Inside the Newest Conflict in Somalia’s Long Civil War

In Las Anod, a pivotal conflict goes to the heart of the country’s long turmoil

Inside the Newest Conflict in Somalia’s Long Civil War
SSC fighters walk past a damaged house in Las Anod, the epicenter of a conflict in northern Somalia. (James Barnett)

The roads on the eastern side of Las Anod are littered with so many torched cars that you begin to wonder whether arson isn’t a deliberate tactic in this war. Next to the carcass of one Honda sedan lies an empty jerrycan that is caked in dried mud and a stain of what might have been blood. It almost looks as if someone had emptied the can of fuel, tossed aside the can and set the car ablaze, a riotous act by a defiant individual undeterred by the escalating artillery battle around them. But the car was probably just blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade, like the house next to it.

One of the soldiers makes an angry remark in Somali as we walk past.

“They killed his dog, man,” Hussein explains, his soft Midwestern twang and slow cadence somewhat incongruous with our surroundings here in the sparse mountains of northern Somalia. The soldier grunts and gestures at the caved-in roof of another house across the street, mumbling bitterly. “The Somalilanders killed his dog. He’s calling them motherfuckers.”

Hussein, a Somali American who was living in Ohio six months ago, dresses like an officer, a pistol holstered by his hip and a beige beret cocked to one side of his head. But he has no military experience, and the cause for which he is fighting, the SSC-Khatumo, does not have an army. It has heavy artillery and scores of technicals — Toyota pickups mounted with Russian machine guns, an economical synthesis of Japanese capitalism and aging East Bloc arsenals ubiquitous across the Horn of Africa. And it has mobilized thousands of young men willing to die for its cause: the creation of an autonomous state within Somalia for the Dhulbahante clan. But if the fearlessness of the SSC’s fighters is the movement’s great strength, as activists like Hussein say, this fearlessness borders on a recklessness that calls into question what it will take for this collection of pseudo-insurgents to succeed in their goal of breaking away from the state that broke away from Somalia.

“See this blood? This is the blood of a Somali person,” Hussein dramatically proclaims a few minutes later as we approach the edge of this ghost town. He is standing over a puddle of dried blood that marks the spot where an SSC fighter was killed by a sniper from the adjacent hilltop the day before. It does not seem to occur to Hussein that he is in the precise line of sight where his comrade met his demise, when just two yards away he could join me in cowering behind the large concrete barrier that was once the wall of someone’s home. Or maybe he doesn’t care.

Hussein is an accidental general and the battlefield is a modest city that has become the center of the newest conflict in Somalia’s generation-long civil war. What began as a popular uprising in Las Anod against the administration of Somaliland, the rising star of the Horn of Africa that was praised until recently for its stability and nascent democracy, has transformed into a bloody stalemate among some 20,000 heavily armed soldiers drawn largely from opposing clans. Given the volatility of the region, where Sudan collapses into crisis just as Ethiopia crawls out of one and jihadists are always scheming new ways to pull off the next Taliban-style coup, this war in the northern desert of Somalia can be easily overlooked. Lying in a disputed region claimed by both the de facto but unrecognized state of Somaliland and Puntland, an autonomous region within Somalia, the political status of Las Anod was not an issue that animated even most Somalis outside of the immediate area before the beginning of the year.

This changed on Feb. 6, when the first shots were fired in what is evolving into a drawn-out war with regional repercussions. The war has captivated and polarized Somalis of all stripes less because of the clans involved than because of the fundamental questions it raises about state-building in the Horn of Africa. For Somaliland, the war is a test of whether this aspiring U.N. member can forge a democratic ethos that will set it apart from the rest of the region or if it will instead become another brittle African state defined by haphazardly drawn colonial borders that it cannot truly govern. For Somalia, the war underscores the challenges of rebuilding a semblance of a state when the nation’s fundamental sociopolitical unit, the clan, constitutes such a volatile, multilayered identity with constantly shifting alliances.

To some extent, the war also represents a clash of two political approaches: Somaliland’s government in Hargeisa speaks of sovereignty and emphasizes that Somaliland is a modern nation-state with a presidential executive who is commander in chief of a national army; the SSC speaks of self-determination and tradition, embracing a consultative leadership structure composed of clan elders.

“They have government; they act like government,” one of the SSC leaders says of the Somalilanders. “We are acting still like traditional command. But this fighting, we think we will win it, because it is our land.”

But the question that has been on my mind since I visited Las Anod in June and met dozens of those who are risking their lives to realize the SSC’s political vision — a vision many of them will concede contains significant contradictions and shortcomings — has less to do with Somaliland’s quest for recognition or the future of Somalia’s chaotic federal system. Walking past rows of wrecked houses that afternoon with Hussein, I witness the aimlessness of SSC fighters in the face of the Somaliland lines and wonder what it takes to build a new society when the task rests on the shoulders of a generation so desensitized to war.

An SSC fighter’s improvised uniform. (James Barnett)

The Somali civil war began in the late 1980s. It quickly produced complete state collapse in 1991, prompting a brief U.S.-led intervention not long after (tragically ending in the “Black Hawk Down” incident of 1993) and then transforming Somalia into a theater of the “Global War on Terror” late in the first decade of the new century, when jihadists linked to al Qaeda overran much of the country. These days, foreign analysts generally focus on the jihadists, known as al-Shabaab, or speak broadly about the issues of “stabilization” and state-building in Somalia, which beats around the bush: Somalia’s civil war never ended. It periodically assumes different forms, of which the war in Las Anod is the latest.

