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After Somalia's Traditional Federal Government (TFG) forces, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and two neighboring counties of Ethiopian and Kenya began military operations to wipe out the al-Qaeda linked group, al-Shabaab, from southern Somalia, many of the militant Islamic fighters migrated north to the Galgala Mountains in the Bari region of Puntland, a semi-autonomous area of the country, while others allegedly went to Yemen.
For those that remained in Somalia, Galgala was chosen as a strategic safe haven after Galgala militia leader Sheikh Mohammed Atom, declared his allegiance to al-Shabaab in February of this year. Atom then traveled to Kismayo in March, the al-Shabaab stronghold in Lower Juba, to receive a supply of weapons and arrange for its fighters to flee to Galgala.
Leaving Kismayo together as a 'team' by a commercial boat and dressed as seamen, the fighters anchored off Bargal, in Bari region, then sailed on to the Sanaag coastline. Once there, one group traveled by car to Galgala while others drove south through the port city of Bosaso pretending to be businessmen, according to a resident in Laag who asked to be call Musfata.
While the number of foreign fighters who migrated to Galgala is unknown, local sources told Somalia Report that at least 40 Somali fighters were on the move. The locals hail mainly from Bay and Bakool regions and are from the same clan, Rahanweyne, as al-Shabaab senior official, Muktar Robow.
In addition, local residents told Somalia Report that at least 60 local youths joined the al-Shabaab fighters in the mountains. Most hail from the Ali Saleban (sub-clan Majeerten) and Dishiishe, both of the Harti clan.
Sources close to the Galgala militias report the group is concerned that they will be targeted by western airstrikes, but do not fear a land based attack from Puntland forces. As a warning, al-Shabaab's Abdulkadir Mumin, who made the hostile remarks on the pro-al-Shabaab Radio Andalus after his arrival in Galgala, sent a threatening message to the Puntland administration.
A mountainous stronghold, Galgala is an ideal safe haven. It is strategically located, difficult to reach, yet close enough to the sea for fighters to utilize boats to escape, if necessary. Galgala, a small village about 40 kilometers from south Bosaso, is only accessible by a single entrance on a rough road.
Like the Taliban in Tora Bora, the al-Shabaab fighters are setting up training camps in the area, knowing they are safe from any land-based attack. In addition, Somalia Report obtained information from residents of Sugurre town near Galgala, that militia has been digging deep holes (trenches) in front of Galgala village to defend against any attack from Puntland forces.
"It will be difficult for the TFG and Puntland forces to reach that area and fight in this area due to the nature of the mountainous terrain. That is why al-Shabaab chose this area when they had to flee the allied advances in the south," Mohamed Khalif, a Somalia analyst in Erigavo of Sanaag Region, told Somalia Report.
Puntland forces captured Galgala in October 2010 after heavy fighting broke out, leaving hundreds dead from both warring sides. After 200 Puntland soldiers from Badhan and Dhahar districts vacated the area, the militia retook their former stronghold. Since then, both sides have been engaged in battles for control of the area throughout 2011 and early 2012, with varying outcomes. Today, the militia is in control, but Puntland is ready for that to change.
Puntland Ready to Fight
In January of this year, Puntland declared they would never allow al-Shabaab to operate in Galgala and said they are planning new tactics to prevent more al-Shabaab fighters from arriving.
Puntland presidential security advisor, Ahmed Hussein Donyale, told the media that the government is aware of the movements and plans of al-Shabaab.
"We are ready to fight anyone in that area whether they just arrived or were here before. We already cleaned up that place once and we can do it again. If they are planning to come to Puntland one-by-one we have an ability to stop them. The Puntland government is ready to defend their people and their land and fight with al-Shabaab hiding in the Galgala mountains," said the advisor.
Meanwhile officials from the neighboring breakaway state of Somaliland expressed concern that al-Shabaab is setting up new bases in the disputed Sanaag region, located between Puntland and Somaliland.
