Puntland’s Problems

It's Not Just Al Shabab That Threatens the Region's Stability

A soldier keeps guard at the opening of the new Bossaso International Airport in Puntland, Somalia January 2016.  Abdiqani Hassan / REUTERS

On June 8, the Somalian terrorist group al Shabab overran a military base in Puntland’s town of Af Urur, killing between 38 and 61 soldiers (with the government of Puntland reporting the lower number and al Shabab the higher, as is often the case) and injuring others. The assault came days after the government of Puntland, in Somalia’s northeast, sentenced members of al Shabab to death. The militants had been captured on April 26 as they tried to carry out a large bomb attack in Bosaso, Puntland’s key commercial hub and a crucial port in the region.

Over the last two years, several kinds of conflicts have been brewing and intensifying in Puntland, allowing the al Qaeda–aligned al Shabab and its rival splinter Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) faction to mount increasingly prominent operations. In the wake of the Af Urur attack, Puntland’s government has called on both the international community and the federal government in Mogadishu to help rid the region of jihadists.

The attack reveals far less about al Shabab’s persisting strength than about the cauldron of problems stirring in Puntland, a semiautonomous region of Somalia now on its way to formal statehood under the country’s emerging federalism, but still very much defining its power vis-à-vis Mogadishu. In addition to the jihadist threats, Puntland is again facing a return of piracy, and its clan rivalries have intensified. It also has to deal with a wide-ranging assortment of armed actors, such as antipiracy militias and clan militias, both of which are deeply and explosively linked to clan politics and whose loyalties vary. And, as in other parts of Somalia, Puntland has been badly hit by a severe drought, bringing the region to the edge of famine.


Even as members of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)—in the country since 2009 to suppress al Shabab and train and build Somali national security forces—talk of pulling out before the mission is set to formally end in 2020,

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