Like the broader civil war, the battle lines in Las Anod are largely drawn in terms of clans, ethnolinguistically homogeneous social units that differentiate themselves based on patrilineal descent. Scholars and ordinary Somalis alike disagree as to how clan identity attained its political salience — whether the civil war was more of a cause or consequence of Somalia’s clan divisions. Suffice it to say, clan divisions are neither primordial nor unchanging, but their social and political significance should also not be underestimated. The clan is the principal political identity in Somalia today, one that Somalis regularly fight and die over, even as the war in Las Anod has attained a symbolic significance greater than Somalia’s myriad other clan conflicts.

The population of Las Anod primarily hails from the Dhulbahante clan, while the Somaliland administration is largely led by members of the Isaaq clan family. The two communities, Dhulbahante and Isaaq, have been in intermittent conflict since the 19th century. Today’s SSC makes much of the fact that the Isaaq were generally more tolerant of British colonial rule and became the most successful clan in the British Protectorate of Somaliland. By contrast, the Dhulbahante, led by the charismatic poet-warrior Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, fought against the British for 20 years in a rebellion known as the “Darwish” movement (or Dervish in English), the name the SSC uses for its own forces today.

Somaliland gained independence from Britain in 1960, but its Isaaq leaders entered into a union with the recently independent Italian colony in the south after five days, forming the present-day state of Somalia. Relations between the formerly British-ruled north and southern Somalia were fraught. In the 1980s, Somalia’s dictator waged a brutal scorched-earth campaign against the Isaaq that many argue constituted genocide. With no love lost for the southern clans, Isaaq rebels redeclared independence from Somalia in 1991 upon the final collapse of the ancien regime in Mogadishu. No country has recognized Somaliland since 1991, despite Hargeisa’s intense lobbying. Nonetheless, even without the benefit of a seat at the U.N. or access to World Bank and IMF funds, over the past three decades Somaliland has become a relatively stable state along the Gulf of Aden while the rest of Somalia has remained mired in conflict.

The Dhulbahante have been stuck in the middle, residing on lands claimed by both Somaliland, based on the colonial protectorate borders, and Somalia, based on Mogadishu’s rejection of Somaliland’s claim to independence. Throughout the tumultuous 1990s, some Dhulbahante tried but failed to form their own state in the territories of Sool, Sanag and Cayn, hence the acronym of the present movement, SSC (the “c” in Somali is silent, denoting the Arabic letter “‘ayn”). Unwilling to join the secessionist and Isaaq-dominated Somaliland to their west, they eventually agreed in 1998 to join the emergent state of Puntland to their east, which is highly autonomous but has never claimed independence from Somalia.

Las Anod existed as part of Puntland until 2007, when Somaliland occupied the city after Puntland-aligned forces withdrew amid their own political infighting. Supporters of today’s SSC movement, formally called SSC-Khatumo, refer to the subsequent 15 years as an oppressive occupation. While some Dhulbahante built successful careers in Somaliland politics, many ordinary Dhulbahante felt marginalized at the hands of Somaliland’s Isaaq-dominated government. Notably, political figures in Las Anod affiliated with either Dhulbahante nationalism or Somaliland’s opposition parties were routinely assassinated — there were over 120 such cases since 2007, one Dhulbahante elder tells me — which local residents attributed to Hargeisa’s desire to silence critics.

After one such killing in December 2022, protests erupted in Las Anod. The Somaliland authorities responded in a heavy-handed fashion, and the protests naturally grew. After a failed effort at mediation between Somaliland ministers and a collection of Dhulbahante clan elders known as “garads,” full-blown conflict erupted on February 6. The garads issued a declaration outlining their complete break with Somaliland and their intention to become their own autonomous state within Somalia — not, crucially, to rejoin Puntland. Seceding from the secessionists, a collection of Dhulbahante militias flying the SSC banner held their own amid fierce fighting in Las Anod for several weeks until early March, when Somaliland forces withdrew from the city into the surrounding mountains.

The Somalilanders have been there ever since, exchanging daily fire with the SSC forces that have grown to include over 10,000 well-armed if loosely organized fighters. As of this writing, each side seems to be waiting for the other to budge first.

Once boasting a population of nearly 300,000, Las Anod has been transformed and effectively bisected by the present conflict. The eastern portion of the city is deserted after the devastation it witnessed in the first weeks of the war. The western half has experienced lighter but still regular shelling and functions with some semblance of its former self, even as it has simultaneously been repurposed into a bustling military base. One hotel and several restaurants are open, powered for a few hours a day by generators, and women sell tea on a few street corners. But the majority of those remaining in town are men who have taken up arms. It seems nearly everyone has an AK-47: the hotel receptionist, the gas station attendant, the rickshaw driver. Car repair shops are now used for maintaining artillery pieces, and technicals zip up and down the roads.

Beyond the risks inherent to any war zone, Las Anod is not easily accessible to civilians owing to its encirclement on three sides. Somaliland forces have blocked the highway that connects to the Puntland state capital of Garowe, previously just an hour’s drive away. This forces travelers to take a lengthy off-road detour across the surrounding desert to enter Las Anod through the SSC-controlled lines in the south. But most civilians fled the city when clashes erupted in February in any case. The displaced have settled in neighboring towns or crossed into Ethiopia.

One such town, Kalabaydh, hosts several impromptu camps for internally displaced persons. Located a 30-minute drive south of Las Anod on a desert plain between some mountains, this is “the Dhulbahante hinterland,” according to Abdi, a bookish SSC activist. “Isaaq cannot risk to come here,” he says as our pickup drives down a rough mountain pass on the approach to town one morning.

