Somalia’s Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab and the Ethiopian rebel ONLF appear to have formed a logistical cooperation, as Eritrean support for the latter surged, according to a United Nations’ report.

The latest developments in the Eritrea-Shabaab-ONLF nexus were revealed in the last week report of the United Nations’ Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.

The report stressed that: “Based on multiple corroborating testimonials, the Monitoring Group concludes that Eritrea continues to provide logistical and financial support to ONLF in contravention of resolution 1907 (2009), and at a time when ONLF has shifted its operating hub to Mogadishu and appears to have a logistical understanding with Al-Shabaab.”

Photo - ONLF (Ogaden People Liberation Front) fighters
Photo – ONLF (Ogaden People Liberation Front) fighters

ONLF(Ogaden People Liberation Front) is a separatist group of Ethiopia’s Somali region which, it says, “has been colonized against our will and without our consent”. Addis Ababa inked a peace agreement with the then chairperson of ONLF in 2012. However, another faction chose to continue the insurgency.

According to the report, in late 2012, Eritrea’s Presidential Advisor, Yemane Gebreab, and Spy-Chief, Abraha Kassa, organized and hosted a conference in which ONLF decided to shift its bases to Mogadishu, Somalia, so as to “procure weapons and deploy fighters to central Somalia and thereafter into the Ogaden region of Ethiopia”.

ONLF’s activities in Somalia comprises a “logistical entente” with Al-Shabaab, the report claimed:

The ONLF operating bases in Galkacyo are centred in the Baradle neighbourhood, which is a known Al-Shabaab refuge in the city. Such a location, as well as the ability of ONLF to operate in different parts of Somalia, raises the question of how the group is able to move through territory controlled by Al-Shabaab, which it needs to do in order to carry out its political and military activities.

The UN monitors received “credible independent testimonials from sources with direct knowledge of the issue” that:

* ONLF was coordinating with Al-Shabaab in Somalia in order to move freely and securely through their territory, particularly in areas bordering the Sool region of Somaliland and in Lower Juba south of Kismayo.

* on 27 and 28 May 2014, there had been an Al-Shabaab attack on an Ethiopian-trained militia in Bakool involving ONLF.

The report described the channel used by Asmara to finance ONLF involves a bank in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and a resident of Australia. According to the report:

…authorities from Eritrea had remitted cash to an ONLF bank account in Dubai, using the Tawakal Bank hawala system and moneybags. The account is controlled by the Australia-based ONLF deputy chair, Mohamed Ismail, but is registered under the name of “Abdi Shakur Mohammed Nur”. From Dubai, the money is then dispatched to Somalia through unknown hawala transfers.

According to another section of the report, the Eritrean official responsible to oversee ONLF is Colonel Tewelde Habte Negash, (also known by the aliases “Amanuel Kidane”, “Wedi Kidane”), Colonel “Musa” and Colonel “Hagos,”), who reports directly to Colonel Tesfaldet Habteselasie, the President’s man for foreign armed groups.

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Read below the section of the report on ONLF

Ogaden National Liberation Front

56. In its previous reports (S/2011/433 and S/2012/545), the Monitoring Group has documented consistent Eritrean logistical support to ONLF. Eritrea began supporting ONLF towards the end of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war in 2000. At that time, Asmara was seeking to open a “second front” against Ethiopia in Somalia by assisting militias and armed groups opposed to the presence of Ethiopia in Somalia.

57. In its most recent report (S/2013/545), the Monitoring Group also documented the policy of Eritrea of cultivating a number of high-level contacts in the Federal Government of Somalia to strategically influence the new Government. The Group reported that Eritrea had retained links with warlords and spoilers allied with the Federal Government of Somalia, some of whom in turn had relationships with Al‑Shabaab.

58. In this context, and following reduced support to ONLF between late 2011 and late 2012, Eritrea reactivated its contacts with the ONLF leadership at a time when ONLF made the strategic decision to shift its bases to Mogadishu, following the collapse of peace talks between ONLF and the Government of Ethiopia in October 2012. The Monitoring Group received testimonials that ONLF has shifted from its traditionally hostile relationship with Al-Shabaab and the two movements appear to have forged a logistical entente that is facilitating ONLF operations inside Somalia.[i]

Asmara conference of August 2013

59. During the second week of August 2013, Eritrea hosted a conference for ONLF at a location on the outskirts of Asmara. According to two ONLF members who participated in the meetings, at least 31 ONLF central committee members, including the ONLF chair, Abdurahman Mohamed Umar Osman, and the Defence Commissioner, Sheikh Deeq Mohamed, were present (see annex 6.1 for a list of 25 known attendees).

