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Feb 28, 2013 | 11:45 GMT

Al Shabaab's Hideout in Northern Somalia

Summary

Over the past year, elements of al Shabaab, a Somali Islamist militant group, have been fleeing southern Somalia, the geographic focus of its conflict with the new Mogadishu-based government. With support from an unmanned aerial vehicle campaign, Western-backed African Union forces have been expanding their control of the region and are slowly encroaching on remaining al Shabaab positions. As a result, a number of al Shabaab fighters have headed north to mountainous redoubts in the autonomous Somali territory of Puntland.

Thick vegetation and rugged terrain have made the mountains of Puntland highly useful for various militias throughout history. The same geographical features, plus tensions among regional clans and governments, access to local ports and smuggling routes, and a lack of African Union operations in the area, have made the region an ideal al Shabaab hideout again today — and for the foreseeable future.

Most of the al Shabaab fighters in Puntland have sought refuge in the Al Madow Mountains — a verdant range sometimes known as the Galgala Hills or the Golis Mountains. Located in the coastal Sanaag region, the mountains are part of the larger Karkaar Range, which stretches from easternmost Puntland to just west of the Ethiopian border. The Al Madow range's primary ridgeline runs more than 200 kilometers (roughly 125 miles) parallel to the Gulf of Aden. The area boasts a more hospitable climate than most Somali regions and features thick forests — especially on the range's steeper northern slope, which receives considerable precipitation from weather systems moving south off the gulf.

Al Shabaab's Hideout in Northern Somalia

Somalian Militant Hideouts

The rough topography of the Al Madow range complicates efforts to observe and target militants — a feature similarly enjoyed by militants hiding in northern Mali's Tigharghar Mountains. Unlike the Malian terrain, however, the thick vegetation of the Al Madow range further conceals militant activities and, where dense enough, can degrade the effectiveness of infrared detectors on unmanned aerial vehicles and other aircraft. The heaviest vegetation can obscure fighters from observation almost completely — especially during the daytime, when human temperatures differ from the surrounding air less than at night.

The mountains are also ideal due to the limited network of roads in the area, which effectively hinders and funnels the ground movements of attacking forces. For example, a single path wide enough for the passage of vehicles runs along the northern edge of the main ridgeline. A larger network of small trails also exists, but most are suitable only for combatants on foot, perhaps accompanied by pack animals.

Regional Advantages

Al Shabaab militants are also dependent on the region surrounding the mountains. Indeed, the proximity of the Al Madow range to the Gulf of Aden helped facilitate the group's arrival in the first place. Fighters fleeing southern Somalia in skiffs traveled from town to town along the Somali coast until they reached the northern coast of Puntland. Smugglers operating between Somalia and Yemen through the gulf provide weapons, munitions and medicine to the area.

While Puntland is not the group's normal area of operation, al Shabaab fighters have also been known to conduct raids in the region. Near the eastern edge of the mountains, where most of the militants have congregated, is the city of Bosaso, Puntland's primary seaport. In March 2012, al Shabaab struck a central part of the city and temporarily blocked the main road that connects it to Garowe, the territorial capital. The road is Puntland's lifeline, since most of the region's goods heading to or from Garowe or the Somali city of Galkayo pass through Bosaso. Weapons, explosives and medicines seized in Bosaso indicate that the port, along with other minor harbors farther west, is used to smuggle essential supplies to al Shabaab militants — both those hiding in the Al Madow range and those still fighting in southern Somalia.

Political and Human Geography

Al Shabaab has also benefitted from regional political issues and prior connections to local militias. The group's presence in Puntland has been aided by Mohamed Said Atom, a warlord known to smuggle arms for the Islamist group. Atom had already been active around the eastern town of Galgala when, in January 2012, large numbers of al Shabaab fighters fleeing southern Somalia arrived and joined his militia. The warlord's leadership was eventually contested and taken over by Yasin Osman Kilwe, now al Shabaab's head of Puntland operations.

Further complicating matters are tensions over the Sanaag region, control over which is disputed between Puntland and the autonomous territory of Somaliland. The issue has undermined the Puntlander government's attempts to dislodge al Shabaab, since Somaliland tends to deploy forces to disputed areas whenever Puntland pulls away troops for assaults on al Shabaab. Puntlander forces already pose a relatively limited threat to the Islamist group compared to the Western-backed African Union forces in southern Somalia. 

Conflicts among groups like the Warsangali and Majeerteen clans over resources and other issues have provided additional opportunities to al Shabaab. The majority of the Islamist group's fighters are still operating in southern Somalia, where the group has continued to stage hit-and-run attacks and conduct suicide bombings. But its wing in the Al Madow Mountains, strengthened by local recruits, especially among the marginalized Warsangalis, is now believed to include at least 1,000 fighters.

This type of presence in Puntland is hardly new. Throughout history, the Al Madow Mountains have served as hideouts or defensive positions for local militias. In the early 20th century, for example, Somali revolutionary Sayid Mohamed Abdullah Hassan and his Dervish forces fought British colonial forces from the mountains and used the thick vegetation to hide from British aircraft. In 1993, in the early stages of the Somali civil war, an Islamist militant leader named Hassan Dahir Aweys established a base in the mountains. In 2008, Western journalists kidnapped in Bosaso were held in the area. And as long as Somalia remains a theater of conflict, the Al Madow range will continue to provide cover and protection to those that take up positions there.

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