Kalabaydh’s pre-war population of 60,000 has grown by nearly 25% due to an influx of IDPs, according to Abdigadar Jama Farah, who helps administer the makeshift IDP camps outside town. We meet Abdigadar at one of the camps, a sea of multicolored tarps strewn over stick huts. Abdigadar complains about the lack of relief from the international nongovernmental organizations that operate in Somalia. “The people have only the generosity of the host community,” he says.

Somalia is one of the most difficult countries in the world for humanitarian agencies to work in owing to the insecurity, and Las Anod is certainly no different in that regard. “No one has been to Las Anod. It’s basically blocked,” one contact in Nairobi says of U.N. efforts in the region. But the lack of humanitarian assistance also appears to be a result of so-called donor fatigue, with the U.N. refugee agency receiving only a tiny fraction of the funds it requested for its relief effort, as The New Humanitarian reported in June. Aid agencies are stretched thin responding to conflicts in virtually every district of Somalia. In the IDP camps, the frustration with the global unresponsiveness is palpable.

“The NGOs will come with security guards to do assessments, but they never stay,” says Naja, who fled to Kalabaydh from Las Anod in February with her sick mother and eight children. “Some days we eat; some days we don’t.” Like other women in the camp, Naja is wearing a beaded bracelet bearing the SSC emblem.

The humanitarian crisis has hurt Somaliland’s international standing at a time when it is desperate to be seen as a viable democratic state in the Horn of Africa. Unsurprisingly, Hargeisa has publicly acknowledged neither the popular grievances that drove the uprising in Las Anod nor the resentment that many ordinary Dhulbahante harbor for being displaced by shelling. Instead, Hargeisa has tarred the SSC as an ill-disciplined and illegitimate rabble of terrorists conspiring with al-Shabaab. If Las Anod is indeed overrun by closet jihadists, then they are, on the contrary, extraordinarily disciplined, seeing as none of the scores of heavily armed men I meet in my travels take the opportunity to shoot this defenseless American in the head. That said, there is not a conflict in Somalia that al-Shabaab will not attempt to exploit, and there is no reason to think Las Anod will be any different.

As Abdi and I drive back from Kalabaydh to Las Anod, I try to discuss how al-Shabaab might approach this conflict. I mention detailed intelligence reports I received from sources in Mogadishu regarding al-Shabaab’s efforts at the start of the conflict to establish their own bridgehead into Somaliland through Las Anod (according to these sources, al-Shabaab did not cooperate with the SSC in this effort, which failed). For many analysts, I tell Abdi, the concern is not that the SSC leaders are themselves jihadists like Hargeisa claims, but rather that al-Shabaab will have opportunities to establish a presence in the region if the conflict drags on and leaves a vacuum. The later into the night the party goes, the weirder the guests who start to show up, I note, paraphrasing an important lesson of my college education.

Like other SSC activists, Abdi dismisses any concerns about al-Shabaab as Somaliland propaganda. Even if al-Shabaab were to try to come to Las Anod and pick sides in the conflict, he says, they will not find support from his side.

“Young Somalis are becoming more secular like you Americans,” he says. He is not necessarily wrong, but al-Shabaab does not appeal only to the religious; it also exploits the grievances of clans like the Dhulbahante, who feel abandoned or neglected by the government. Abdi then rattles off the names of prominent Dhulbahante killed by al-Shabaab over the years.

“After we have our freedom from Somaliland, I will like to become the head of SSC intelligence services,” he says. “I will like to kill many al-Shabaab as revenge for all the Dhulbahante they have killed.”

This is a bit more convincing. Each day I spend with him, I better appreciate Abdi’s sincerity when it comes to correcting historical wrongs.

After returning from Kalabaydh to Las Anod, Abdi takes me to meet several of the garads, the Dhulbahante elders who constitute the SSC’s de facto leadership. I had met several of the garads earlier in Mogadishu, but this afternoon, two of them, Suldan Saciid Osman Cali and Garad Suleiman Buraale Aw-Aden, take time to dive deeper into detail regarding the SSC’s political structure and vision. They explain that the 14 garads form a supreme council that oversees both civil and military matters in SSC-held territory, beneath which operate a consultative body and a small municipal administration. The garads have plans to soon divest themselves of their authority through the formation of a 45-man council (and yes, they are all men) that will assume leadership of the SSC for a two-year transition period (this council was eventually sworn in at the end of July). After this transition period, the garads say the SSC will become an autonomous state known as a federal member state, of which there are at present five in Somalia (excluding Somaliland).

The transition plan that the garads lay out is thin on some critical details, but various appendages of this SSC proto-state nonetheless take shape each day. Soldiers from both the Somali National Army and Puntland state security forces are defecting along clan lines to join SSC fighters in the trenches. And Dhulbahante elites are making the trip from all sides — from Garowe, Hargeisa, Mogadishu and across the diaspora — to take up roles in the nascent administration in Las Anod. Many of them have not set foot in the city for years given their hardline anti-Somaliland activism. For some, like Abdi, this conflict is the first time they have spent significant time in their ancestral lands. Abdi grew up in a refugee camp and subsequently worked as a civil servant in Mogadishu. He volunteered for the SSC when the protests started and has nearly gone bankrupt in the months since, as he no longer receives any salary.

Somalilanders see the number of people like Abdi flocking from across Somalia to join the SSC and suspect a deliberate policy from the governments of Somalia and Puntland, respectively, to use the Dhulbahante rebel movement as a proxy to destabilize Somaliland. The garads are quick to deny these accusations and stress that they do not receive anything beyond “moral support” from either Puntland or Mogadishu. The numerous soldiers who have come to Las Anod have supposedly come “as individuals” and their presence does not imply any form of official military support.

