Puntland’s growing importance, a destabilising factor for Somalia

The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s blacklisting of local businessman Mohamed Mire Ali Yusuf and his business ventures – Liiban Trading and Al-Mutafaq Commercial Company – this month was the latest evidence of Washington’s growing anti-terrorist interventions in Somalia. According to the U.S. Treasury, Mire Ali and his businesses have assisted, sponsored, or otherwise financed Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) through his business activities in the port city of Bosaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland. The group is led by Abdul Qadir Mumin, a veteran Islamist fighter who defected from Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen a few years ago.

The Pentagon is also growing the number of boots on the ground. Last year, the U.S. more than doubled the number of forces deployed to over 500 – its largest contingent in the country in two decades – including Green Berets, Navy Seals, and a special operations adviser who serves alongside Puntland state forces. The increased deployment is accompanied by a greater number of U.S. airstrikes across Somalia using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These were deployed to Puntland for the first time last November.

INDICATORS

  • 3 November 2017: U.S. carries out first drone strike against Islamic State strongholds in Puntland
  • 3 February 2018: Fighting erupts in Sool between forces loyal to Somaliland and Puntland forces
  • 9 February 2018: U.S. state department blacklists local businessman for supporting Islamic State affiliate

External interference, regional antagonism

The U.S. operations in Somalia have been welcomed by President Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmaajo’ Mohamed, a dual U.S. citizen who was unexpectedly elected last February. Hailing from the Maheran sub-clan of the Darood clan, which is based in southern and central Somalia, Farmaajo’s support among regional leaders is patchy. As his post-election honeymoon period begins to wane, criticism of and opposition to Farmaajo will intensify. His relations with the Puntland state president, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gaas, have been troublesome and animosity between the two remains noticeable. The schism was epitomised in August last year by the Puntland presidency announcing it was breaking, along with several other regional authorities, with Farmaajo’s neutral stance in the Saudi Arabia-UAE-led embargo against Qatar.

Also read: Somalia’s security paradox

But the dispute was likely also motivated by Mohamed Ali’s drive to grow Puntland’s commercial relations with the Gulf region, after he awarded a 30-year concession to Dubai-based P&O Ports Limited to develop the port of Bosaso. This gives China some competition in Puntland, where potentially commercially significant oil reserves were discovered in 2011. Particularly, these sit between the regions of Puntland, Somaliland, the Galmudug Regional State, and the Somali-inhabited Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia, where fighting between Somali and Oromo factions has flared over the past few months.

His relations with the Puntland state president, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gaas, have been troublesome and animosity between the two remains noticeable

Oil explorers, which have trickled into the region in recent years, also believe even more significant oil reserves are located off the coast of south-central Somalia. However, different regional entities have signed agreements with competing oil companies, resulting in several oilfields being disputed by the regional authorities and the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS), based in the capital Mogadishu.

Spreading the net

Antagonism has also again mushroomed in the disputed Sool region between forces of the self-determined Somaliland and the Puntland regional military, with hostilities reported around Farmaajo’s recent visit to Puntland in early February. However, the area has long been disputed by both entities which demarcate it according to overlapping and conflicting definitions; while Somaliland is demarcated according to colonial borders, Puntland considers its territory based on affiliation to the Dhulbahante, Majeerteen and Warsangeli sub-clans of the Darood clan family. To complicate things further, one of the U.S.’s long-standing conditions for recognising the FGS in 2012 was for the Mogadishu-based government to honour force majeure of oil concessions owned by American extractive firms, which left the area after the fall of the Siyaad Barre regime and the eruption of Somalia’s civil war in 1991. It is therefore possible that Washington will, in the future, attempt to leverage its military support for the FGS in favour of its own oil and gas firms.

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