Dislcaimer :
The author of this article employed various primary and secondary data sources, as well as personal travels to substantiate their claims. The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of our institution.

Ethiopia’s conflict in the North proved an opportune moment for inauspicious groups existing in enmity to convene against the common goal of a weakened, if not decentralized, Ethiopia. The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA-Shene), an insurgent organization recognized by the Ethiopian government as a terrorist group, brokered the alliance between Tigray People’s Liberation Force (TPLF) and Al-Shabab. This collaboration gives Al- Shabab an entryway to Ethiopian domestic affairs while facilitating TPLF’s agenda of destruction. This article attempts to contextualize the conflict in Ethiopia’s Northern Region, details the parties, as well as elucidates their relationship vis-a-vis each other. It expands on and details the expansion of OLA-Shene and Al-Shabab’s bilateral arrangement to include TPLF, introducing a dangerous security risk across the Horn Region.

Before the launch of an offensive attack on Ethiopia’s Northern military command, the TPLF leadership made extensive preparations for the establishment of an autonomous government of Tigray intending to form a breakaway state. The TPLF, which had previously formed a secret alliance with the OLA-Shene terrorist group, fostered a triple alliance with the Al-Shabab terrorist group under the auspices of the OLA-Shene group and continued its activities to destabilize Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.

Origin of the conflict

The popular protests, along with other push factors, brought a doomsday to the TPLF-led EPRDF government which was forced to reform itself and facilitate the premiership of Abiy Ahmed. Following the sweeping national reforms in a move to liberalize the nation’s institutions, the political and military leaderships of the TPLF chose to take a systemic retreat to Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region.

The former-acting president of the Tigray region, Dr. Debresion G/Michael, requested ethnic-Tigray parliament members to declare the independent government of Tigray. To control and mitigate the Coronavirus pandemic, the federal government opted to postpone the nation’s upcoming elections. In defiance of this decision, the TPLF leadership held an unconstitutional regional election on September 9, 2020.

Moreover, the post-reform TPL preoccupied with training its regional Special Forces and paramilitary; to regain its past political and economic hegemony, as well as reclaim the disproportionate federal influence it long held. Then, when TPLF was sure that its war preparation was done, it launched an unwary offensive attack in the late hours of November 3rd, 2020, and massacred hundreds of military commanders and members of the army; as well as took thousands of military personnel into custody and as hostages. This incident sparked the worst security crisis in the nation’s recent history. In an interview with the rebel group’s TV channel DW (Dimtse Woyane), Sekuture Getachew, a member of the TPLF central command described their offensive as a preemptive “lightning strike” move. According to his analysis, “TPLF has victoriously completed,” the first phase of a defense that resulted in the death of countless servicemen.

The federal government succumbed to pressure from the international community to provide access and facilitate humanitarian assistance. At the requests of the interim government of Tigray, the federal government declares a unilateral ceasefire; withdrawing all troops from the Tigray region by June 24th, 2021. TPLF, however, took advantage of retreating federal forces in its widespread looting and killing rampage throughout Amhara region, and later, Afar region. Subsequent Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reports have since published the details and extent of TPLF’s destructions in the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions. TPLF has committed widespread human rights and international humanitarian law violations in these two regions.

The reports show that starting from July 2020, Tigray Special Forces and its allied militias have committed unlawful arrests, torture and extra-judicial killing of civilians, rape of women and young girls, as well as intentional damage to public infrastructure. The report also revealed that TPLF fighters also fired artillery into urban areas, dug fortifications, and fired heavy weapons from civilian homes. TPLF also used places of worship as weapons depots and camps. Additionally, on August 5th, 2021, TPLF fighters committed an attack, killing hundreds of internally displaced persons, including a large number of children who took shelter in health facilities and schools in Afar region, Gulina woreda, Galikoma kebele-4. TPLFs path of destruction is aided by sympathetic organizations, both at home and abroad. TPLF has formed a tactical alliance with armed groups at home such as OLA-Shene, Kimani rebel groups, Agaw, Gambella, and Afa rebel groups (surrogates/proxies). It has also established a tactical alliance with the internationally recognized terrorist group, Al-Shabab.

The Trilateral alliance of TPLF, OLA-Shane, and Al-Shabab

For decades, the relationship between TPLF, OLA-Shene, and Al-Shabab, has largely been hostile and antagonistic vis-à-vis one another. Though their history, particularly during the TPLF’s tenure at the head of government, was characterized by enmity these three entities have now forged a seemingly temporary tactical alliance against a common adversary, the federal government of Ethiopia. The pre-established bilateral alliance between OLA-Shene and Al-Shabab has now expanded into a trilateral alliance, with OLA-Shene brokering between TPLF and Al-Shabab. For these groups, the federal government, as well as a strong central government in Ethiopia, is an undesirable outcome. To this end, their collective aim is to synergistically work to undermine the national cohesion and territorial integrity of the Ethiopian state.

A Tactical Alliance: OLA-Shane and TPLF

These designated terrorist groups have established a tactical alliance following the sweeping political reforms in the country intending to forcibly overthrow the government.

Though TPLF continued to dispute the government’s accusation that they are working in collaboration to wreak havoc in all corners of the country, Kumsa Diriba (commander of OLA-Shene) announced in an interview with Associated Press, that the two groups have reached an agreement, as proposed by TPLF. The government of Ethiopia has indicated that the declaration of the alliance between these two terrorist groups was neither new nor surprising.

In line with their mission, these terrorist groups began to carry out coordinated attacks in various parts of the country.