It can be difficult to gauge what constitutes official government policy in Somalia, where the clans are more influential than the titular authorities in most regards. From what I have seen, it seems unlikely that the federal government is meaningfully supporting the SSC. Among other considerations, the new Somali government of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has signaled interest in shifting to a less confrontational stance toward Hargeisa. That soldiers from the Somali National Army show up in Las Anod is hardly a smoking gun since few soldiers in that army have ever hesitated to go AWOL when their relatives have called on them to fight in a clan conflict.

Puntland, on the other hand, has become Las Anod’s lifeline. Weapons and supplies all reach Las Anod through Puntland’s highways, soldiers from the Puntland security forces have joined the SSC in significant numbers, and Puntland’s state capital, Garowe, serves as a convening point for SSC leaders. Activists in Las Anod say that after the Dhulbahante themselves, their closest ally is the Majerteen clan, who are related to the Dhulbahante and who dominate Puntland’s politics and control the region’s lucrative ports, providing crucial funds for the SSC. The lines between Puntland and the SSC are therefore blurred — quite literally, as becomes clear when driving from Garowe to Las Anod. At the midpoint of that highway connecting the two cities lies the small town of Tukaraq. Three flags fly side by side in the center of town — those of Somalia, Puntland and the yet-unformed SSC — and checkpoints manned by the official Puntland security forces gradually meld into checkpoints manned by front-line SSC units. But if Puntland is the SSC’s greatest resource at the moment, perhaps more by circumstance than design, it may also pose the greatest hurdle to the movement’s ultimate ambitions.

Garowe, the capital of Puntland, is the starting point of my journey into Las Anod. I spend the night there before I am set to travel by road to SSC territory, and I happen to meet one of the movement’s best-known advocates, Adam Matan, at my hotel. Together with Abdi, we stay up late into the evening drinking coffee in the lobby as Matan briefs me on the SSC’s political project in advance of my intended departure in the morning.

“Puntland is a great state. It’s very stable, very developed,” he says. “You saw the roads on your way from the airport. Can other Somali cities show anything like that?”

Prior to this war, Matan had been a poster child of the Somali diaspora in his adopted home of England, where he received an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II for founding an NGO dedicated to ending tribalism and clan discrimination among Somali immigrants. Now, he is helping organize what is, by his own admission, something of an ethnonationalist insurgency, a contradiction that does not seem to bother him.

“But we Dhulbahante cannot be with Puntland,” Matan continues, speaking carefully in a soft British accent. “The only way the Dhulbahante can survive is to get together and make their own state,” Abdi adds in agreement.

Las Anod is located between two regions that are relatively tranquil by the standards of Somalia. Somaliland is typically more stable than Somalia, and within the latter, Puntland is generally seen as the most peaceful and developed federal member state. But the SSC does not want to be part of either. Its grievances against Somaliland are well documented, but SSC officials also look back at the 1998-2007 Dhulbahante union with Puntland as, in the words of one garad, “a failed marriage.” SSC figures insist that the Dhulbahante cannot simply rejoin Puntland after gaining their freedom from Somaliland because the Dhulbahante will never thrive in Puntland so long as the Majerteen clan dominate that state.

“It would be like having two aggressive male camels in a herd,” Matan chuckles, raising a cappuccino to his lips. “You can’t have two dominant, uncompromising clan groups in the same state.”

The Majerteen are supporting their distant Dhulbahante relations in Las Anod for a mixture of idealistic and pragmatic reasons. But the Majerteen and Dhulbahante have their own fraught history of conflict seen as recently as last year. And no one, not the garads or any of the SSC activists I interview, can provide a clear answer as to what happens when Somaliland is defeated in Las Anod. Will Puntland really accept the SSC carving out a massive chunk of its territory to form a new state?

Matan recognizes these potential challenges but believes that the SSC’s success will lie in its internal cohesion: a state by the Dhulbahante, for the Dhulbahante, the culmination of their decadeslong struggle for autonomy. If the Dhulbahante have a home in the SSC and the Majerteen control Puntland, everyone will be happy.

Except just a few hours after Matan and I finish our conversation, Garowe erupts into a brief but bloody conflict — because the Majerteen cannot agree on who should control Puntland. There has been a dispute brewing for weeks over the Puntland president’s plans to extend his term in office, which would violate an informal power-sharing arrangement between several subclans of a subclan of the Majerteen. On the morning of June 20, government forces and opposition militias finally turn their guns on each other in Garowe, tearing up a chunk of the city in the process.

Although the SSC is not a party to this intra-Majerteen conflict in Garowe, the clashes, which delay my departure to Las Anod by a day, cast something of a shadow on the SSC’s political project: If Puntland, the oldest and ostensibly most secure state in Somalia, is not immune to fratricidal political conflict, where will the SSC get a blueprint for its own political stability?

Yet what is most striking about the violence in Garowe is not its symbolic significance but rather how easily it can all be tuned out. Throughout that day, pro-government forces fire into the city with technicals from a hilltop adjacent to my hotel, while the opposition militias train their fire at the presidential palace behind us. The hotel is a popular venue for government officials, more so on a day when their offices are being targeted by mortars. As the ground trembles from the explosions outside, sundry ministers gather in the lobby to gossip over tea. The kitchen staff prepare lunch and deliver room service, wisely avoiding the elevator given the intermittent power cuts. Apart from a few hours in the afternoon when the cell network shuts down, most people in the hotel get updates on the fighting from their phones. My colleague Abdi spends much of the morning seated precariously next to a trembling glass window. He lazily scrolls through TikTok, not particularly impressed by either the videos on his feed or the firefight outside.

