Renewed Insurgency and Conflict in Somali Region

The agendas, leadership, interconnections, and sources of support received by the various armed groups operating in Somali Region are often unclear. However they can be distinguished in two significant ways: whether they are Ogaadeeni or Somali nationalists, and whether there is a militant Islamist component to their agenda. The aims and tactics of the various groups are diverse.

The major armed group currently fighting the Ethiopian government in Somali Region is the ONLF. Although it often claims to represent Ethiopian Somalis across clan lines, the ONLF remains essentially an Ogaadeeni sub-clan-based insurgency, operating largely in the zones inhabited by the Rer Abdalle sub-clan of the Mohammed Zubeir. Many Ethiopian Somalis concerned by the historical marginalization of Somali Region by successive Ethiopian governments and the role of the Ethiopian security forces do not necessarily support the ONLF. Even among Ogaadeeni sub-clans there is varying support for the group and diverse views on the ONLF’s role, strategy, and tactics.56

The Ogaadeeni clan’s relations with other clans in Somali Region are further complicated by competition over resources, a cause of friction that has become worse in recent years due to increasing cycles of drought, environmental degradation, and the increasing number of pastoralists shifting to agro-pastoralism.57 In the past decade there have been serious inter-clan clashes over territory and political competition that have displaced thousands of people.58

The ONLF’s current goals are murky. Although ONLF statements seem to espouse Ogaadeeni—rather than Somali—self-determination, for instance by referring to or calling for “Ogadenia,” it is unclear whether the ONLF seeks secession from the Ethiopian state or simply greater regional autonomy. In reality, the ONLF primarily thrives on anti-Ethiopian sentiments and grievances more than any stated policy objective.

The ONLF operates as a rurally-based guerilla force consisting mostly of small units (20-30 fighters) assigned to different zones. Its units, domestically called “anti-peace elements” by the Ethiopian government, are constantly on the move. ONLF fighters regularly interact with civilians, particularly pastoralists in the area frequented by the ONLF, and obtain food and water in the countryside and from a network of civilian supporters in the towns and villages.

Little is known about the precise agenda and size of a second armed opposition group, the United Western Somali Liberation Front (UWSLF), which surfaced in 2006 and briefly took two aid workers hostage.59 However, their public statements suggest an Islamist and Somali nationalist agenda,60 in contrast to the essentially Ogaadeeni clan-based agenda of the ONLF.61  The UWSLF may draw support from the remnants of the militant Islamist group known as al-Itihaad al-Islaami ee Soomaaliya Galbeed (the Islamic Union of Western Somalia), which began to operate in the Somali Region by 1991.62 An Ethiopian military offensive in 1996 reportedly destroyed most of al-Itihaad’s military capacity in both eastern Ethiopia and southwestern Somalia.63 Al-Itihaad claimed responsibility for several grenade attacks and bombings in 1995 and 1996, including in Addis Ababa, which killed and wounded dozens of people.64 After September 11, 2001, al-Itihaad was placed on a US list of organizations and individuals designated for asset freezes due to terrorist links.65

The Somalia and Eritrea Connections

In 2006 the situation in Somali Region was exacerbated once again by events in neighboring Somalia. In June 2006 an alliance of Islamic courts (Islamic Courts Union, ICU) drove the Somali warlords out of Mogadishu, where they had ruled under a reign of violence. Led by Sheikh Aweys of al-Itihaad, the ICU’s ascendance stoked fears in both Addis Ababa and Washington of spreading Islamist extremism and revived militant Somali nationalism. The presence in Mogadishu of individuals with alleged links to al Qaeda and the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings did little to quell rising concern. With border tensions with Eritrea still unresolved, Ethiopia was further provoked by allegations of Eritrean support to the ICU, the ONLF, and other Ethiopian insurgent movements.66

In December 2006, following the passage of UN Security Council resolution 1725 authorizing an African Union intervention in Somalia, Ethiopian forces backed the weak Somali Transitional Federal Government in an offensive to oust the ICU and establish the TFG in power in Mogadishu. While the Ethiopian and TFG forces were initially successful in overthrowing the ICU, a coalition of insurgent groups soon started to launch attacks on the Ethiopian forces and the TFG in Somalia.67 Since the December 2006 ouster of the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu, the al-Shabaab military wing of the Islamic Courts is reported to have tried to establish a presence in Somali Region.

