Hargeisa, SOMALIA -The defeat of the Somaliland Army at Buqdharkayn, on 8 November 2023 represented a humiliating defeat for the force at the hands of forces aligned with the SSC-Khatumo movement. In addition to representing a further loss of territory, the capture of Buqdharkayn has raised concerns that the conflict between Somaliland authorities and the pro-Federalist group may become increasingly tribalized.
A Humiliating Defeat
Little information has emerged regarding the nature of the fighting that took place at Buqdharkayn, in the Yeyle District of Togdheer (Cayn) Region, on 8 November 2023. However, the SSC-Khatumo forces’ recent capture of tanks, armored vehicles, and other heavy weapons from the Somaliland Army at Goojacade and Maraaga on 25 August 2023 likely aided their efforts. While neither side disclosed their casualties, the battle resulted in the capture of at least 12 Somaliland soldiers, including the force’s Logistics Commander.
Somaliland’s Perceived SSC-Khatumo Threat to Caynabo
The town of Buqdharkayn lies approximately 25km southeast of the city of Caynabo in Somaliland. The city and surrounding district are inhabited predominantly by members of the Issaq-Habar Jeclo clan. However, the Dhulbahante inhabited the area until the start of the twentieth century, when the British displaced them to counter the Dervish uprising of Sayid Mohamed Abdille Hassan, whom the British called the ‘Mad Mullah’. Following this event, some Dhulbahante communities continued to live in some of the more rural areas of Caynabo District.
Aware of this history, the Somaliland authorities likely fear that the SSC-Khatumo movement, comprising various Dhulbahante sub-clans, will attempt to seize territory in the Caynabo District, including the town of Caynabo itself, based on their historic claim. However, this would not appear to be the case at this time.
The SSC-Khatumo movement appears to have achieved most, if not all of its immediate territorial objectives. The leader of the group has even openly said that both sides should not attempt to advance into the other side’s territory; which may also be seen as an olive branch to Haber Jeclo. Still, this gesture to de-escalate the conflict was accompanied by a warning that the group could advance as far as Hargeisa if the Somaliland Army continued to launch further offensive operations.
Mobilizing the Haber Jeclo
Despite this, the Somaliland Army launched a new attack focused on recapturing the town of Yeyle, which is entirely inhabited by the Dhulbahante. This followed the mobilization of clan-based militia forces from among Haber Jeclo communities which were assembled at Goldheero outside of Buqdharkayn; Somaliland may have hoped that localizing the war would assist them.
This represents a dangerous development because Somaliland authorities are likely attempting to use the historic claim by the Dhulbahante over Caynabo and its surrounding areas to stoke fear and even inter-clan hostility between the Haber Jeclo and Dhulbahante. The mobilization and offensive use of Habar Jeclo militia may also raise fear among clans in other regions who see the move as upsetting the military balance between their communities; and the potential willingness of President Bihi to use clan-based militia forces against communities that support his political opponents.
This development might further strain Somaliland’s internal political stability, already severely compromised by President Muse Bihi’s decision to postpone elections for the recognition of official political parties and the presidency of the breakaway region until November 2024.
Concerns About Oil Resources
While the SSC-Khatumo movement has not displayed an interest in taking over Caynabo District, Somaliland nevertheless may be fearful of its potential loss. Such an outcome would not only be a devastating military defeat for the Somaliland Army but also a heavy, if not potentially fatal, political blow to President Bihi. This is because Somaliland authorities will be concerned about the potential for SSC-Khatumo forces to disrupt operations by Genel Energy to develop the SL10B/13 bloc.
While the SSC-Khatumo movement has not made any threats against Genel and its operations and has not made any claims on the territory of Caynabo District, Somaliland authorities are still likely to view the group as a threat to this important economic project. Reasons for this include:
1) Loss of control would be an economic loss and political humiliation to Somaliland authorities;
2) SSC-Khatumo control over the bloc could help boost the economic future and viability of a Khatumo State; and;
3) The SSC-Khatumo movement could try and win the favour and increased support from the Federal Government of Somalia by shutting down operations by Genel Energy which Mogadishu has denounced as illegal.
Further Escalation of the Conflict Likely
On 22 November 2023, the Somaliland Army attempted to retake the town of Yeyle and its surrounding area from SSC-Khatumo fighters. Little is known about the fighting which is reported to have taken place in the Bisiqa area outside of Yeyle. While Somaliland authorities attempted to blame the SSC-Khatumo movement for attacking its forces, a statement from the pro-Federalist group denied the accusation.
The number of casualties on either side remains unknown. Somaliland authorities have not issued any further comments on the incident. Meanwhile, the SSC-Khatumo movement claims to have seized an unspecified number of military vehicles and captured additional prisoners of war. They have reportedly shown at least seven of these prisoners to media organizations, adding to the more than 300 military personnel already held by the group in Las Anod. Notably, unconfirmed videos and photos suggest that the SSC-Khatumo may have captured at least one Somaliland Army technical fighting vehicle, initially donated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This suggests a potential misuse of humanitarian assistance, raising concerns for UN agencies and other international donors.
Somaliland authorities now appear to have limited options. While the SSC-Khatumo movement appears to have achieved most, if not all of its immediate territorial objectives it would appear that President Bihi and his administration are not ready to de-escalate or seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict with the pro-Federalist group. There are several likely courses of action open to policy-makers and military-planners in Hargeisa.
Prospective Military and Political Courses
The first would be to continue mobilizing Haber Jeclo clan militia but as a largely defensive measure in Caynabo District – an unwelcome if still understandable move in the eyes of the SSC-Khatumo movement and other clans in the region. Although this would still escalate the conflict, it would also limit open inter-clan violence to the borderlands between Cayn, Togdheer and Sool regions.
A second would be to try and mobilize other Isaaq sub-clans including the Haber Awal. While members of this Isaaq sub-clan primarily inhabit the Woqooyi Galbeed region, they are a key member of President Bihi’s ‘rainbow’ electoral alliance. The Haber Awal clan militia, once mobilized, can enhance the Somaliland Army’s capabilities as a force multiplier, especially considering the Army’s past struggles against SSC-Khatumo forces. This enhancement could prove pivotal in any offensive aimed at reclaiming territories in the Togdheer (e.g., Buuhoodle, Buqdharkayn, Yeyle) and Sool regions. However, this option would almost certainly trigger a political crisis, provoking a hostile reaction not only from the Dhulbahante and Warsangeli communities but also from the Haber Jeclo who have their own rivalry with their fellow Isaaq tribesmen.