This sang-froid is impressive, bordering on callous, and also contagious. That several dozen people are dying outside our hotel does not seem to dampen the mood among the guests. This makes me feel more at ease after I spend the first hour or so sheltering in my room with my body armor at hand. While venturing into the lobby for a coffee break, I strike up a conversation with a government minister who asks about my research. I mention that I am interested in Puntland’s political process, at which point a mortar from the opposition militias whizzes overhead and lands with a palpable thud some distance behind the hotel.

“Ahh, yes. As you can hear, it is a very Somali process!” We have a good laugh as the soldiers outside light up a heavy machine gun in response.

The clashes in Garowe end within 24 hours, after government forces push the opposition militias out of town and the clan elders announce a political dialogue. Many Puntlanders seem to have almost forgotten about the clashes by the next day, as if these hadn’t constituted a “real” conflict. Abdi had put it best: “They are not even fighting. They are joking!” he had said at one point amid a particularly intense exchange of machine gun fire outside the hotel. A real conflict is a battle over sovereignty or the very nature of the state, according to Abdi. A real conflict is drawn out and has regional consequences, like the war over Las Anod. A real conflict involves heavy artillery. This is just a squabble between a few politicians from the same clan, some dramatic flair before the inevitable negotiations in which the real decisions are made.

When I am standing in the wreckage of Hamdi Hotel in Las Anod a few days later, I wonder if the Somaliland officials who had been staying there in February had thought the same thing about the emerging crisis engulfing them or whether it had occurred to them that a longer and bloodier battle might be in the making.

In one of the guest rooms at Hamdi Hotel there is a pack of anti-malaria tablets and a doctor’s note strewn on the mattress underneath a pair of bullet holes in the plaster. The floor is littered with shattered glass and dirt from a crumbling ceiling. Everything is in disarray, except for a prayer rug that the guest managed to neatly fold before he fled for his life. Unlike the rug in the hall outside, there is no blood on this one.

“My friend was killed here on the first day of the war,” one of the SSC fighters explains as his boots crunch over broken glass in the hallway.

“We spent four days fighting around this hotel to retrieve his body. When we reached it, I grabbed his gun,” he says, shrugging one arm to indicate the AK-47 slung around his shoulder. “Now I use it against the enemy.”

Hamdi Hotel was the headquarters for the delegation sent from Hargeisa to mediate with the garads during the tense weeks in January when protests were kicking off in Las Anod. The first shot was reportedly fired in this hotel on Feb. 6 — the Somalilanders and SSC both accuse each other of pulling the trigger — and today it sits abandoned in the center of the “no-go zone” as if it were the source of the ripples of destruction that quickly engulfed the entire eastern half of Las Anod. All the buildings surrounding the hotel are pockmarked with bullet holes, and hardly a roof is left without damage from mortar fire. Less than a mile from the hotel is the front line, where the Somalilanders’ hilltop positions sit almost on top of the last SSC outpost.

Abdi and I have reached the abandoned hotel courtesy of Hussein, the Somali American from Ohio, who offered to take us to the front when we chanced upon him in town earlier in the day. We are in the company of the city’s deputy mayor and a gaggle of fighters in Hussein’s retinue who mirror Hussein’s recklessness on the front. They stroll directly down the center of the road as we walk the better part of the “no-go zone,” eschewing the high walls of the surrounding houses that I am clinging to. At several points I ask whether we should turn back, but they seem intent on walking to the penultimate row of houses before the end of the line. When they reach there, they mingle for a moment, softly kicking some bits of rubble before Hussein gives the signal that it’s time for us to turn around. They casually turn and begin the stroll back to our pickup trucks that we parked at the edge of the “no-go zone” less than a mile away.

“When you see bodies every day, it stops meaning anything,” Abdi later reflects on the apparent numbness of the soldiers. “If your friend gets shot, you will shoot back until you can recover his body. Then you go back to what you were doing.”

“Besides,” he adds on a more pragmatic note, “the snipers don’t usually waste bullets on ordinary soldiers. The deputy mayor was the one taking the risk, because he looks like a politician.” It’s funny to think that the fighters may have seen the civil servant and me as the escort rather than vice versa, but they know this war better than I.

That Hussein was able to help us access the front line in the first instance is owing to his rapport with the SSC unit posted there rather than any formal chain of command. Hussein denies even being a soldier, self-identifying as an activist from the diaspora who happened to be in Las Anod when the war started. The distinction between activism and combat is quite ambiguous in Las Anod, where one-time protesters have since become part-time soldiers. “We will pick up guns when needed,” says one self-described youth activist.

There is no formal training or swearing-in ceremony for SSC fighters. Instead, the clan structure of Somali society provides the glue for relatively cohesive tactical units. When the war started, various clan militias within the Dhulbahante, and later the broader Harti community (which includes the Dhulbahante and Majerteen), flocked to Las Anod. Soldiers from Puntland and southern Somalia went AWOL to link up with their clansmen and some Dhulbahante soldiers defected from the Somaliland army. These nominally SSC forces coalesced into various units along the lines of their respective subclans. Traveling past the front lines outside of town, my driver can identify which subclans the various encampments we pass belong to: this one Yahye (Dhulbahante), that one Isse Mohamud (Majerteen), the one in the distance a joint camp between Ugaadhyahan (Dhulbahante) and Osman Mohamud (Majerteen) and so on.

SSC activists estimate that they have assembled 12,000 fighters in this manner, as well as a hodgepodge of artillery and technicals, all in the span of a few months. The garads speak proudly of how they crowdsource for weapons from various clans across the country sympathetic to their cause. Some of these arsenals are quite impressive. Abdi’s own subclan came to Las Anod with 105-millimeter howitzers that they had inherited from the Cold War-era Somali army, which they now use to bombard Somaliland lines to the east of town. One subclan of the Majerteen brought a tank, although it broke down before it could be used. In addition to these clan arsenals, the garads mention using funds raised by wealthy Harti businessmen to purchase custom orders from arms dealers who operate in Yemen.