The relations between the ONLF and militant Islamist groups such as al-Itihaad and al-Shabaab are unclear. Although the Ethiopian government routinely claims they are connected, there are credible reports that the ONLF and al-Shabaab clashed in Somali Region in late 2007. The ONLF has repeatedly sought to distance itself from some of the more militant Islamist groups operating in the region, particularly in the context of growing US and Ethiopian concerns over individuals and groups with alleged links to al Qaeda operating in neighboring Somalia. 68

What is established, however, is that many of these groups—and other Ethiopian insurgent groups such as the Oromo Liberation front (OLF)—have received support from Ethiopia’s arch rival, Eritrea. Both the ONLF and OLF established a presence in Eritrea during the Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998-2000, and received training as well as logistical and military support. Eritrea continues to host the leaders of both insurgent movements and leaders of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia, and the ONLF and OLF also had a presence in Mogadishu in 2006. The Eritrean factor and concerns over its support to the various Ethiopian insurgent groups were one of the key underlying reasons for Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia in support of the Somali transitional government in 2006.69

Escalation in 2007

It is no coincidence that Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia coincided with a serious escalation in the conflict in Somali Region. Beginning in early 2007, the ONLF increased its targeting of representatives of the regional and local administrations in Somali Region, as well as military convoys. In January 2007 ONLF rebels attacked Garbo wereda in Fiiq zone, killing five local officials who refused to hand over heavy weapons to the rebels. A week later, the ONLF attacked Gunagada police station in Dhagahbur zone. Twenty-five people were killed in the attack, including the local head of security, Sa’ad Aw Siyad. The ONLF also abducted a number of officials, including the police commissioner, Bedel Abdi Nor, who according to released detainees was later executed.

Although the ENDF had already increased its presence in the conflict-affected zones of Somali Region following the ONLF’s January 2007 attacks, the April 2007 attack on the Chinese-run Obole oil installation70 and a May 2007 grenade attack on the regional president, Abdullahi Hassan, in Somali Region’s capital, Jijiga, which killed five people and injured dozens including Hassan, provoked an escalated response.71 The Obole attack came just as Ethiopian forces in Mogadishu were involved in fierce fighting with Somali insurgents.

According to credible sources, after the Obole attack senior regional and security officials met in Jijiga. Those present included Prime Minister Meles’ senior advisor on security, Abbay Tsehaye, and army chief of staff General “Samora” Yunes, as well as the military commander from Harar. They are reported to have identified the most important sources of ONLF support as: a) rural villagers and communities; b) commercial traffic of khat (a mild narcotic grown in the area) and other trade items; c) humanitarian aid; d) and local businessmen.72 The abuses uncovered by Human Rights Watch appear directly or indirectly connected to measures targeting each of these alleged sources of support.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced on June 9, 2007, that the Ethiopian government had commenced a large-scale counteroffensive to suppress the ONLF rebellion, and brought large numbers of military reinforcements into the region.73

From June to September 2007, the counterinsurgency campaign appears to have been at its peak. This period was characterized by systematic and intensive efforts by Ethiopian forces to relocate, terrorize, and punish communities in areas of ONLF operation or perceived to support the insurgency, using various abusive strategies. 

From September 2007 the Ethiopian government’s strategy appears to have shifted from the direct use of military forces to increased forced recruitment and deployment of local militia forces. The almost total obstruction of humanitarian aid that was implemented in mid-2007 was slightly relaxed, perhaps due to growing international pressure, although humanitarian operations remained tightly controlled.

Reports of village burnings and relocations have diminished in 2008. This may reflect a change of strategy on the part of the Ethiopian military and fewer clashes with the ONLF, or may be the simple result of thousands of people having now fled the region. However, concerns over many of the other patterns of abuses documented in this report, such as arbitrary detention, torture, rape, and mistreatment in custody remain as intense as ever.

56 Credible sources told Human Rights Watch that many former ONLF supporters in the diaspora have become increasingly critical of the ONLF’s tactics as the conflict has escalated.