Somaliland Interior Minister Mohamed Nur Arale said they aware that al-Shabaab had already relocated to the Almadow Mountains after fleeing the south.
"We are aware that al-Shabaab moved to Almadow and are regrouping there. We will not tolerate them in our territory and we will challenge them," Somaliland Minister Mohamed Nur Arale told local media.
Local Views on Shabaab in Galgala
Galgala residents told Somalia Report that when the al-Shabaab fighters arrived in the area, they began to force women to wear the veil and regularly called on the locals to join their jihad.
In addition, local residents fear fighting is imminent between the Puntland government and al-Shabaab and may lead to airstrikes or drone strikes from western allies.
"Al-Shabaab will not be able to move in these areas if the local people in that region stand against them," local resident Mohamed Muse told Somalia Report.
Others suggested Puntland was not supporting the locals in their fight against the militia.
"In 2010 when the conflict broke out in Galgala between the Puntland forces and clan militias, the elders of Bari and Sanaag regions made notable efforts to intervene and resolve the matter, but Puntland President Farole preferred to solve the dispute militarily instead of diplomatically. This is the reason for today's conflict. Puntland failed to gain the hearts of their tribes who are historically not a friend of violence, that's why they united with al-Shabaab to get military and moral support," said Abdiaziz Ahmed, a resident in Badhan district of Sanaag region.
Ahmed Abdala Ashur, a community leader of Almadow resident, urged the militants to leave the area.
"We are the people of these lands, we are the owners and leaders of this sophisticated society of Warsangeli people of Sanaag and Bari regions. We call upon al-Shabaab to leave our territory. In fact, don't even think about arriving here. I swear they will meet lessons that they will never forget, We are united for peace and prosperity. We don't ever welcome anarchy," said Mr. Ashur.
Yuusuf Maraweyn, a former councilman of Bosaso, however, vowed the local government is ready to keep his regions safe even without support from the Puntland government.
"We and the elders of the region suggested the government face the war together in order to get rid off any Islamic and militia activities, but the government didn't accept our appeal. They ignored us. Instead, the government is appealing for international support without consulting the people. That shows the government isn't ready to eliminate these militias. We have talked to the locals in Galgala and they want us to help but said the Puntland government won't help them," complained Mr. Maraweyn.
An educator and former official of Puntland government who requested anonymity told Somalia Report the locals and the government need to unite in the fight against al-Shabaab.
"We have made some efforts to eliminate militias, but there were no consultations with people on the ground. That created suspicion among the occupants and the government leaders. The people of the area were ready to work with the government but the government isn't consulting them," said the educator.
Ali Abdala Qoodaar, a former Galgala militia fighter, believed the fight goes beyond al-Shabaab.
"I used to be in the militia, but I was forgiven by the government of Puntland after I surrendered. The war in Galgala is multidimensional. There is a territorial dispute between the brother clans of Warsangeli and Majerten. Secondly, it is a war of natural resources and oil. It is also about al-Shabaab who have moved here. We will not allow al-Shabaab to create instability in our region," he told Somalia Report. .
The Warsangeli people are organizing a meeting to discuss the future of their territory and what is being done by the government, according to sources close to Warsangeli clan Sultan, Said Sultan Abdisalan, who spoke to Somalia Report.
"The Warsangeli will take serious action against the matter of al-Qaeda moving into our territory. We will make a formal announcement after our meeting," said the source.
More than 800 families, fearing fighting is likely to break out at anytime, are fleeing Galgala and Sugure for the safer areas of Bosaso and Dhahar district in Sanaag.
"We are under fear, we are innocent women and children living here for decades. Every night unknown warplanes fly over us and we don't get any sleep, as we are afraid of being struck by these airplanes. We decided to shift our homes every night, and more people from this area have also fled from their homes," Warsan Sanqad Abdi, a female resident of Galgala told Somalia Report.
