This week, the United States provided “limited tactical advisory support” in the arrest of five al-Shabaab suspects in the central Somalia town of Galkayo, including a known facilitator named Abdirizak Hussein Tahliil who held a U.S. green card and lived in the U.S. between 2006 and 2009.
The operation was reportedly a “joint” effort between Somali federal intelligence agents with Puntland and Galmudug forces, but the distribution of personnel and command and control structure was unclear.
Abdirizak’s brother, a Galmudug politician named Mohamed Hussein Tahliil, and a Galmudug security official blamed Puntland and American forces for the arrest of Abdirizak, who they claimed was “innocent” and just a businessman, according to local reports.
The incident raises questions of whether the U.S. can continue to assist in operations in the area (which has a hotly contested border) without sparking tensions.
Last September, Galmudug alleged Puntland gave the U.S. intentionally inaccurate information that led to an airstrike that killed and injured several Galmudug militiamen.
Months later in November, the U.S. admitted its error, but it was only after retaliatory violence between Galmudug and Puntland killed at least 45 people and displaced more than 90,000 people.
In the time since the airstrike, central Somalia politicians like Mohamed Hussein are particularly sensitive to major operations in Galkayo. The international community recently began training a joint Galmudug-Puntland police force in the town, but there’s already distrust about the prospect of improved cooperation. Last week, Galmudug’s deputy police commander blamed Puntland for failing to arrest suspects who had allegedly committed crimes in Galmudug and fled across the border.
So, if Galmudug believes the U.S. seeks to aid Puntland more than Galmudug in regional operations, this would almost certainly continue undermine efforts to foster better collaboration between the two sides.
What Happens to Abdirizak Hussein Tahliil?
An interesting fact about this arrest is that Abdirizak was sentenced to death by a Puntland military court in 2013 for a possession of explosive material charge in Galkayo during the administration of Mohamed Abdirahman Farole.
However, after a regional election in January 2014, newly elected Puntland regional president Abdiweli Gaas released Abdirizak (after pressure from clan elders) in exchange for a group of Puntlanders who had been kidnapped by a Galmudug militia.
Now that Abdirizak is back in Somali custody, will he return to court on new charges?
On one hand, Gaas has been criticized in the past for a “catch and release” policy with certain al-Shabaab members. And, the Puntland parliament recently passed a no-confidence vote against Gaas’ cabinet in part because of its alleged poor performance in the security portfolio. So, Gaas may feel that he needs to show, like he has before, that he can be tough on al-Shabaab.
On the other hand, Tahliil’s supporters may see the arrest as a “violation” of the 2014 prisoner exchange, creating motivation either retaliation or decrease in security collaboration. But does the U.S. expect a particular outcome as a result of providing info that contributed to the arrest? If so, how will Somali stakeholders react if it counters their interests? These are the kinds of dynamics that the U.S. must consider when assessing if and how to provide support to Somali forces in a sensitive environment like Galkayo.