Somali officials have vowed to take revenge on al-Shabab after the group launched the single deadliest attack on a Somali military camp in the Galgala highlands of the Puntland region on Thursday, killing at least 48 soldiers.
The president of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, condemned the attacked as “barbaric” and sent condolences to the families of the soldiers.
Farmajo said the government would support Puntland in response to the attack at Af-Urur, 105 kilometers southwest of Bosaso.
“They will not get away with it,” Farmajo told the state media.
The leader of the Puntland region, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, also has declared war against al-Shabab in the Galgala highlands.
“I want to tell people in Puntland, wherever they are, to prepare for war against these religious bandits who attacked our country,” Ali said. “Puntland is capable and has been capable enough of defending against the troublemakers.”
Ali appealed to the Somali government and the international community for help.
Meanwhile, details were emerging of what happened at the camp during the raid by al-Shabab about 4:30 a.m. Thursday.
Excerpts of a security memo seen by VOA say there were about 150 soldiers at the base at the time of the attack. Militants attacked from different directions, sparking a two-hour gunbattle. The militants eventually overpowered the soldiers and overran the base.
Security sources and memos say at least 48 soldiers were killed and 20 were wounded. The militants destroyed 16 vehicles and took away two dozen heavy machines, AK-47s and ammunition.
Regional analyst Matt Bryden, director of Sahan Research, said he’d learned that between 150 and 200 al-Shabab militants were involved in the attack on the camp.
“They killed several dozen Puntland soldiers; they are claiming 61 or more. There were numerous civilian deaths as well, possibly as many as 20, as well as some casualties among al-Shabab attackers,” Bryden told VOA Somali.
The camp was attacked by al-Shabab in mid-January, but Darawish forces stationed there at the time put up fierce resistance and forced the militants to retreat, killing nine of them.
Security sources and memos indicate that Puntland is investigating the possibility that there was “inside collaboration” with al-Shabab.
VOA has learned that alleged defectors and clan militias of about 30 to 40 armed men were taken to the base three months ago after going through an “integration process.”
The militants attacked the base and penetrated the camp through an area run by the new recruits, sources said. After the attack ended, some of the defectors and clan militias ran away with the al-Shabab militants and went back to the bush, sources said.
Bryden said he’d learned from his sources on the ground that one of the reasons the militants were able to carry out the surprise attack has to do with the deployment of the defectors at the camp.
“A number of sources at the scene who are familiar with Af-Urur settlement claim a number of al-Shabab deserters had been taken into the base shortly before the attack, and had become part of the Puntland force,” Bryden said adding, “There is a suspicion some of them may have colluded with al-Shabab in allowing them access to the base.”
Bryden said that although there was no definitive evidence, one aspect of the attack indicated that there was “collusion.”
“It’s not unprecedented for al-Shabab to attack and overrun a military base,” he said. “What is notable in this case is that they don’t seem to have used a major explosive to breach the perimeter, which may indicate that they had some collusion from inside the base.”
Puntland is now fighting two fronts against militants. In Galgala, Puntland forces are facing about 450 to 500 al-Shabab fighters who have been active in the area for many years; while on the eastern highlands of the region, the emergence of pro-Islamic State fighters numbering around 200 to 300 fighters still pose a threat.
Bryden said Puntland was “definitely” under growing pressure on these two fronts and the region will need to seek support from the federal government and external partners.
“It [Puntland] does have a well-trained and relatively cohesive paramilitary force in the Darawish, and it has an effective command strike force in the Puntland security forces,” he said. “But clearly in fighting both to the west and east of Bosaso. it found itself on the defensive.”
Bryden said Puntland needed to better coordinate its activities with the federal Somali government and external partners.
He said al-Shabab and ISIS both exploit grievances of the local communities.
“As in the rest of Somalia there are often latent political issues that go understated or underestimated. That means some communities are more susceptible to al-Shabab influence or ISIS influence, and al-Shabab exploits the disaffection of those grievances to the maximum,” he said.
“In this case Puntland does need to take the military initiative but it also needs to look at the political landscape within which al-Shabab is operating and address some of the social and political dimensions as well.”
Security sources also indicated that the troops based at the station had complained about the lack of or delayed payments. Lack of payment to soldiers is a common challenge facing Somali authorities.