60. The conference was organized and hosted by the Senior Political Adviser to the President of Eritrea, Mr. Gebreab, the head of national intelligence Abraha Kassa, and the regional intelligence officer Colonel Negash “Mussa”. The three Eritrean officials opened the meeting, and then let the conference proceed in their absence. Private meetings were held between the ONLF chair, Mr. Gebreab and Colonel Negash while the conference was taking place.[ii] According to attendees, the stated purpose of the conference was to raise funds for ONLF, strategize on how to recruit new fighters, build up a weapons stockpile and discuss the presence of ONLF in the region.

Image - Eritrean visa to ONLF Yussuf Mohamed Hussein
Image – Eritrean visa to ONLF Yussuf Mohamed Hussein

61. ONLF commanders present at the conference informed the Monitoring Group that they had been told by the ONLF chair that agents of the Government of Eritrea had regularly sent cash funds to ONLF in advance of the conference.[iii] One ONLF commander said that authorities from Eritrea had remitted cash to an ONLF bank account in Dubai, using the Tawakal Bank hawala system and moneybags. The account is controlled by the Australia-based ONLF deputy chair, Mohamed Ismail, but is registered under the name of “Abdi Shakur Mohammed Nur”. From Dubai, the money is then dispatched to Somalia through unknown hawala transfers.[iv] The Monitoring Group has been unable to verify the names and continues to investigate the hawala transfer system in question.

62. At the conference, the ONLF central committee made the decision to move its operations to Mogadishu because of the relative ease of operating in a region of Somalia where Ethiopia has less influence.[v] From Mogadishu, the goal was to procure weapons and deploy fighters to central Somalia and thereafter into the Ogaden region of Ethiopia.[vi] Prior to 2013, ONLF had focused on receiving most of its weapons supply from Yemen by means of deliveries to areas between Bosasso and Las Qoray. A former ONLF commander told the Group that he had travelled to Asmara twice before the August 2013 conference to discuss how Eritrea could use its Ageeg port to facilitate weapons procurement in northern Somalia.[vii] However, the evidence of the Monitoring Group suggests that more recent ONLF procurement also includes weapons acquired from southern Somalia.[viii]

Deployments to Mogadishu

63. Following the Asmara conference, the ONLF central committee began deploying military and intelligence operatives to Mogadishu. Sources told the Monitoring Group that two groups travelled by two routes. The first led by Sheikh Deeq Mohamed proceeded via Yemen, and the second via Cairo, Kampala and Nairobi onto Mogadishu[ix]. The Group obtained a multi-entry Eritrean visa number 01052 for an individual whose travel patterns fits into the second pattern identified. Immigration authorities in Mogadishu stopped a person named Yussuf Mohamed Hussein at the airport on 18 October 2013. Hussein had left a refugee camp in north-eastern Kenya for Nairobi. He then flew from Nairobi to Asmara, where he received the Eritrean immigration paperwork on 11 October 2013. From there he travelled to Cairo, Kampala, Nairobi and finally Mogadishu, where the Somali Criminal Investigation Department detained him because his unusual travel pattern and documentation raised suspicion that he was working for Al-Shabaab. He was eventually released after a cash payment was made[x] (see annex 6.2 for copies of Hussein’s immigration documents).

64. The deputy chief of intelligence, Ali Ahmed Hussein Ibrahim Dheere, was among those who travelled through Cairo, Kampala and Nairobi on mission to extend ONLF operational capability in Mogadishu, according to his own account. Dheere arrived in Mogadishu in October 2013.[xi] During his stay in Mogadishu, Dheere met with the then Federal Government of Somalia Minister of State for the Presidency, Farah Sheikh Abdiqadir, in late October or early November 2013. He said that his instructions had been to obtain the approval of the Federal Government of Somalia for the presence of ONLF in the city. According to his account, the Minister did not grant ONLF any official recognition, but Dheere was still allowed to operate freely as he was not arrested or asked to leave the country.[xii] Moreover, the Monitoring Group examined Dheere’s telephone records during his stay in Mogadishu and found that he had been in regular communication with contacts in Eritrea. Between 5 and 11 November 2013, Ali Dheere made three calls to two Eritrean mobile telephone numbers, and received four calls from a landline in Asmara.

