The fight against Somalia's al-Qaida-linked insurgency may be moving north to an area previously considered safer than the war-ravaged south, analysts and officials told The Associated Press on Monday.
The move could mean that the al-Shabab militia is seeking to regroup in the semiautonomous region of Puntland, where international companies are exploring for oil, after coming under heavy pressure from three foreign armies in southern Somalia.
Last week, a Puntland militia led by former soldier Mohamed Said _ nicknamed "Atom" for his bomb-making abilities _ announced a merger with al-Shabab. An al-Shabab spokesman then used Twitter to warn international oil companies operating in Puntland to cease operations, saying "Somali oil carries death."
The same week, al-Shabab leaders held a secret meeting to discuss tactics in the Somali town of El Bur, a Nairobi-based analyst said Monday, citing information from Somali sources.
Al-Shabab decided to use part of its militia to infiltrate and carry out attacks in the capital of Mogadishu, currently under the control of African Union and Somali government troops. It also sent other fighters north to Puntland and sent some of its foreign volunteers to Yemen, the analyst said. Al-Shabab has recently lost several high-profile foreign fighters in attacks by U.S. drones, including Lebanese citizen Bilal al-Berjawi, a confidant of al-Qaida's top leader in East Africa.
The analyst asked not to be identified to protect the identity of his sources.
Puntland authorities have long blamed Atom's group and al-Shabab for carrying out bombings and assassinations in their region, but outright assaults on government positions have been rarer. Yet on Saturday, al-Shabab allied fighters launched a pre-dawn attack on Puntland security forces at a checkpoint, killing at least six, according to a Puntland security official. He asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
An al-Shabab spokesman said that the fighters killed at least 32 Puntland soldiers, and described the operation in a Twitter post as "a renewed offensive in the North." Al-Shabab routinely exaggerates death tolls.
"Since pledging allegiance to (al-Shabab), the Mujahideen in the Golis Mountain Range vowed to increase their operations against the Puntland forces," another post read.
Puntland soldiers pursuing the militia after the attack killed seven insurgents, said Ahmed Omar Hersi, a spokesman for the Puntland government.
Atom has already been fighting the Puntland government from his bases in the mountains for several years. A 2010 report by the U.N. accused Atom of importing arms from Yemen and receiving consignments from Eritrea, including mortars, for delivery to al-Shabab forces in southern Somalia. His supporters say he is fighting for more equitable distribution of revenues from oil exploration deals with foreign companies.
Africa Oil began drilling its first well in Puntland earlier this year.
Analysts were divided on what may have caused al-Shabab to focus more strongly on Puntland and what the implications might be.
Al-Shabab has been weakened by famine in its strongholds, pressure from foreign armies and internal divisions, and is looking for other ways to threaten the weak U.N.-backed Somali government because it cannot carry out a full military assault, said Abdullahi Halakhe, a Horn of Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Kenyan and Ethiopian troops are fighting al-Shabab in the north and heavily armed African Union troops backing government soldiers have wrested back control of the capital. If al-Shabab turned to Puntland, he said, it was probably as a result of pressure in the south. But it could also derail the international community's new strategy of engaging with local pro-government administrations.
"If Puntland is destabilized, it could affect plans to set up all these other little statelets," he said.
The merger between al-Shabab and Atom's militia could also be because al-Shabab wants to open a second front in the same way that its enemies have, said Mustafa Abdishakur, a political analyst in Mogadishu.
"Clearly (al-Shabab) want to use the other (Puntland) group as a second military front to increase pressure in northern Somalia," he said.
Somalia hasn't had a fully functioning government since 1991.
Associated Press writer Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.