September 2019, Ethiopia foils hotel and other public venue attacks planned by al Shabaab – possible ISIS factor involved

27 September, 2019 Security

Borkena reported on 24 September that Ethiopia foiled hotel and other public venue attacks by al Shabaab and ISIS.

Ethiopian authorities arrested at least 12 operatives from both al Shabaab and ISIS who were aiming to attack,“hotels, religious festivities, gathering places, and public areas in Addis Ababa”, reported Borkena.

The culprits were observed by government security elements as they reconnoitered specific targets, and they had set up bank accounts to fund the attacks, and they also had secured fake identity documents.

Satenaw reported that other nations contributed to the foiling of the plot. Djibouti played a major role because the terror cell in question was partly based in Djibouti, and some of its members had infiltrated Ethiopia via Djibouti.

Other nations’ intelligence agencies also reportedly helped halt the plot, said Statenaw, including those of Italy, Spain, France, Somalia’s Somaliland and Puntland, and the US.

There are four takeaways here. First, the al Shabaab terror cell demonstrated professionalism regarding organization and planning by opening bank accounts, securing fake IDs, and carrying out reconnaissance of their intended targets (standard operating procedures for such attacks). This is precisely what al Shabaab did for the highly successful Mumbai-like raid on 15 January 2019 in Kenya against the dusitD2 hotel and business complex in Nairobi.

Second, on the other hand, the terror cell in question failed at operational security in keeping its activities hidden. Six different countries were involved in foiling the cell’s plans, indicating its members telegraphed their intentions far too much. The cell’s reconnaissance activities were discovered either before their deployment or while they were on target(s), indicating poor clandestine tradecraft, or betrayal by an informant.

Third, the dual mentioning of al Shabaab and ISIS here is curious. If reporting is accurate, al Shabaab and ISIS might have been on entirely different operations in Ethiopia, but reporting so far indicates these issues are connected. If they were entirely separate, the Ethiopian government most likely would have said so, but it did not.

If this was a joint al Shabaab-ISIS operation, it might be that the smaller ISIS-aligned faction of al Shabaab was aiming to recruit fighters from its larger, rival al Qaeda faction by conducting a spectacular series of attacks on one of their most hated enemies. Ethiopian soldiers have inflicted heavy damage on al Shabaab during their deployments in Somalia.

Fourth, as al Shabaab continues to suffer from counterinsurgency and strike operations by the Somalian government, AMISOM (the African Union Mission in Somalia), and coalition nations such as the US and UK, it will aim to carry out punishing attacks against these states when and where possible as it did against the dusitD2 complex Nairobi. Al Shabaab and/or its proxies have staged well over 20 attacks in Kenya, partly as revenge for being part of the anti-al Shabaab coalition. Additionally, al Shabaab and/or its proxies have staged a handful of attacks against other, nearby anti-al Shabaab coalition nations such as Uganda (July 2010, suicide bombings, Kampala, two FIFA World Cup match viewing venues), and Djibouti (May 2014, suicide bombing, popular restaurant).

For certain, al Shabaab attacks on countries outside East Africa are easier said than done, but they cannot be ruled out, especially with the help of al Qaeda’s or ISIS’ networks. Al Shabaab is resilient, adaptable, and tenacious. It believes in revenge operations. The intended operation in Ethiopia was, in part, driven by this sentiment.

Moreover, targeting hotels will remain part of al Shabaab’s standard operating procedure.

Sources and further reading

Ethiopian intelligence says it arrests dozens of suspected al-Shabaab, ISIS members ‘planning to carry out attacks’,” Statenaw, 24 September 2019.

Ethiopian Intelligence says it foiled ISIS, Al-Shabab militants planned attack,” Borkena, 22 September 2019.

Al Shabaab claims responsibility for Djibouti suicide attack,” Reuters, 27 May 2014.

Uganda bomb blasts kill at least 74,” The Guardian, 12 July 2010.

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