The al-Shabaab militant group has exploited Ethiopia’s internal turmoil to cross the border from neighboring Somalia in unprecedented attacks in the past few weeks, a military expert said, warning that the attacks are likely to continue.
The deadly incursions into Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country and long seen as an anchor of security in the Horn of Africa, are the latest sign of how deeply the war in the northern Tigray region and other ethnic fighting have made the country more vulnerable.
Ethiopia has long resisted such cross-border attacks by al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab, in part by deploying troops inside Somalia, where the group controls large rural parts of the country’s southern and central regions.
The administration of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and its security forces have struggled with unrest at home especially since the Tigray conflict began in late 2020.
Experts say al-Shabaab, also emboldened by instability under Somalia’s previous administration, is seizing the chance to expand its footprint and claim the killing of scores of Ethiopian security forces.
However, the group is also feeling the pressure of a renewed push by the Somalian government and the return of US forces to the country after their withdrawal under former US president Donald Trump.
The turn to Ethiopia is a significant strategic shift by al-Shabaab, said Matt Bryden, a security analyst at the Sahan Foundation think tank, adding that the group had never been able to conduct major operations inside Ethiopia.
“The reports of clashes along the Ethiopia-Somalia border are just a fraction of the overall picture,” Bryden said. “We understand that planning for this offensive began more than one year ago, when the Ethiopian government appeared to be on the verge of collapse” as rival Tigray forces pushed toward the capital, Addis Ababa.
Those forces later retreated, and both sides are edging toward peace talks.
Al-Shabaab has trained several thousand fighters for its Ethiopian “command,” mainly ethnic Somalis and Oromos inside Ethiopia, Bryden said.
The Ethiopian government has said it fears al-Shabaab would link up with the Oromo Liberation Army, which it has designated a terror organization, although other security experts have called that unlikely.
Hundreds of al-Shabaab fighters slipped into Ethiopia last week alone, and their presence has been detected near multiple communities, such as El Kari, Jaraati and Imey, Bryden said, adding that the incursions began late last month.
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