In a significant development, the Islamic State (IS) offshoot in Somalia announced in April 2024 that it had successfully expanded its presence in the Bari region of Puntland state in northeastern Somalia. IS took control of Al-Miskaad mountains from its primary Jihadist rival, Al-Shabab Movement which is aligned with Al-Qaeda organization. Over the last eight years, Al-Shabab Movement has been engaged in a struggle with IS for control over this strategic region, intensifying efforts to expel the group. It is difficult to independently verify the claims of IS’s local Somali offshoot – which now has more than 300 fighters, predominantly foreigners (compared to a few dozen fighters only when it split from Al-Shabab Movement in October 2015). However, local sources in Puntland confirms that IS has regained the upper hand in Al-Miskaad mountains and the broader Bari region, underscoring the evolving dynamics in a state that has enjoyed relative stability compared to the middle and south of the country.

Somalia as a Theater for Jihadist Competition

The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in late 2014 had profound effects on the internal structural and ideological coherence of the Somali Al-Shabab Movement. Originating as a breakaway military faction from the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in August 2006, the movement officially aligned itself with Al-Qaeda network in February 2012, turning Somalia within a few months into a new battleground for Jihadist infighting and rivalries between the two international entities: Al-Shabab Movement and the nascent Somali offshoot of IS led by Abdul Qadir Mumin. In October 2015, Mumin and dozens of his followers splintered from Al-Shabab and pledged allegiance to the then ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, establishing a local offshoot of the international organization in Somalia.

Al-Shabab Movement responded decisively and forcefully to this development, viewing it as a threat and a conspiracy aimed at dividing its ranks. Despite its efforts, however, the movement has been unable to eradicate its ISIS rival, which remains prepared to compete for geographic influence and the advancement of the Jihadist activities in Somalia and Eastern Africa. Al Shabab’s strategies included campaigns to eliminate dissidents who joined Mumin and his followers, who sought refuge in the strategic Al-Miskaad mountains, where his tribe (Majeerteen Ali Saleebaan) lives, in the Bari region in Puntland state in the northeast of the country. Moreover, Al-Shabab Movement launched a major amphibious attack on Puntland in March 2016, followed by several other subsequent battles with IS, escalating the conflict between the two groups into an all-out protracted and recurrent series of confrontations.

On October 26, 2016,  Somali IS achieved a key territorial gain by briefly taking control of the coastal town of Qandala, 75 kilometers east of Bosaso city, the major port and commercial capital of Puntland state. IS declared Bosaso the headquarters of the Islamic Caliphate before being expelled by the state’s territorial forces in December 2016. Despite this setback, IS has maintained a permanent presence in semi-remote areas of the state, especially around urban centers in the Bari region such as Balli Dhiddin, Turmasaale and Iskushuban in Galgala and Al-Miskaad mountains.

Escalation of Jihadist Clash in Puntland and Al-Miskaad Importance

Recently, the struggle between the two terrorist groups has intensified and taken an interesting turn. Al-Shabab Movement has escalated its attacks on areas controlled by Mumin’s followers in Puntland, particularly targeting regions with easy access to water and vital supply lines, pushing those followers into open areas north of Balli Dhiddin. In contrast, Mumin’s followers have not only shown resilience in defending their strongholds but also expanded their presence in the state, broadening their theater of operation and gaining a strategic advantage over their more powerful pro-Al-Qaeda rivals.

Puntland holds increasing strategic and military importance, especially in the mountainous regions of Bari, notably Al-Miskaad, Galgala and the Golis mountains in the disputed Sanaag region with Somaliland. (AFP)

Since early 2023, the two sides have engaged in numerous clashes. The fiercest occurred in March 2023, leaving 46 dead, including leaders from both sides. IS claimed field dominance and the defeat of Al-Shabab fighters who attempted to reposition themselves in Al-Miskaad region of Bari. Recently, IS fighters took the initiative and announced in February 2024 that they had taken control of several villages in Bari. In April, the group solidified its gains by capturing Al-Miskaad mountains after its fighters launched an offensive against Al-Shabab positions that led to the death of 50 fighters, including key commanders.

