ETHIOPIA SMITES AL SHABAB BLIETZKRIEG: A look at the showdown in Halgan Somalia

Tuesday June 14th 2016

By Zecharias Zelalem

Thursday, June 9th 2016. Halgan district of Hiran, Somalia. A military clash erupts when militants of the Al Qaeda allied Al Shabab group attack an Ethiopian army patrolled African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) base, some 120 km south of the city of Beledweyne, a hub of Ethiopian military movement, and approximately 160 km from the Ethiopian border. What everyone agrees with is that the Al Shabab contingent launched their attack at dawn with a car bomb at the gate of the base and proceeded to attack the base with heavy weaponry. The events that transpired over the following hours have been told and retold so many times with so many different versions that it can be quite tricky to guess which side made tactical gains, or even claimed a scalp.

Due to the volatile situation of the area and the difficulty of finding and contacting credible balanced sources of information in the region, it’s an extremely difficult task just getting the news out. The big names of mainstream media, Al Jazeera, BBC and the likes instead chose to echo the claims of both the Ethiopian army and Al Shabab, with each side claiming to have totally routed the other. In Ethiopian media circles meanwhile, state media broadcasted news of an outright slaughter of the Al Shabab troop, with the base’s defenders barely suffering a scratch. Media catering to opponents of the government, preferred to highlight the losses suffered by the Ethiopian army and have chosen to stand by the various Al Shabab accounts where casualty figures on the Ethiopian side range from forty three to over sixty dead soldiers.

Exactly how many people died on that hectic morning in rural Somalia may never be known. The Ethiopian army never releases its casualty numbers, while Al Shabab figures are hardly reliable. But from the reports as well as a close look at previous Al Shabab attempts to ransack AMISOM bases, one can pick out several glaring truths and have a much more visible understanding of what went down in the billowing smoke and exchanges of fire nearly a week ago now. Armed with the facts, it is evident to anyone that Al Shabab’s military foray into Halgan resulted in a fierce rebuttal of their attempts to overtake the base. The Ethiopian army was able to recover and dispatch of the attacking force despite the latter’s apparent use of the element of surprise.

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Ethiopian troops relaxing at their AMISOM base in Halgan Somalia days after beating back an Al Shabab attempt to capture the base (Photo: AMISOM)

Firstly, what dents into the credibility of Al Shabab’s claims is the fact that the group’s spokesman, Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, told a Reuters employee that his group not only killed 43 Ethiopian soldiers, but also overran the base and sent surviving Ethiopian soldiers fleeing into the wilderness. He then added that a Djiboutian military unit responding to Ethiopian distress signals quickly mobilized from a nearby base and attacked the Al Shabab raiding party at Halgan but was also repulsed and took casualties. According to Abu Musab, his comrades departed the base uncontested shortly afterwards, suffering “several” casualties.

Later, Abu Musab completely modified his version of the story, upping the Al Shabab kill count from 43 to 60. There was no more mention of overtaking the base, nor any talk of that Djiboutian military counterattack he initially claimed took place in the immediate aftermath of the Ethiopians being wiped out from the base. In what appears to be an attempt at strengthening his account, he spoke in detail on Al Shabab losses, which according to him totalled sixteen fatalities.

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Al Shabab spokesman Abdiasis Abu Musab changed his story several times when asked about the Halgan attack (Photo: Reuters)

 

There have been no reports whatsoever regarding the involvement of any Djiboutian military forces in Halgan last Thursday, let alone a massacre that decimated Djiboutian forces. It would have been news in Djibouti and impossible to cover up and hide. Next, had the Ethiopian army vacated the base as Al Shabab claims they did, the goldmine of weapons, vehicles, perhaps even prisoners of wars would have been a golden propaganda opportunity that Al Shabab wouldn’t ever pass up. Perhaps a detailed, sharply edited video would still be in the works and is yet to be released. Still, within days of the Al Shabab attack on Kenyan AMISOM troops in El Adde back in Januray, Al Shabab had released images of dead Kenyan soldiers, captured armaments and tanks via their propaganda outlets before promoting the release of a video of the operation.