“Getting weapons in Somalia, it’s no problem,” one youth activist in Las Anod remarks. “Here, a 10-year-old, if he has money — no one will refuse to sell him gun.”

Placing the various militia armies under a single, unified command is no easy task — which is why it has not happened. SSC leaders acknowledge that the Somalilanders have a more professional military. As Garad Suleiman tells me, “We tried to form one general command for all the forces, but we don’t succeed.”

“But everybody is ready to fight separately,” he adds.

This patchwork mobilization has served the SSC well so far. The garads say their fighters are motivated by patriotism — grievance and anger might be more accurate, but these fighters seem relatively motivated nonetheless and are genuine volunteers receiving neither salaries nor any basic amenities. That they have stuck out the fight for this long is a testament to their grit. But it also raises questions about the sustainability of the SSC’s battlefield effort. The lack of salaries will quickly become a problem for the SSC unless it can cobble together a payment system and provide more consistent provisions. Already, SSC forces are in the habit of asking every noncombatant they encounter for money. Sometimes handing them a cigarette will suffice; in other instances they plead for more. If more civilians remained in Las Anod, this begging could quickly evolve into aggressive extortion that would risk sapping the SSC of its popular support.

Combat can create friction within even the most cohesive armies, and the SSC forces are less of an army than a coalition of militias sharing a common enemy. One afternoon, Abdi takes me to a popular tea shop in the center of town where fighters go to decompress between shifts on the front. All of the rifle-toting, tea-sipping fighters with whom I speak — admittedly a little fewer than half of those at the shop — are sitting with soldiers from their respective camps, and thus with their subclan, rather than mingling with the others. Several of the men look exhausted or shell-shocked.

Considering the sheer number of firearms in the city, the population of Las Anod seems to have remarkable trigger discipline. But the abundance of qat leaves (a popular stimulant in Somalia) and a growing circulation of bootleg alcohol make for a potentially combustible combination. I hear several reports during my trip of petty arguments that turned into fatal shootings between soldiers, either in the city or on the surrounding front lines. None of those incidents devolved into conflicts along subclan lines, but the garads and municipal officials make clear in our interviews that they are aware of this risk.

“Honestly, I fear Dhulbahante bullets more than Isaaq shelling, especially at night,” one young man in Las Anod remarks. He explains that the SSC fighters have a proclivity for poorly aimed celebratory gunfire, whether they are marking a battlefield success, celebrating a wedding or simply have survived the day long enough to make it back to town to get drunk.

The principal source of daily stress for SSC fighters and those few civilians remaining in Las Anod is the artillery fire, according to Taysir, one of the administrators of the city’s general hospital. The hospital was itself shelled on several occasions, including a mortar strike that destroyed the blood bank. The artillery fire is not always accurate, but it is frequent — once or twice a day and “more when they’re angry,” Taysir says. I ask him to elaborate.

“If our sniper hit their convoy, they are angry. We hear it.”

Taysir and I finish our interview shortly before dusk, when the Somalilanders usually lob a shell or two at town. As he walks me out of his office through the hospital courtyard, I hear a humming that seems to be increasing in pitch as if coming closer. I stand up a bit straighter.

“It’s one of the soldiers,” Taysir says. “Just whistling.”

Sure enough, the sound is coming from a man in a worn-out T-shirt seated in a plastic chair near the hospital gate, an AK-47 lying across his lap and an empty cup recently filled with sugary tea sitting by his side attracting flies. He is perfectly mimicking the sounds of incoming mortar fire, staring into space with a blank expression as if his whistling were a subconscious tic, as unremarkable as someone cracking their knuckles.

When he looks over and sees that I am staring at him, he laughs.

Las Anod is a city in the midst of daily conflict and its current occupants have not bothered to build anything of nonmilitary value in the past six months, with one exception: a small monument standing in a traffic circle on the main road to commemorate two youths who were killed during the protests at the start of the year.

As we drive into town at the start of our trip, Abdi asks the driver to slow down so he can show me the monument.

“During the protests in January, those two waved a Somali flag,” Abdi says with eminent pride in his voice. “Somaliland soldiers shot them.”

The SSC portrays its struggle as one for the unity of Somalia, which is true insofar as the SSC is fighting to remain within Somalia. But the SSC is only “rejecting separatist ideology,” as the garads say, to the extent that it would allow Mogadishu to have some nominal influence over its affairs, similar to Puntland’s arrangement with the federal government.

More to the point, SSC leaders do not make any secret of their priorities when it comes to their two stated goals: achieving Dhulbahante freedom from the Isaaq and preserving the unity of Somalia. I ask two of the garads in Las Anod whether they would accept a resolution in which Somaliland grants the SSC independence but continues to insist on its own independence from Somalia.

“Of course!” replies Garad Suldan Cosman Ali with a vigorous nod. They can have their state. “If they leave us, it is no problem,” Garad Suleiman Buraale Aw-Aden adds with a chuckle, as if my question were patently ridiculous.

Similarly, however much some SSC figures might speak of their future state as a place welcoming of all clans, it is clear that they see the SSC as the homeland of the Dhulbahante first and foremost. Late one evening, I interview several youth activists in Las Anod to better understand the grievances that fueled the protests at the start of the year. Their organization, Darwish Youth Revolution, played a central role in those protests and is named after the Dervish fighters led by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan a century ago. Much like that late and great rhetorician, today’s Darwish are animated in their discussions of Dhulbahante culture.