Puntland holds increasing strategic and military importance, especially in the mountainous regions of Bari, notably Al-Miskaad, Galgala and the Golis mountains in the disputed Sanaag region with Somaliland. The regions provide protection, water resources and safe havens due to their vast size, rugged terrain, low population density, relative distance from urban centers and their tribal community (Mumin’s tribe Majeerteen). The expansion of IS in Puntland provides the group with logistical advantages, including access to the sea, opportunities to impose taxes and conduct financial operations, and contact with IS offshoot in Yemen. Additionally, IS benefits from the growing activities of Somali pirates and gains propaganda value to bolster its mobilization efforts, attract foreign fighters and enhance its standing within the global organization and its relationship with the leadership of the Islamic State-Khorasan Province in Afghanistan.

Implications in the Current Context

The Jihadist infighting in the semi-autonomous, oil-rich state marks a new chapter in the struggle between the two radical rivals, Al-Qaeda and IS factions. This conflict highlights several indications of Somali Jihadists’ motivations to exploit the current climate, which encourages their adaptation and penetration in this country. These motivations can be explained as follows:

  1. Adapting to shifts in the operational landscape and a decline in anti-terrorism efforts. The all-out war launched in August 2022 by the government of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, with the backing of tribal militias, has subjected Al-Shabab Movement to tremendous pressure. This has forced the movement to shift its resources and attention away from IS strongholds in northeast of the country. Consequently, there has been a decline in the movement’s readiness and field position in Puntland, easing pressure on IS fighters. IS exploited this opportunity to challenge Al-Shabab Movement and consolidate its gains all over the state. However, Al-Shabab Movement may have resumed its focus on Puntland, particularly as the momentum of the war against IS waned in early 2023. This strategy aims to adapt, ease pressure and compensate for losses, including diminished influence in the movement’s actual theater of action in the middle of the country. More importantly, it seeks to counter IS expansion and secure a larger foothold in the state.
  2. Exploiting political uncertainty and security vulnerability in the country. Due to growing political divisions, particularly the estrangement between Mogadishu and Puntland that began on January 9, 2023, ISIS has been able to gain a foothold in the autonomous state. This division has been compounded by the federal government’s introduction of radical amendments to the political system and electoral model. These amendments — perceived by opponents as disruptive to the delicate balance of power in the country — propose a shift to a universal suffrage system instead of the clan quota system that has prevailed since 2012. Additionally, the transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system strengthens the powers of the president at the expense of the parliament and the prime minister. The federal parliament approved these amendments on March 30, 2024, amidst strong opposition led by former presidents and condemnation from Puntland State. Consequently, Puntland has withdrawn from the federal system and confirmed its intention to act independently, including engaging directly with international stakeholders and taking steps to strengthen relations with Ethiopia. This move has provoked Mogadishu, which announced in early April that it had given the Ethiopian ambassador 72 hours to leave the country and ordered the closure of Ethiopia’s consulates in Hargeisa and Garowe, citing Ethiopian interference in Somalia’s internal affairs. This is a serious escalation of ongoing tensions with its neighbor since early January.
  3. Regional developments and transformations as catalysts for jihadist penetration in Somalia and the African continent. This encompasses threats to regional security stemming from Ethiopia’s maritime ambitions, highlighted by the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Somaliland on January 1, 2024. Additionally, it involves the Israeli war on Gaza and its consequences, as well as security and geopolitical tensions in the Red Sea. All of the above serve the jihadist narrative for expansion in Somalia and East Africa in general, especially in light of the rise of nationalism among Somalis, their sensitivity to foreign intervention in their country and growing anti-Western sentiments due to the West’s supportive stance toward Israel. Additionally, there is increasing attention on the grievances of African people, driving a movement to liberate their countries from colonial heritage and Western dominance, among other issues.

The growing activity of the ISIS branch in Puntland is part of a broader trend reflecting the Islamic State’s strategic shift. Following the decline of its control in core areas like Iraq and Syria, ISIS aims to achieve regional gains across Africa. It has seen significant successes in this regard, specifically in parts of Mali, Mozambique and Somalia. This worrying trend may enable ISIS to expand its financial activities and resume its external operations, changing the rules of the game and bringing it back to the forefront of the international counter-terrorism agenda.