This time round, Al Shabab haven’t released any videos or pictures of their actions in Halgan. It is hard to believe that they would forget to bring a camera along as they completely annihilate an Ethiopian battalion and chase them out of their base. It is quite apparent that Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab’s account is not only stretched, but full of fabrications.

It’s clear that in 2016, Al Shabab, responsible for dozens of bombings and shootings that for the most part have killed innocent Somali civilians, are despised and outright loathed by the majority of Somalia’s public. It’s actions in denying aid groups access to the country during the 2011 Somalia famine exacerbated the disaster and contributed to the crisis. The group’s ideology and implementation of extremism conflict with those of traditional Somalis, practisers of Sufi Islam. After Al Shabab’s loss of the port city of Kismayo to the Kenyan Defence Force in 2012, an operation made simpler due to alleged cooperation of locals with the Kenyan military, Al Shabab might have realised that they had to do some work to clean up their image. The best way to do so wouldn’t be the beheading videos that had backfired on Al Qaeda in Iraq. This tactic was employed but served to further turn locals away from the cause. It appears that they have decided to go lengths to show evidence that the group was indeed drowning the “crusader armies” in their own blood as they so often threaten and promise to do.

This is where the infamous base attack videos would come in. The AMISOM presence in Somalia has long been depicted in extremist circles as a foreign, hostile, Christian crusader invading army on Muslim soil. Successful attacks on AMISOM bases would score huge points among the extremist crowd and garner huge publicity with the promise of high casualties among foreign soldiers almost guaranteeing international media coverage. Al Shabab and its affiliates started planning specific operations targeting bases manned by AMISOM troops. Despite the common banner, the Ethiopian, Kenyan, Djiboutian, Burundian and Ugandan troops that are part of the AMISOM project, operate separately in the field and are housed at separate bases.

The first successful operation would target Burundian soldiers.

On June 26th 2015, Al Shabab launched a dawn attack in Lego, north of Mogadishu, where a Burundian AMISOM base is located. Just like in Halgan a few days ago, a car bomb exploded at the gates of the base at dawn just before Al Shabab swarmed the base from several directions. The Burundians were overwhelmed and despite the Burundian government’s general clamming up whenever inquired on the topic of Burundian losses in the Lego raid, months later, Al Shabab released a video of the operation, which included an interview with the doomed driver of the vehicle that would be employed in the suicide car bomb attack. The video shows Al Shabab fighters mowing down Burundian forces with little opposition. Al Shabab claimed to have killed over 80 Burundian soldiers, and the dead bodies of about fifty soldiers are seen in the extremely upsetting video. The base is ransacked; Al Shabab militants are seen with Burundian military hardware and hundreds of AMISOM uniforms, including their signature green berets. Al Shabab dedicate a segment of the video in memory of three fallen militants they say died that day, with images and information of the “martyrs” shown on screen.

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A screenshot from the video shows Burundi army uniforms on display after Al Shabab’s successful overrunning of Burundi’s AMISOM base in Lego, Somalia in June of last year

Ugandan troops would tragically be next.

The relative ease of the operation in Lego meant that Al Shabab wouldn’t wait long before attempting another daring base raid. September 1st of 2015, Al Shabab attacked the Janaale base where Ugandan AMISOM soldiers resided. Also taking place in the wee hours of the morning, a suicide car bomb driven by a former Somali National Army soldier turned defector, blew up at the gates of the base before militants once again opened fire from all directions at the soldiers holed up inside. Extremely graphic scenes of the carnage would be released to the world months later, revealing the horrors the startled Ugandans had to face. The footage showed wounded soldiers being executed at point blank range, while others were seen attempting to flee, only to end up cut down in a rain of bullets. One Ugandan soldier, captured alive, is paraded in front of the cameras as he is forced by his captors to speak of the dilemma his comrades faced when trying to stave off the Al Shabab ambush that killed many of them that morning. The bodies of approximately fifty dead Ugandan soldiers could be seen in the video.