57 The shift towards agro-pastoralism in turn fuels further conflict in areas of limited cultivable land as farmers seek to enclose and protect land from livestock, a development that is at odds with traditional communal ownership and use of land. See CHF International, “Grassroots Conflict Assessment of the Somali Region, Ethiopia,” August 2006, (accessed March 29, 2008).

58 Tobias Hagmann, “The Political Roots of the Current Crisis in Region 5,” Crisis in the Horn of Africa, September 21, 2007,, (accessed March 17, 2008).

59 “Abducted ICRC staff released in Ethiopia,” ICRC news release, 06/109, September 23, 2006, (accessed March 30, 2008).

60 The regional conflicts and massive refugee movements between eastern Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1980s generated a significant Somali—and specifically Ogaadeeni—diaspora in the Arab world, which was heavily influenced by Islamist religious and political movements. Confidential communication to Human Rights Watch, June 2007.

61 The resurrection of the WSLF name and allusion to “Greater Somalia” suggests that it may draw support from non-Ogaadeeni clan members seeking to distance themselves from the ONLF and its “Ogadenia”-centered agenda. See also the use of the term “mujahidin” in a recent UWSLF statement. “Ethiopian Islamist rebel group claims to have killed eight soldiers,” Text of report on Xaajo website on May 4, on file with Human Rights Watch.

62 After Mengistu’s overthrow, the Ethiopian branch of al-Itihaad was initially registered in 1991 as a legal political party. However it soon began pursuing a military strategy, including grenade attacks and bombings in Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa, prompting an Ethiopian offensive against al-Itihaad bases in both Somali Region and the Gedo region of neighboring Somalia between 1992 and 1997. This operation is largely believed to have dismantled al-Itihaad’s military wing. The deputy leader of al-Itihaad, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, later became a leader of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia. For further analysis of the origins of al-Itihaad in both countries see International Crisis Group, “Somalia’s Islamists,” Africa Report no. 100, December 12, 2005. For further analysis of the Islamic Courts Union and Sheikh Aweys’ role in recent events in Somalia, see Human Rights Watch, Shell-Shocked: Civilians Under Siege in Mogadishu, vol. 19, no. 12(A), August 2007,, pp. 32-33.

63 International Crisis Group, Somalia’s Islamists, p. 9.

64 Ibid.

65  See US Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, “Executive Order 13224,” September 25, 2001, (accessed March 30, 2008).

66 Reports that Eritrea and the Islamic Courts Union were supporting not only the ONLF but also the Oromo Liberation Front were particularly alarming to Ethiopia. Human Rights Watch, Shell-Shocked, pp. 31-33.

67 Human Rights Watch, Shell-Shocked.

68 For instance, a document called the “Political Programme of the Ogaden National Liberation Front” on the group’s website notes “that every individual, regardless of religious affiliation, has a right to fully practice his or her faith.” (accessed March 24, 2008). Credible sources also told Human Rights Watch that until the Ethiopian government restricted US military activity in Somali Region in 2006-2007, the ONLF cooperated with the US forces in their efforts to combat extremist activity in the region. Confidential communication to Human Rights Watch, July 2007.

69 After the Islamic courts established control of Mogadishu, several Ethiopian insurgent groups based in Eritrea announced a new alliance, exacerbating fears in Addis Ababa. “Statement on the Alliance for Freedom and Democracy (AFD),” ONLF statement, June 15, 2006, (accessed March 30, 2008).

70 Stephanie McCrummen and Edward Cody, “Scores Are Killed in Ethiopia Attack; Separatist Group Targets Oil Field,” The Washington Post, April 25, 2007.

71 Andrew Heavens and Tsegaye Tedesse, “Deadly Blast Injures Regional Leader in Ethiopia,” The Washington Post, May 29, 2007. The Ethiopian government blamed the ONLF, which denied responsibility.

72 Confidential communication to Human Rights Watch, July 2007, and Human Rights Watch interviews (name and location withheld), December 20-21, 2007.

73 ”Prime Minister Zenawi says government started cracking down on ONLF,” news conference reported on Kilil5, June 10, 2007.