Adhering to the strategy of TPLF’s Commander-in-Chief, General Tadese Worede, OLA-Shene combatants were seen fighting alongside TPLF during the TPLF’s incursion into other regions, particularly in and around Bati and Kemise towns. Their alliance, as it stands, is not only to topple down the federal government but is also seen by the TPLF as a promising avenue for its eventual return to power.

According to TPLF’s calculations, an OLA-Shene coalition at the head of government will pave the way for the eventual succession and subsequent recognition of an independent Tigray. To bring this project to fruition, TPLF gathered seven accompanying agents to sign a superficial agreement in Washington DC. During the ceremony, live broadcasted by Reuters, the handpicked agents vowed to fight alongside TPLF to forcibly topple down the Ethiopian government by any possible means including military warfare.

A Tactical Alliance: OLA-Shane and Al-Shabab

Since 2017, Al-Shabab has been working to establish a viable, strong, and clandestine network aiming to exploit the chaotic political transition and discontents within the Oromo youth in parts of the Oromia region. Meanwhile, OLA-Shene’s operational capability has attracted senior members of Al-Shabab and Ex-Al-itihad members of ethnic Oromo descent to carry out mass recruitment throughout the region. This has led to further technical meetings on the enhancement of common operational understandings between both sides.

In Aug 2021 Al-Shabab’s head of external operation Sheikh Yousuf Aliugas, Ahmed Immam, Shiekh Abdurrahman Ma’alin Sonfur, and Shiekh Ado Dahir commenced a meeting with their OLA-Shene counterparts, namely Liban Jaldessa, Gurracha Jarso, Robba Guyo, Dalecha Yatani, Abdikarim Oumer, Issaqo Halkano as well as Abduba Wario, and discussed the repeated failure of collaboration on recruitment, training and operational alliance besides the mutually planned operation to disrupt the last national election of Ethiopia. Intelligence sources have revealed that since the war broke out in Ethiopia, the relationship between Al-Shabab and OLA-Shene has grown steadily: particularly with Al-Shabab’s arms support for its OLA-Shene counterpart. Intelligence reports have also confirmed that newly recruited OLA-Shene members are taking explosives, weaponry, and intelligence training in Al-Shabab’s facilities in central Somalia.

Additionally, Al-Shabab has facilitated OLA-Shene militants’ exit passage via Northern Kenya, Moyale. Since the 30th of August 2021, about 60 Al-Shabab fighters were deployed around Ethiopian border areas where OLA-Shene militias use as bases. Al-Shabab has left 20 of the 100 OLA-Shene trainees it had been training since the 23rd of August 2021 and 80 of them have been trying to enter Kenya since the 17th of October 2021 via El-Wak to join the group in Marsabit county. These OLA Shene fighters entered Kenya on late night of 19th October 2021, under the leadership of Wariyo Boru12 and Keche Hola Boru13, and by mid-level Al Shabab leaders, including Beshir Mohammed14 and Sheikh Usman Bilow.

This indicates that OLA-Shene is an Al-Shabab affiliate terrorist group whose members have acquired direct support and training from higher Al-Shabab leaders. To reciprocate for the technical and financial often acquired from AL-Shabab, OLA-Shene members advocate for the inculcation of the ideologies of Al-Shabab via social media and other available means. OLA-Shene also gives a cover and facilitates Al-Shabab cells operating in different parts of Oromia, including West Hararge Hirna; East Harge Chelenko; Bale Zone: Ginir, Goba, Malayu, Dolomana, Haro, Dumal, Dolo and Baradimtu; Jima Zone: Shabe Woreda; Borena Zone Moyale; Guji Zone Negelle Borena; West Arsi Zone Shashamane. This is an indication that Al-Shabab is trying to replicate its Muslim-extremism project in Ethiopia and the greater Horn region using OLA-Shene as its Trojan Horse.

The Tactical Alliance between TPLF and Al-Shabab

There is a clear and mutual interest between TPLF and Al-Shabab particularly in experience sharing. Al-Shabab had the interest to gain insurgency experience from TPLF; conversely, TPLF sought knowledge in launching terrorist attacks and other insurgency tactics from Al-Shabab. OLA-Shene has played a paramount role in middling and brokering the two groups. Having fled the central government and retreated to Tigray, TPLF operatives in Sudan initiated contact with Abdullahi Nadir (Clan-Dir) in early October 2020 in Sudan, soon after the group was pushed deeper into central Tigray.

Nadir was a close associate and aide of the former notorious Al-Shabab Amir Ahmed Godene. Abdulahi Nadir later facilitated a meeting between TPLF’s operatives and Al-Shabab members who were in South Sudan under a business pretext. Nadir also managed to contact mid-level Al-Shabab operatives in Kenya to convene a meeting on how to defeat a common enemy. In early August 2021, a meeting commenced in Nairobi (East Leigh area) between three TPLF operatives as well as Al-Shabab mid-level leaders, namely Shiekh Abdi salam Kabaja’el15 and Salad Dere16. According to our primary sources, both parties have agreed to collaborate on technical matters such as sharing guerilla skills, weapons, and facilitation of one another’s operation (if deemed possible) rather than establishing a strategic partnership. Since the two parties adhere to diverging ideological backing. After the Nairobi meeting, consecutive contacts were made between the two sides in Puntland where TPLF elements proposed to provide 15 mortar weapons to target Ethiopian Units of AMISOM troops stationed around Hudur, Baidoa, and Qansahdere areas of South West State. Intelligence sources proved that Al-Shabab has used those 60 mm and 82 mm mortar shells on ENDF units in Somalia.

Part two of the this article will be published in a subsequent edition.