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Al Shabab fighters hoisted the group’s black flag immediately after capturing the Janaale base from the Ugandan army in September of 2015

Perhaps the most well known of these attacks was the one perpetrated against Kenyan forces in El Adde on the 16th of January 2016. A dawn attack on the Kenyan AMISOM base was precipitated this time by a massive truck bomb which caught the Kenyan soldiers off guard. Hours of fighting saw Al Shabab fighters continue to advance on the base until they had complete control of it. In April, after months of promoting the release, yet another video full of bloody gory scenes of the taking of the base was released by Al Shabab media outlets. Just like the videos of the Al Shabab captures of the Lego and Janaale bases, militants are shown whooping triumphantly and running past the bodies of dead Kenyan soldiers as they mercilessly mow down the few pockets of Kenyan resistance in the base. Al Shabab fighters parade captured Kenyan soldiers including an officer, Sergeant Gerishon Wanyonyi Wasike, while enjoying the spoils of their successful raid, Kenyan military rifles and trucks. Burnt out tanks and the bodies of up to 80 soldiers are also seen.

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Burnt out Kenyan military vehicle, one of many seen in the video of Al Shabab’s El Adde raid

So with Burundian, Kenyan and Ugandan AMISOM bases successfully attacked and overrun, it was only a matter of time before Al Shabab try their hand at massacring Ethiopian soldiers within their bunkers. Five months after the deadly El Adde raid, it would come in the form of last Thursday’s attack in Halgan. A suicide car bomb at the crack of dawn, followed by a rampant shooting spree. A tactic that saw Al Shabab gain entry to Burundian, Kenyan and Ugandan military bases with relative ease. One can conclude that Al Shabab probably had a camera crew on hand as they attempted to maneuver their way past the Ethiopian defences.

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Ethiopian soldiers at a debriefing a day after their battle with Al Shabab militants (Photo: AMISOM)

Halgan didn’t go according to the script. The base wasn’t taken, and it appears that Al Shabab suffered heavy losses.

Ethiopian media outlet Horn Affairs reported that a military source had informed them of Al Shabab losses which amounted to 248 dead while Ethiopia suffered nine dead. Lt Colonel Joe Kibet, an AMISOM spokesman would later go on record saying that up to 120 Al Shabab fighters had died trying to capture the base. Ethiopia’s Colonel Ayenom Mesfin spoke of up to 400 Al Shabab militants being involved in the attempted base assault. He was being interviewed days afterwards at the base, beside a pile of weapons left behind by the militants and surrounded by dozens of dead bodies of Al Shabab fighters. Whatever the case, there’s no announcement of a soon to be released video by Al Shabab, nor has the group released images of any captured weapons or POWs. This gives further weight to the claims that Al Shabab forces were routed in Halgan by the Ethiopian defenders of the AMISOM base last Thursday.

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Female members of the Ethiopian army contingent at Halgan base pose for a picture with a local a day after Al Shabab’s attack on their base (Photo: Hiiraan Online)

Ethiopian military losses have no precise figure either. The Ethiopian government has a policy of not releasing casualty figures to the public. They range from Colonel Ayenom’s stated nine deaths, to Kenyan journalist Yassin Juma’s reporting of a local’s estimate of about thirty Ethiopian fatalities.

International media have since sent personnel to the base to fish for facts. Halgan base, defences intact, has since become a tour ground where Ethiopian and Ugandan AMISOM officials guide you through the bodies of dozens of Al Shabab fighters strewn around the base. One body appears to belong to a foreigner, while weapons caches and black flags are also on display.

