Somali officials have vowed to take revenge on al-Shabab after the group launched the single deadliest attack on a Somali military camp in Galgala highlands of the Puntland region Thursday, killing at least 48 soldiers.
Somalia President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo condemned the attacked as “barbaric” and sent condolences to the families of the soldiers.
Farmajo said the government will support Puntland in response to the attack at Af-Urur, 105 kilometers southwest of Bosaso.
“They will not get away with it,” Farmajo told state media.
Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, the leader of the Puntland region, 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.
Thursday’s attack by al-Shabab began about 4:30 a.m. Excerpts of a security memo seen by VOA show there were about 150 soldiers at the base at the time of the attack.
Militants attacked the base from different directions. After a two-hour gun battle, they overran the base, security sources said.
At least 48 soldiers were killed and 20 wounded, according to security officials and memos. The militants destroyed 16 vehicles and took two dozen heavy machines, AK-47s and ammunition.
Regional analyst Matt Bryden, director of Sahan Research, said 150 to 200 al-Shabab militants were involved in the attack on the camp.
Bryden said in addition to the soldiers, “as many as 20” civilians were killed in the fighting, “as well as some” al-Shabab militants.
The group had attacked the base in mid-January, but Darawish forces stationed there forced al-Shabab to retreat, killing nine militants.
Puntland is investigating the possibility there was “inside collaboration” with al-Shabab, security sources and memos indicate.
Three months ago, alleged defectors and clan militias of about 30-40 armed men were taken to the base after going through an “integration process,” sources told VOA.
Al-Shabab attacked the base and penetrated an area run by the new recruits, sources say. After the attack ended, security sources said some of the defectors and clan militias returned to the bush with the al-Shabab militants.
Bryden said his sources said one of the reasons the militants were able to carry out the surprise attack was because of 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,” he said. “There is a suspicion some of them may have colluded with al-Shabab in allowing them access to the base.”
Puntland is now fighting two fronts against militants.
In Galgala, Puntland forces are facing about 450-500 al-Shabab fighters who have been active in the area for many years. While on the eastern highlands of the region, about 200-300 pro-Islamic State (IS) fighters pose a threat.
Bryden said Puntland is 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 fighting both to the west and east of Bosaso it found itself on the defensive.”
Bryden said al-Shabab and IS 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,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State. “Al-Shabab exploits the disaffection of those grievances to the maximum.”
Security sources said the troops based at the station had complained about the lack of or a delay in being paid. Lack of payment to soldiers is a common challenge facing Somali authorities.