Al-Qaeda’s allies in Somalia, al-Shabaab, killed up to 70 soldiers and civilians during an assault on a military base in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland on Thursday.
The Washington Post describes the attack as “rare in its brutality” for including a number of beheadings. Estimates from the Somali military range as low as 20 casualties, while al-Shabaab itself claims 61 kills through its media arm, the Shahada News Agency. The extremists also claimed they were able to loot weapons, ammunition, and military vehicles from the base.
The base that came under attack was staffed by soldiers of a paramilitary group called the Puntland Dervish Force. Al-Shabaab has been increasingly active in Puntland because it desires access to the sea, Puntland is seen as vulnerable, and the Islamic State is trying to get a rival extremist group started in the area. Both al-Shabaab and the nascent Islamic State faction have called for increased violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“Thursday’s attack plays into fears that al-Shabaab will expand its militancy during the holy month of Ramadan. The attacks often prevent aid organizations from going about their work,” the Washington Post observes.
“The situation is grim over there. This attack was an unexpected one,” a Somali military official told the UK Guardian.
According to the Guardian’s account of the battle, al-Shabaab launched the attack with a car bomb, then overran the base with fighters pouring in from three directions, wearing uniforms very similar to those of the Puntland Dervish Force, doubtless causing much confusion. Another military officer said many of the soldiers in the base were sleeping when the attack began.
“What happened today was a massacre – they killed many civilians. This afternoon I have seen dead bodies of those killed. I have seen four headless women, bodies slaughtered by al-Shabaab in one place. They killed every person they saw, even children,” testified a civilian eyewitness.
The Associated Press notes that Somali-American President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed has pledged to defeat al-Shabaab within two years, provided the United Nations lifts arms embargos against his country so his military forces can become better armed.