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AMISOM personnel standing over an Al Shabab flag, cellular phones and grenades the attackers had with them during their ill fated attempt to take the Halgan base (Photo: AMISOM)

 

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Al Shabab armaments now on display at AMISOM base in Halgan (Photo: AMISOM)

 

Since the media frenzy began, graphic videos showing the base with the dead Al Shabab fighters lying all around the base are now circulating the web. Many of the dead fighters are seen dressed in military fatigues and wearing bright orange bandanas around their heads. The Al Shabab fighters who tore through the Ugandan and Kenyan defences at Janaale and El Adde were also seen wearing bright orange bandanas. This could suggest that the forces sent to attack AMISOM bases could be part of the same select Al Shabab fighting force. In the Lego, Janaale and El Adde operation videos released by Al Shabab, the faces of the attackers are blurred out, which could be an attempt to protect the privacy of members of what appears to be Al Shabab’s elite fighting force.

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Blurred out faces of the orange bandana clad Al Shabab fighting unit. Orange bandana wearing Al Shabab fighters now lie dead in Halgan

All in all, Ethiopia’s repulsing of an Al Shabab attack on their AMISOM base in Halgan last Thursday does testify to the preparedness and steely nature of the Ethiopian forces in Somalia. They have managed to succeed where their Kenyan, Burundian and Ugandan were tragically unable to do so.

But it does raise a lot of questions.

Firstly, despite the military forces of five countries conducting missions in the name of a single organisation (AMISOM), it seems that the five operate almost entirely independent of each other. It seems the only time we have heard of AMISOM troops coming to the rescue of embattled fellow AMISOM comrades of different nationalities was in the debunked tall tale of Djiboutians coming to the rescue of the Ethiopians pushed out of Halgan that Al Shabab spokesman Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab sold as fact to Reuters. If these military forces show a reluctance to work in tandem with each other, doesn’t it simply help prove claims that the AMISOM project is nothing more than five nations working for a safer Somalia by day and pursuing individual interests by night? How do we know that the objectives being sought by individual AMISOM nations wouldn’t clash with those being sought by other AMISOM nations or even the state of Somalia? Is it fair that the peoples of Ethiopia, Burundi, Uganda, Djibouti and Kenya are most likely in the dark about why they are seeing their sons pay the ultimate price in Somalia?

 

It seems that AMISOM is more than willing to chirp in and give its own account as to how many Al Shabab militants have died here or there. But unlike UN peacekeeping missions, AMISOM will not take into account the combat deaths of its soldiers, leaving that job for the governments in question to handle. Exactly where does the AMISOM fraternity begin? If it isn’t on the battlefield and it isn’t in honouring the fallen, what does AMISOM membership do other than gain you a thin layer of diplomatic immunity when atrocities are committed by fellow soldiers? It wouldn’t be farfetched to say that AMISOM is cloaking the potentially sinister or selfish intentions of the nations with boots on the ground in Somalia by masquerading as a united front against terrorism. When we only see the militaries of these member nations come together as one only at press conferences in hotel lobbies, we’ve got to be able to realize that the reasons for the snail pace of progress in Somalia over the past few years should be much more obvious.

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Ethiopian soldier on lookout duty at Halgan base (Photo: AMISOM)
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Ethiopian soldier at Halgan base (Photo: AMISOM)

 

Ethiopia’s destroying of an Al Shabab force at Halgan didn’t come free. It cost lives. Unlike the other AMISOM nations, the biggest shareholder in the Ethiopian military, the population at large, isn’t even permitted to publicly honour their war heroes. Ethiopian soldiers have been rendered numbers, statistics and replaceable machines by their government which goes lengths to censor news about their deaths. This is simply immoral.

Despite our feelings for war, our not being consulted about the reason our men and women are fighting in that country, the lack of a timetable and information on the wellbeing and safety of our troops, it is still comforting to know that Ethiopian soldiers are well equipped, tactically sound and trained to fend off Al Shabab’s dawn blitzkrieg attacks that has penetrated the defenses of nearly every other country fighting for one reason or another in Somalia.

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Ethiopian soldier at Halgan base (Photo: AMISOM)

After all, beyond any political affiliations, these soldiers are doing what they do out of a sincere desire to protect their country, people and lands.

Their safety should be the constant worry of all those safely behind them and far from the front lines.

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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