“We have the best poets in Somalia!” one of the young men exclaims. “But in the Somaliland curriculum, they would not let us read our own poets. We have to read Isaaq poets instead.”

The group’s secretary, one of the few young women who has remained in Las Anod during the war, adds that the Somalilanders would always overlook the history of the Darwish anti-colonial struggle. “They teach history as if SNM are the only heroes,” she says in reference to the Isaaq rebel group of the 1980s that declared Somaliland’s independence in 1991. “They act like there was no history before the civil war.”

“And since they have their own flag, they will arrest anyone who wants to fly the Somalia flag,” the first man adds.

The mayor of Las Anod, Abdirixiin Cali Cismaiil, expresses similar sentiments when I interview him the next day in his heavily guarded office. Abdirixiin is now subordinate to the garads’ council as part of the nascent SSC administration, though he was first elected when Las Anod was administered by Somaliland in 2021. That he was properly elected in the first instance speaks to one of Somaliland’s principal accomplishments, which is that it has regularly held one-person, one-vote elections. That the office in which we are conducting our interview that day is obliterated 24 hours later in a direct artillery strike speaks to Hargeisa’s questionable commitment to such democracy moving forward.

I ask Abdirixiin what policies the Somaliland administration used to implement in Las Anod that he, as mayor under that administration, opposed. He thinks for a second and then replies, “They would make us celebrate May 18,” referring to Somaliland’s Independence Day. “But no one here wanted to.”

That such cultural flashpoints would be central to the SSC uprising is not surprising. Outsiders may speak of Somalia’s clan politics as if they are alien to the politics of the “developed world,” but today’s international system is a product of the same tribal forces presently dividing Somalia. The Dhulbahante diaspora today plays a similar role to that of the Poles and Ukrainians and other nationalists who agitated against the Russians and Habsburgs from exile in the 19th century, taking hardline positions from abroad to mobilize a less-educated population in the homeland.

Somalia’s dysfunction is not a result of Somalis being more tribal than other societies in history, so much as of the fact that clan identities are highly fractal and thus an unstable building block for politics: There may be superficial unity within a clan at one level, but when you zoom in, there is conflict between its smaller branches. On the same day that the Dhulbahante and Majerteen fight sid by side in Las Anod, different subclans of a subclan of the Majerteen are killing each other 100 kilometers to the east in Garowe. As one SSC activist casually says of those clashes that Abdi and I witnessed, “Once we have won our freedom, we Dhulbahante will probably fight like that.”

At one point before my trip to Las Anod, I asked a Dhulbahante intellectual in Mogadishu if Somali politics can be reduced to the old Bedouin (or is it Irish?) saying, “I against my brother, I and my brothers against my cousin, I and my cousins against the world.” He laughed and said that this is an apt description of Somalis. But the Dhulbahante are particularly special, he added. Most other clans can get along together in a Federal Member State, but the Dhulbahante must be autonomous. I suspect that many non-Dhulbahante would say the same of their own clan, but during conflict the sense that one’s people have a special destiny becomes particularly alluring.

SSC fighters in a technical near the front line outside Las Anod. (James Barnett)

“The best things we are known for are our poetry and our politics,” Abdi says with pride, as if to encapsulate the key takeaways of our time in Las Anod. We are returning to Garowe, bouncing our way in a four-wheel drive over the desert terrain to reach the highway outside the last Somaliland lines.

“And fighting?” I ask.

“Yes, that is politics.”

The driver starts to tease Abdi for the playlist he has chosen, which is heavy on contemporary Somali pop music. “He does not like this music, especially rap. He says, ‘It is just words.’ He asks us to play classical music,” Abdi says with a smile.

So, Abdi puts on Somali folk music, beginning with a song written by a prominent Dhulbahante singer in 2012, when the Dhulbahante and Somaliland fought over control of the city of Buhodle near Las Anod.

“This song we play whenever the Darwish are fighting,” he says as he cranes his neck so that I can hear him in the backseat over the din of the truck engine.

“We defeated the British, we defeated the Ethiopians, the Italians … ” Abdi’s voice trails off as he paraphrases the song.

Abdi then begins discussing the beauty of the poetry of the great anti-colonial warrior and Darwish leader, Mohammed Abdullah Hassan. One poem he mentions is addressed to Richard Corfield, the British consul killed in 1913 after haughtily launching an assault on the numerically superior Darwish positions in contravention of orders from London. In the poem, Hassan tells Corfield that he will soon be entering hell and instructs him to tell all whom he meets on his infernal journey of the fighting prowess of the Darwish and their mercilessness. With such attitudes ingrained in the culture, Abdi says, the Dhulbahante will not surrender.

“We Dhulbahante are psychologically stronger than the Isaaq,” he says. “Our weakness is just our institutions. We don’t have government like Somaliland.”

I suggest that a warrior culture no doubt helps the SSC but that wars are often determined by terrain. After all, I say, gesturing to the blurred scenery passing by outside the tinted windows of our pickup, it was in these sparse mountains that the Darwish built their strongest redoubts against the British forces.

“Yes, these mountains are how we will win this war,” Abdi replies with a smile.

Earlier in our trip, however, upon entering the city for the first time and showing me the hills dividing the Somaliland and SSC forces, Abdi had expressed a darker view of the geography upon which the war is being waged. Noting the daily barrages between the Somaliland and SSC units that seem frozen on their respective hilltops, Abdi had looked toward the summit of one peak and murmured thoughtfully:

“Because of those mountains, the conflict cannot end.”

