On July 21, Islamist al Shabaab militias launched an attack in the Bakool region, penetrating across the Ethiopian border into the territories of the Somali federal state.
According to Ethiopian sources, intense fighting ensued with the paramilitary Liyu militias, who managed to repel the attack, causing numerous casualties among the jihadist militias (https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/clashes-between-ethiopian-forces-al-shabaab-leave-scores-dead-state-news-agency-2022-07-29/).
Information sources, still fragmentary, seem to show how the al Shabaab militias conducted a somewhat articulated military operation, strong with about 500 men and dozens of “techniques,” and built on a series of diversions along the border line in the Afdher area, which disoriented the local Liyu militias leading them to dislodge numerous outposts, which were then temporarily captured by the Islamists.
The attack represents a new element in the operational methods and strategies of the al Shabaab, which had never before launched operations of this scale across the border with Ethiopia, and about whose real motives many are now questioning (https://www.voanews.com/a/somalia-s-al-shabab-militants-launch-attack-in-ethiopia-heavy-casualties-reported/6669872.html).
The July 21 attack had been preceded the previous day by a series of raids by the jihadists on the Somali border villages of Washaaqom, Aato and Yeet, most likely to settle their capabilities in anticipation of the attack across the border. Telephone lines in the region had also been sabotaged to isolate connections and make coordination with Somali and Ethiopian security forces difficult.
According to statements made to the press by Bakool Governor Mohamed Abdi Tall, moreover, the units that allegedly launched the attack on the border towns in Somali territory were part of a different al Shabaab unit, while the forces that penetrated into Ethiopian territory were also composed of elements of the group from Ethiopian regions of Somali state and Oromia.
The Ethiopian federal government and the government of the Somali regional state, in reporting intense fighting, confirmed that they had regained full control of the border areas within which the attack had been launched, although rumors to the contrary have been leaked from several quarters that some al Shabaab units are still present across the border line and engaged in conducting continuous attacks against local security forces (https://www.voanews.com/a/why-did-al-shabab-attack-inside-ethiopia/6674783.html).
On the merits of al Shabaab’s motivations for conducting such an operation, however, according to numerous analysts, the primary reason would be the desire to carry out a symbolic act, to display its banner on Ethiopian territory and thereby confirm its unchanged ability to launch its attacks both in Somalia and in neighboring countries. A demonstrative act, then, aimed at gaining acceptance in the galaxy of international jihadism.
An interpretation, however, that is perplexing, given the traditional autonomy and distinct national identity of the group, which only in a brief phase of its existence – driven by the ideological motivations mainly of fighters from the European and North American diaspora – manifestly sought international consensus and the branching of its ties outside Somalia. Kenya certainly represents an area of interest for al Shabaab, where it has conducted and continues to conduct numerous attacks, but this interest is essentially motivated by the role of the Nairobi government in southern Somalia and the concomitant presence of a large Somali population along large stretches of the country’s coastline.
The reasons for striking deep into Ethiopian territory, however, are numerous within al Shabaab’s strategic vision. First, Ethiopia was responsible for their military defeat and the fall of the embryonic Islamic state that the organization managed to create in much of central and southern Somalia over a decade ago. In addition, Ethiopia is a major contributor to the AMISOM mission, under which it has deployed its own contingent that has repeatedly come under criticism from Somali society.
Hitting Ethiopia at this time, then, while the federal government is reeling from a bloody civil war that is not quite over and is marked by huge unknowns for the future, may have provided solid motivation for the al Shabaab to demonstrate its capability and try to open a southern front at this difficult time for the federal army in Addis Ababa.
The presence of al Shabaab militiamen still active in the areas affected by the July 21 clashes would also appear to be confirmed by reports of at least two air raids by the Ethiopian Air Force on July 30 and 31, through which targets were struck near the villages of Omad and Garasweyne in the Hiran and Bakool regions, respectively.