Fighters aligned with the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) took control of a small town in Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region Wednesday.
The militants took over the port town of Qandala following a brief battle with local security forces. Qandala lies close to the eastern tip of the Horn of Africa and is around 50 miles east of Bosaso, one of Somalia’s major cities, though it is separated by a mountain range. It also lies across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, where ISIS has previously claimed attacks.
The move marks the first time ISIS-aligned militants have taken control of a town in the region, Major Saiid Ali, a Puntland police officer, told Reuters.
ISIS’s semi-official news agency Amaq released a statement Wednesday saying that the group’s “fighters” had taken over the town. ISIS has a relatively small presence in Somalia, far outweighed by Al-Shabab, a militant group aligned with Al-Qaeda that is waging an insurgency against the Western-backed federal government in the Somali capital Mogadishu.
A small faction, led by f ormer Al-Shabab commander and British citizen Abdiqadir Mumin, split off from Al-Shabab in 2015 and declared its allegiance to ISIS, which has its de facto headquarters in Syria.
The group has been circumscribed to rural parts of Puntland, a region in northeastern Somalia that has a largely autonomous state government. African Union peacekeepers, of which there are 22,000 in Somalia, are not deployed in Puntland. Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke recently told Newsweek that ISIS could be “the reality of tomorrow” in Somalia unless it was tackled imminently.
The militants had cut off communications in Qandala after taking control, according to district commander Jamac Mohamed Khuurshe. A local fisherman, Abdirahman Hussein, told Reuters before the communications went down that he had witnessed the militants arriving in Qandala.
“We just saw Daesh [an Arabic acronym for ISIS] with their black banner as we were fishing. They said to us: ‘Do not panic we will rule you according to the Islamic shariah [law],” said Hussein.
Earlier Wednesday, Al-Shabab seized control of the Tiyeeglow district in southern Somalia, following the withdrawal of Ethiopian and Somali troops from the area, Reuters reported.
BY CONOR GAFFEY