Last week dozens of people from the southern regions of Somalia were rounded up by the Puntland police, claiming they were Shabab suspects. In reality, most of the people were would-be immigrants on their way to Bossasso, where they would get on a boat to Yemen, and later Saudi Arabia hoping to find some work.
The sweep reminded me of a recent trip I took to Puntland.
I went to Galka’yo many weeks ago from Mogadishu and was surprised at the security procedure at the tiny airport. They manually “check” one’s baggage and appear to take their work seriously, however sloppily they do it. I was carrying a box of apples which was checked by looking at the topmost apples to confirm that they were indeed apples as I had told them. They didn’t seem to realise that one could hide illegal materials underneath a veneer of legal materials. I decided to stay at one of the hotels in Galka’yo called Kamaal, but decided otherwise when they asked me where I was from, then asked to check my baggage after I told them Mogadishu. They seemed to think that only Mogadishans would be carrying illegal materials (mostly bombs and guns in this case). Yes, Mogadishans are so clever that they would be able to pass with weapons through the tight security at Mogadishu Airport, go through Galka’yo airport’s poor security, yet get caught by the most-probably illiterate guys at Kamaal Hotel. I am sure they thought they were doing their part in the war against the Shabab, but I wouldn’t think the Shabab are stupid enough to have their operatives living in hotels, and carrying weapons if they do that. I got on a public car to Garowe the next day. Some of my fellow passengers were from Bay and Bakool, causing the driver some headache. Apparently, number one terror suspects in the area are Rahanweyn from Bay and Bakool. The poor fellows had to call someone from Garowe to wait for them at the police checkpoint outside the city. The driver had suggested that they get off the car and walk into the city because pedestrians are not searched (the same in Mogadishu TFG checkpoints). I can imagine what they must be thinking when they laid this policy down: that the terrorists enjoy car rides and would not walk past checkpoints like the rest of the illegals. Besides, I would not suspect the Shabab to send to Puntland Rahanweyn operatives who speak a different dialect and stand out from the general population. The Shabab would get away with sending a bearded operative to Garowe, unlike many other non-Shabab areas because of the high number of I’tisaam ( a Salafi group that has laid down arms after the Ethiopians left Somalia) members in the city. The Puntland president is rumoured to have close ties with them. In Garowe, many businesses are closed for the daytime prayers; women and men separated in public transportation; many shops refuse to sell ready food and beverages to adults during Ramadan fasting hours (women have to say they have the periods to buy things); and have much more Salafi mosques compared to Sufis than anywhere I have been to in Somalia. Given all this facts, they should be worrying about home-grown threats than anything else. There was an assassination of a security official and a bombing in Garowe in the past month, and I have little doubt that it was by local elements. The fact that the attacks here are few targeted attacks and far in between shows that the attackers are trying to lay low out of fear of blowing their cover. Someone can claim that this suggests an out-of-town originated cell, but that is very unlikely given the small number of the city’s population. Despite the Shabab fear in Puntland, the Shabab don’t seem to have a significant presence in the area. The assassination of security officials is a survival strategy by what must be a small insurgent cell trying to blind its enemy.
There is a whole complex housing various ministries in Garowe which has perhaps the poorest security in all of Puntland. I went there once with a friend, and all the security guards asked was whether we were armed. They took our word for it, and let us pass. The scary thing is, we were on a car. Surely, if the elements responsible for the insurgent attacks in Garowe ( like assassinations and few bombings) were really looking to create a mess, they know where to go.
The obsession with a perceived southern threat makes Puntland an ideal place for home-grown insurgents. Despite the emergence of Sheik Atam – the Sanaag based militant from one of the Puntland clans, the Puntland administration and its security services seem to look towards the south for potential trouble.