Weapons procurement in Somalia

65. In a separate interview, Ali Dheere stated that the overall plan of ONLF had been to purchase weapons in Somalia, given their easy availability, including from Federal Government of Somalia stocks (see S/2013/413, annex 6, for case studies of leakage of Federal Government of Somalia weapons and ammunition from official stockpiles). Dheere identified Sheikh Deeq as the person in charge of procurement on behalf of the movement.[xiii] Another ONLF commander who was also present at the August 2013 conference in Eritrea told the Monitoring Group that he had been informed that, shortly after the conference, Sheikh Deeq arrived in Mogadishu with five individuals, who were joined by six more ONLF fighters who had come from refugee camps in Kenya. Sheikh Deeq coordinated the recruitment and deployment of ONLF fighters from Somalia to Ethiopia and organized a weapons consignment in Mogadishu before travelling to central Somalia.[xiv] A source physically close to Sheikh Deeq also told the Group that during his time in Mogadishu, Sheikh Deeq had concluded a weapons deal with a group of arms traders.[xv]

66. Several sources have confirmed that ONLF operations have centred north of Mogadishu, around Galkacyo, which is used as a base to process fighters in and out of Ethiopia, and as a weapons hub for onward transmission into Ethiopia. One former ONLF fighter told the Monitoring Group that he had travelled to Mogadishu from Galkacyo with a Galkacyo-based ONLF weapons dealer known as “Jawasi” in November 2013.[xvi] Another source with close links to ONLF stated that Sheikh Deeq had last been heard of operating in Galkacyo.[xvii] A third ONLF fighter, recruited from the Haghadheere refugee camp in north-eastern Kenya, stated that he had been instructed to travel to Galkacyo in October 2013, where he had met an ONLF commander known as Sheikh Ibrahim Abdi Mohamed Abdi. The fighter told the Monitoring Group that it was Abdi who had instructed him to travel to Somaliland.[xviii] The Group has been reliably informed that Sheikh Ibrahim Abdi is an operative for both ONLF and Al-Shabaab.[xix]

67. The Monitoring Group also received information of ONLF support networks in Somaliland that facilitated the Front’s activities. A fighter who was deployed from Hargeisa through Galkacyo to Mogadishu in September 2013, soon after the ONLF conference in Asmara, said that he had also been instructed to stop in Kampala, where other ONLF recruiters were ordered to transit.[xx]

ONLF-Al-Shabaab logistical entente

68. The ONLF operating bases in Galkacyo are centred in the Baradle neighbourhood, which is a known Al-Shabaab refuge in the city.[xxi] Such a location, as well as the ability of ONLF to operate in different parts of Somalia, raises the question of how the group is able to move through territory controlled by

Al-Shabaab, which it needs to do in order to carry out its political and military activities. ONLF members that the Monitoring Group spoke to all denied having any relationship with Al-Shabaab and cited the historic hostility between the two organizations. One former commander told the Group that any admission on the part of ONLF of a relationship with Al-Shabaab would discredit ONLF and would trigger the demise of the movement.[xxii] On the other hand, the Monitoring Group received two credible independent testimonials from sources with direct knowledge of the issue that contradict notions of ONLF having no operational links with elements inside Al-Shabaab. The first is from a former Ogadeni intelligence operative, who told the Monitoring Group that ONLF was coordinating with

Al-Shabaab in Somalia in order to move freely and securely through their territory, particularly in areas bordering the Sool region of Somaliland and in Lower Juba south of Kismayo.[xxiii] A security official with first-hand knowledge of the situation on the ground told the Monitoring Group that, on 27 and 28 May 2014, there had been an Al-Shabaab attack on an Ethiopian-trained militia in Bakool involving ONLF. The source stated that when the Ethiopian National Defence Force deployed in response afterwards, it became clear that the attack had involved ONLF fighters and that Al-Shabaab had been hosting ONLF at their base in a location nearby.[xxiv] The Governor of the Bakool Region of Somalia also spoke about the attack in an interview with the Somali service of an American media outlet in which he claimed that ONLF had cooperated with Al-Shabaab, thereby implicating both groups in the incident.[xxv] On 5 June 2014, ONLF subsequently issued a statement denying any involvement in the attack.[xxvi]

69. Based on multiple corroborating testimonials, the Monitoring Group concludes that Eritrea continues to provide logistical and financial support to ONLF in contravention of resolution 1907 (2009), and at a time when ONLF has shifted its operating hub to Mogadishu and appears to have a logistical understanding with

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Annex 6.1 – ONLF central committee members present at Asmara conference of August 2013