There is another problem for these people fleeing their home, as they are not only seeking a safe place, but are also seeking a way to make a daily livelihood after Puntland closed the road connecting Galgala to other areas in the region. Puntland has explained that they took this action in order to prevent any supplies getting through to the militia.
Planes Heard Over Sanaag
Since the al-Shabaab militias arrived in Galgala area and the Golis Mountains, unknown low-flying aircraft were spotted flying over the Sanaag and Bari coastlines including Elayo, Las-Qoray and over the mountains during the late afternoons, both residents and officials in Sanaag region told Somalia Report.
"Aircraft were seen over Las-Qoray district since we heard that al-Shabaab reached our territory. We know about drone strikes in southern Somalia, so these aircraft have caused panic among our residents, who fear airstrikes might hit us," said Yusuf Jama, the governor of Las-Qoray District.
A resident in Sugure also reported seeing planes.
"Yes, unknown airplanes are flying over many parts of the region these days, especially the coastlines. They are scaring the residents," said Cadhays, a resident, told Somalia Report.
(Editor's note: Some of the planes may have been part of anti-piracy patrols and not directly a result of al-Shabaab moving into the region.)
Bosaso an Al-Shabaab Stronghold?
Locals believe that al-Shabaab not only arrived in the Galgala Mountains, but is now creating a stronghold in the seaside commercial hub of Bosaso.
"I believe Bosaso is one of the important cities that feeds al-Shabaab, whether financially or militarily. Just go the mosques and Quranic schools. All the youngsters are supporting al-Shabaab and its ideology? Does this mean al-Shabaab have active members in the city? According to my sources, we believe more youngsters joined Galgala militias to fight Puntland forces at the same time others went to south and central Somalia to help al-Shabaab," Ayub Ahmed, a scholar in Bosaso, told Somalia Report.
A local witness reported the militants were conducting a recruitment drive within the city.
"The day I believed that al-Shabaab had power in Bosaso was on 17 June 2011. After I finished Jumía prayer around 1:35pm, a friend asked if I needed money and I said yes. He then told me to come back the following evening, so I did. After we did Maqrib, he told me to follow him. He took me on a path through the city, going around and among houses and very tight roads in the new Bosaso village," explained the recruit.
"I was really tired when he finally opened the door of a house. Inside there were more youngsters. I can't remember the exact number. Also there were three old men who asked me if I was ready to fight for Allah and go to south Somalia. I said yes, because I needed the money. After more talking they told me they would give every person $500 when he reached Mogadishu. After I got back my home and decided to not go back again. Then I tried to remember the house at which I met them, but I was confused because of the similarity of the houses in this village," he told Somalia Report.
Other residents believe Burco town, the regional capital of Togdheer region, is also quietly hosting a secret al-Shabaab base; however Somalia Report has not yet confirmed this.
Shabaab in Galgala - Just a Ruse for Funding
Despite reports of the group fleeing to Galgala, there are several who believe that is simply not the case and is only an attempt at justification for international funding.
Bashir Hussein, a political analyst who lives in Lasqoray, denied the group is in Bari region.
"In my opinion al-Shabaab has not arrived in the Galgala mountains or even Puntland territory. If it is true and they arrived, we would hear sounds of former militia welcoming the new arrivals. Secondly the government did not conduct any investigations. It didn't send a mission to Galgala. Thirdly al-Shabaab's Fu'ad Shangoole, whose Puntland government claimed was in Galgala, rejected the claims on Radio Alqudus. Puntland President Farole is just saying they are here and are terrorists in order to get international funding," said the analyst.
Osman Ismail Hassan, a Ceelaayo fishermen, had his doubts the group was in Puntland.
"I heard from the media that al-Shaabab arrived here in Bari regions but I haven't seen any activities that indicate al-Shabaab came here. I think it is a war between the government of Puntland and Atom's militias. I believe this land is free from al-Shabaab," he told Somalia Report.