Al-Qaeda's network in East Africa is regrouping and rearming in northern Somalia, suggesting that it could recover from a series of defeats in the south, according to the president of the region.
If the extremists manage to regroup in this mountainous region, they could attack Ethiopia or Kenya, both of which have deployed troops in Somalia, he told The Daily Telegraph.
Al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist movement which has merged with al-Qaeda, was expelled from the capital, Mogadishu, and much of the south earlier this year. Instead of this being a decisive setback, however, the evidence suggests that key figures have moved northwards to Puntland, a self-governing area covering 130,000 square miles of northern Somalia. Last week, two Islamist commanders and nine fighters were arrested in this region.
Abdirahman Farole, the president of Puntland, said that the successful offensive mounted by African Union forces against al-Shabaab in and around Mogadishu had caused a "spillover" of extremists into his area. Among the 11 al-Shabaab operatives who were arrested in Puntland is the alleged leader of its assassination squad. "They were found with new weapons, arms and ammunition, and, apart from two of them, they were not local, they came from all across Somalia," said Mr Farole. "It is not hard to understand that their goal was to connect with others we fear are already here, after the spillover from the fighting in the south."
The two alleged commanders have been named as Abu Hafsa, supposedly al-Shabaab's head of assassinations, and Abdirizak Hussein Tahlil, an alleged logistics expert. Puntland's security forces also seized guns, ammunition, suicide jackets, hand grenades, fuses and explosives. But al-Shabaab said that it did not recognise either name and denied any of its senior fighters was missing. The arrests appeared to confirm that the network's commanders are fleeing to Puntland's mountainous hinterland after setbacks, notably the loss of the port of Kismayo in September.
Puntland's coastline lies opposite Yemen, the home of the group "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula", which is believed to have armed and financed al-Shabaab. In the past two months alone, the authorities have intercepted two boats heading from Yemen to Puntland laden with weapons. "Our preoccupation is that in addition to fighting piracy, this spillover from the problems of south Somalia to us in the north will drain our resources and be very detrimental to regional security," added Mr Farole.
He spoke to The Daily Telegraph after opening a new ministry of justice in Garowe, the capital of Puntland. This facility was constructed entirely with British money. The Foreign Office has spent more than £1.5 million through the UN on building the ministry and expanding Puntland's prisons. This should enable any Somali pirates arrested by international forces, including the Royal Navy, to be handed over to Puntland.
"The Somali criminal justice system lacks the infrastructure, personnel and legal framework to conduct fair and efficient trials and to ensure humane and secure imprisonment," said Yuri Fedotov, UNODC's executive director, who became one of the most senior UN figures to visit Puntland.
"So long as this remains the case, crime will continue to flourish."
At the new prison complex outside the town, Mahad Mohammed Hersi, one of dozens of junior prison officer whose training was paid for with British, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian and Finnish aid, was completing his morning's lessons.
"It's my expectation that from this training I will get not only a good job, but a good job that also helps my country because I will be enforcing the law," said Mr Hersi, 23.
"I don't agree that there is no rule of law here, or no security or no peace. If that is true, we would not be here. It's not like you think it is." Criminals linked to al-Shabaab and convicted of terrorism would be "kept here safely just like the pirates", he said.