Abdurahman Mohamed Umar Osman Chairman of the ONLF
Mohamed Umar Ismail Deputy Chairman of the ONLF
Mohamed Abdi Yasin Secretary of the ONLF
Abdirahman Mahdi Head of Foreign Relations of the ONLF
Dr. Ibado Hirsi Head of Finance and Economic Affairs
Mohamed Nuur Abbas Head of Strategic Planning of the Executive Committee
Hussein Nuur Head of Information and Public Relation Affairs
Ahmed Mehumed Mohamed Head of Defense Affairs
Abdukadir Sheik Hassan Hirmoge Representative and Liaison in Australia
Ahmed Yassin Head of Social Affairs
Abdukerim Sheik Musse Head of General Command in Ethiopia
Abdullahi Muktar Head of Organizational Affairs and adviser to the Chairman
Ali Ahmed Hussein Deputy Head of Intelligence Affairs
Bedal Hassan Member of the Central Committee
Ahmed Mejertain Community Affairs Coordinator in the USA
Abdellahi Ahmed Community Affairs Coordinator in Saudi Arabia
Mohamed Sherif Member of the Committee and Commander
Hassan Shekiye Secretary of the General Committee
Mohamed Yusuf Deputy Head of Economic Affairs
Abdukadir Gamadid Member of the Central Committee
Professor Mohamed Wadi Member of the Central Committee
Mohamed Ibrahim Member of the Central Committee
Hassan Mohammed Macalin Deputy Head of Community Affairs in Denmark
Abdelahi Ogas Member of the Central Committee
Faisal Dhahir ONLF Representative based in Asmara

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Footnotes

[i] Interview with a former Ogadeni intelligence source in July 2014 and August 2014; and a confidential account of a foreign security source based in Somalia in July 2014.

[ii] Interview with an ONLF commander, 12 March 2014.

[iii] Interview with an ONLF commander, 21 February 2014 and 14 May 2014.

[iv] Interview with an ONLF commander, 25 July 2014.

[v] Based on multiple interviews with two ONLF commanders and an ONLF operative; and an interview with a former Ogadeni intelligence source in July 2014 and August 2014.

[vi] Interviews with two ONLF commanders, 21 February and 15 April 2014.

[vii] Interview with an ONLF commander, 25 July 2014.

[viii] A source with close ties to ONLF, interviewed on 4 July 2014, stated that Mogadishu had gradually turned into an operational base for ONLF since 2012, following efforts by Puntland and Somaliland to restrict ONLF operating networks. The source claimed that ONLF had cultivated contacts within the Federal Government of Somalia to ensure operational stability within Mogadishu. This aspect will be discussed below. Two sources with ONLF links, interviewed on 10 June and 4 July 2014, stated that they were aware of weapons deliveries from ONLF sources in Yemen to north-eastern Somalia in the past.

[ix] Interview on 14 May 2014 with an ONLF commander, who stated that he had travelled via Cairo to Kampala and then on to Nairobi and Mogadishu in October 2013. Another commander stated on 27 February 2014 that he knew Sheekh Deeq Mohamed had travelled to Mogadishu via Yemen.

[x] A source at Mogadishu International Airport noted down the individual’s itinerary and obtained copies of his Eritrean immigration papers. The source said that airport authorities had released the individual following the cash payment.

[xi] Interviews with Ali Dheere in February 2014, March 2014 and May 2014.

[xii] Interview with Ali Dheere in May 2014. He claims that he had been taken to see Farah Abdiqadir by a personal contact in Mogadishu from the Haber Gedir/Ayr clan. In another interview on 10 June 2014, a former ONLF commander stated that he had travelled to Mogadishu with the ONLF financier, Faizal Dahir Nur, in February 2013, where he had also met Farah Abdiqadir, although Farah Abdiqadir had told them that the Federal Government of Somalia did not consider ONLF welcome.

[xiii] Interview with Ali Dheere, March 2014.

[xiv] Interview with ONLF commander, 21 February 2014, and with source physically close to Sheikh Deeq, 4 July 2014.

[xv] Interview, 4 July 2014.

[xvi] Interview, 14 May 2014.

[xvii] Interview, 4 July 2014.

[xviii] Interview with an ONLF former fighter, 25 February 2014. The individual was arrested by the Puntland authorities before he reached Somaliland.

[xix] Interviews with two Somali intelligence officers, February 2014.

[xx] Interview with former ONLF fighter on 12 March 2014 who described his presence in Hargeisa as far back as 2011 and a number of ONLF ammunition procurement officers who were also based in the city.

[xxi] Interview with Puntland intelligence source and associate of an Al-Shabaab Amniyat officer based in Galkacyo during 2013, 25 February 2014.

[xxii] Interview with an ONLF commander, 25 July 2014.

[xxiii] Interview with a former Ogadeni intelligence operative in July 2014 and August 2014.

[xxiv] Confidential account of a foreign security source in Somalia, July 2014.

[xxv] The full interview, which was aired on Voice of America Somalia is available from: www.voasomali.com/content/article/1929782.html.

[xxvi] See http://onlf.org/?p=602.

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Daniel Berhane

Daniel Berhane

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