shabab’s southern stronghold, where it once had dominion over nearly a third of the country. Its presence in the north had previously been mostly confined to a small militia based in the Galgala Mountains region.
The Puntland attack was just the start. In March and April, Puntland security services broke up an al Shabab cell in Garowe, and al Shabab attacked the towns of Beledweyne, Bosaso, Galkayo, and Garad—even briefly capturing the latter—all of which are outside the area in
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