Somalia requires sustained internal and external support to regain momentum in its comprehensive strategy to degrade Al-Shabab. (Shutterstock)

Dangerous and Predictable Repercussions

Allowing ISIS Somalia to consolidate its gains in the country would have significant implications for global counterterrorism efforts and regional security, given the organization’s transnational aspirations and the complex political and security landscape of Puntland and Somalia. The most predictable risks and consequences of Abdul Qadir Mumin’s group’s growing boldness and appetite for expansion in this strategically important part of the country, close to international shipping lanes, are as follows:

First, it poses a growing security concern and challenge to the authorities in Puntland and neighboring states, especially in light of the conditions that the group exploits to strengthen its ranks and control on the ground. These conditions include political, social and religious divisions, marginalization and the deterioration of living and economic conditions. Local grievances and fissures within the state’s dominant Darod clan, particularly among the Majerteen tribes and other minorities in the Bari region, are also significant. There are signs of growing local opposition to the policies of President Said Deni, who, after months of political tensions, secured his victory in the January 8 presidential election to remain in power until 2029. His government’s policies related to managing relations with the federal government and Ethiopia, as well as its approach to dealing with pro-Mogadishu opponents, have been contentious. For example, the prosecution of four clan elders in Bosaso on April 21, following their statements, and the prevention of a reception for Somalia’s new interior minister in Garowe, have exacerbated tensions. Additionally, border tensions between Puntland and Somaliland, and between Somaliland and the Darod-Talahanti clans demanding secession from Hargeisa to establish the “Khatma” administration as a sixth federal state in the Sool, Sanaag and Ayn regions of southeastern Somaliland, further play into the hands of the extremist organization.

Although the Puntland government maintains control over urban centers and the regional security forces demonstrate operational and intelligence effectiveness in dismantling terrorist networks, the seizure of Al-Miskad by ISIS indicates its ability and determination to expand, taking advantage of the aforementioned conditions. This may lead it to attempt to take over some coastal cities and towns, as it did in Qandala in October 2016. Therefore, state authorities must respond proactively to undermine any such potential targets to avoid the necessity of launching a costly military operation later.

Second, ISIS’s gains in Puntland could change the dynamics of ongoing operations across the country, complicating counterterrorism efforts. This extends beyond public security in Puntland and across Somalia to regional maritime security and the interests of international partners. Given the potential for ISIS to engage in piracy and compete with Al-Shabab, which reportedly provides protection to Somali pirates in exchange for 30% of the total ransom proceeds and a portion of any booty and loot they obtain, this threat is particularly concerning.

Third, the penetration of the Somali branch of ISIS in this important region will bolster the international organization’s global funding and recruitment networks, leading to increased extortion activities, especially in the coastal city of Bosaso and the capital, Mogadishu. The influx of more foreign fighters into Somalia is also expected; many of these fighters (Moroccans, Syrians, Sudanese and Ethiopians) have recently been apprehended by the Puntland police. Notably, ISIS’s revenue in Somalia has grown significantly, from about $70,000 per month in 2018 to $2.5 million in 2021, and over $2 million in the first half of 2022. According to a report by a UN monitoring team in February 2023, the Somalia-based ISIS Regional Coordination Office in Africa, the “Karrar Office,” was sending $25,000 per month in cryptocurrency to the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province in Afghanistan.


While the escalating clash between the two wings of terrorism in Somalia might initially seem advantageous for efforts to liberate the country from both, the resilience and operational freedom of ISIS in the geographically strategic state overlooking the Gulf of Aden raises significant concerns about long-term threats to Somalia’s stability, as well as regional and maritime security. This is particularly alarming given the growing political differences and divisions within Somalia, rising security and geopolitical tensions in the Red Sea, the resurgence of piracy in vital waterways and the broader regional and global dynamics of conflict and rivalry.

Consequently, there is an urgent need for a coordinated response from all stakeholders that addresses internal fissures as a prerequisite for strengthening local governance across the country. The Puntland administration, in particular, needs to prioritize containing the threat of ISIS expansion in the state. Somalia requires sustained internal and external support to regain momentum in its comprehensive strategy to degrade Al-Shabab, which involves military pressure, as well as ideological and financial warfare. The same approach, albeit to a lesser extent, should be applied to ISIS. Preventing ISIS from securing a foothold in population centers is not enough; it is also crucial to limit their ability to move, mobilize, collect and transfer funds and terrorize merchants and citizens. This can be achieved through increased intelligence work and community engagement, aiming to prevent further deterioration of the security situation, dry up ISIS’s funding streams and undermine its cross-border organizational logo

The Emirates Policy Center (EPC)