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Djibouti: Al-Shabaab's latest front

On 24 May, two Ethiopian-Somali suicide bombers, a man and a woman, entered a popular Djibouti restaurant and blew themselves up. Dozens of Western military personnel were wounded, and one Turkish national later died of his injuries.

Al-Shabaab claimed the attack three days later, announcing in a statement that the target had been "French crusaders" responsible for the "persecution" of Muslims in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Two days prior to the attack, the two bombers – later identified as Musa Roble Hirad and Hodan Mohamed Isse – entered Djibouti via Loyada, the only land border crossing with Somaliland, assisted by a Djiboutian border officer. They had spent at least 20 days in the capital Hargeisa where they likely received local assistance, according to Muse Bihi, the chairman of Somaliland's ruling Kulmiye party.

There are strong indications that the attack was planned and financed in Somaliland, possibly even with the assistance of government officials. The Somaliland connection will certainly worry the Ethiopians, as the autonomous region has long been the eastern flank of Ethiopia's regional security strategy of isolating itself from Somalia's instability.

The bombing marked the first al-Shabaab attack in Djibouti, though the tiny African country has long been a natural target. Djibouti hosts the United States military base of Camp Lemonnier, as well nearly 2,000 French military personnel. Furthermore, the nation has contributed about 1,000 peacekeeping troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), many of whom were trained by French officers.

Isse had been in mobile phone contact with a prominent Somaliland cabinet minister while in Hargeisa, according to a Somali journalist who has researched the Djibouti attack in depth. A senior Somaliland intelligence officer denied that there were any links between the bombers and government officials. Nonetheless, top members of the Somaliland administration – notably the presidency minister Hirsi Ali Haji Hassan, Religious Affairs Minister Sheikh Khalil Abdilahi Ahmed and Finance Minister Abdiaziz Samale – are suspected of having ties to al-Shabaab. The Ethiopian government had accordingly raised adamant back channel concerns about the composition of President Ahmed Silanyo's cabinet following his election in June 2010.

There is other evidence that the attack was orchestrated in Somaliland. The Somaliland intelligence officer revealed that Abdullahi Madhiban – a local airline employee in Hargeisa – and two co-conspirators had been under surveillance for six months prior to the Djibouti bombing, suspected of planning an attack on Somaliland soil. Hirad and Isse had not been under direct surveillance, but had been in mobile phone contact with the other plotters. On 23 June, local media reported that the three suspects had been handed over to Djiboutian authorities in Hargeisa airport.

The regional nature of the plot also extended to Ethiopia. Both Hirad and Isse entered Djibouti on Ethiopian passports; according to the Somali journalist, the pair had originally been part of a failed plot to massacre spectators at a football World Cup qualifying match at Addis Ababa Stadium in October 2013.

The fact that the Djibouti bombing was planned in Somaliland, facilitated in Djibouti, and carried out by Ethiopian nationals once again demonstrated the transnational nature of al-Shabaab's networks, which allow the Islamist group to operate fluidly across borders.

The Ethiopian security forces have so far been adept at detecting al-Shabaab plots. But the group's ability to carry out an attack in a place like Djibouti – an isolated country of less than a million with a strong Western military presence – will make their job all the more difficult.

Jay Bahadur
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