Now entering its sixth month, the war in Las Anod presents no clear future for the Dhulbahante lands that lie between the political cores of Somaliland and Puntland. The fighting has undermined Somaliland’s claim to be the legitimate government across the full breadth of the former British Protectorate. Between this conflict, election delays and a crackdown on the press, Somaliland’s president, Muse Bihi, faces growing skepticism from many Western governments when just two years ago Somaliland seemed closer to getting international recognition than ever before.

The SSC is motivated and believes that it has time on its side, which may be true. But Somaliland is not the SSC’s only problem. It is unclear how the SSC plans to make a clean break from Puntland, to say nothing of developing the necessary institutions and harmony between clans to avoid the sorts of internecine conflicts that have plagued each of Somalia’s existing federal member states. Furthermore, while many Somalis appreciate the symbolism of the SSC fighting against the secessionist Somalilanders, attitudes could quickly shift. There are already concerns that the SSC is opening a Pandora’s Box that may lead to clans in the south rising up against the Somali government and agitating for new SSC-like, clan-homogenous states. The Somali government may also come to see the SSC as a stumbling block to any effort to restart a broader dialogue with Somaliland. The SSC consequently risks becoming a static insurgency — unyielding, but unable to build sufficient consensus to move forward with its ultimate political project. Worse yet, the SSC could find itself a pawn in a larger geopolitical game, potentially surrounded by enemies on both sides.

I have the chance to discuss the war’s outlook with the garads on my last morning in Las Anod when Abdi brings me to their daily coordination meeting in a well-guarded house on the western side of town. They sit in a semicircle in cheap plush furniture, holding prayer beads or canes in their hands as I settle awkwardly into a chair in the center that they have vacated for me.

The garads ask me what I witnessed in Las Anod and how my writing will help the SSC. Seeing my reaction and sensing that I am about to clarify what it is that a journalist does, Abdi quickly responds to the garads in Somali. After speaking to them, he turns to me and repeats what he has told me all week: “You will write whatever you saw, and you will write your own analysis. The truth is our best asset, and the garads welcome that.”

Garad Abdirisaq Garad Soofe, the unofficial convener of the day’s session, then asks Abdi in Somali whether I have confidence in their cause. I respond that I am unsure. I don’t doubt the garads’ commitment to this fight. But the battle has reached a stalemate, and it is hard to know how long it would take for one side to make a breakthrough. Besides, the bigger uncertainty surrounds the envisioned end state of this revolution: What is to stop the Dhulbahante, once they have their autonomous state, from fighting among themselves for power like I saw from the Majerteen in Garowe earlier in the week?

To their credit, the garads take these comments well. Garad Abdirisaq nods thoughtfully as Abdi translates. Then he and the others stand up to shake my hand, followed by the obligatory group photo. They thank me for the trouble of coming to Las Anod and assure me that I have their protection on my travel back to Garowe. Then they go back to their meeting. They do not seem too concerned with my amateur political analysis. Their primary interest in allowing me into Las Anod, as far as I can tell, was to have a white guy validate their claims that Somaliland is shelling their city, claims that have been met with skepticism by certain embassies and NGOs unwilling to send their own people to verify. (For the record, Somaliland is still shelling Las Anod.)

Later that evening, when Abdi and I return to the same hotel in Garowe where I spent the day sheltering from mortar fire at the start of the week, he is eager to elaborate on the broader implications of the SSC movement on Somali politics. Our conversation is more of a monologue on Abdi’s part. I am too exhausted to say anything insightful, and Abdi, I have come to appreciate over the past week, transforms into the SSC’s most incisive analyst and, in a way, its best advocate when he speaks candidly. His insights that night are particularly distressing.

Abdi is adamant that the SSC will be victorious, no matter how long it takes. But he seems more fixated on the stalled process of state-building across Somalia and what this portends for his generation of Somali youths and the next.

“In the American Civil War, there was a winner, right?” he asks rhetorically at one point.

Yes. A decisive one, I respond through stifled yawns. He nods energetically and laughs, throwing open his hands as if in exasperation.

“See?! Here, in Somalia, there was no winner. Since 1991, it has been stalemate.”

And the tragedy of this, he elaborates, is that you cannot build a functional society in a stalemate. Stalemates are not quiet in Somalia. If there is no winner, there is more fighting, and when there is fighting the youths cannot understand anything else. All week he has been telling me that I should write an article about the trauma of ordinary Somalis. Each day he would open up more, sharing personal anecdotes: of sleepless nights when he worked for the government in Mogadishu; the uncertainty of stepping onto the street each morning knowing an al-Shabaab assassin could be there waiting; his fear that followed him even on holidays overseas of walking near parked cars lest they suddenly explode. Over the course of this last night together, Abdi becomes animated as he describes Somalia’s untenable political impasse.

“How old am I? I am 30 years old. I have never known a government. I grew up in lawlessness and I live in lawless today. I should have a Ph.D, a family. But I have to worry about walking to my hotel without getting killed,” he says in reference to our experience together at the start of the trip amid the clashes in Garowe.

“That day, when you were here in this hotel with your helmet next to your bed — you are embarrassed because you think you were a coward for fearing the fighting,” he continues.

“You are not a coward,” he says, his voice growing quicker and nearly breaking. “The fear is a sign you are civilized. Gunshots mean nothing to me. I am an animal.”

He concludes with a weak laugh to hold back tears.

If years of conflict have reduced one of the brightest and most sincere of Somalia’s youth to this, then I fear what this war is doing to the rest of his generation, the semiliterate young men staring each other down across the trenches around Las Anod each day, numbing their pain and boredom with qat and bootleg liquor. Abdi has spoken throughout our trip of the need for the SSC, when it becomes a proper state, to have leadership that moves beyond the psyche of violence.

“Our president must be someone who does not only know war,” as he says.

Someone who does not whistle to the tune of incoming mortars.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy