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(WikiMedia Commons)

NAIROBI, Kenya — The disappearance of a young intelligence officer in Somalia has led to a rapidly escalating power struggle between the president and prime minister that has torn apart the government and potentially gives new openings to al-Qaida-linked militants.

Details of what happened to Ikran Tahlil Farah, a 25-year-old cybersecurity analyst, are still murky. But her abduction led President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed on Thursday to suspend the powers of the prime minister, who has accused him of obstructing justice in Tahlil's case.

The political showdown risks turning into a security crisis, experts say, and has blown up any pretense that Somalia's federal government is functioning. That could strengthen the hand of al-Shabab - which Somalia's government has been fighting for years, aided by billions in security support from the United States.

"Anytime you have this level of political infighting, it benefits al-Shabab in so many ways," said Omar Mahmood, senior analyst for Somalia at the International Crisis Group. "This narrative paints into everything they say about the federal government. That it is ineffective, weak, divisive and provides nothing to the public. And it is hard to argue against that."

Implications of the back-and-forth between the president, known by his nickname Farmaajo, and Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble rippled on Friday across international borders. The president's office accused neighboring Djibouti of illegally detaining Fahad Yasin, former head of the National Intelligence and Security Agency, as he tried to board a flight to Mogadishu. Roble had suspended Yasin - who is known as the president's right-hand man - earlier this month in connection with Talil's disappearance.

Djibouti's foreign minister rejected the claim from Somalia's government, saying it was meant to "create confusion and drag Djibouti into Somalia internal challenges and crisis."

The events were just one example of increasing tensions that could risk further delaying an already slow-moving election process, Mahmood said. The elections involve committees of sub clan elders convened around the country to elect members of parliament, which then elects the president. Only 37 of the 330 open seats, including the presidency, have been filled, he said. The president is currently serving more than seven months past his term.

"It's time to start talking about more punitive measures from the international community, to keep everyone in line before the election," Mahmood said.

Among officials in Washington, there has been increased concern about the situation in Somalia since February, when gunfire broke out on the streets of the capital, Mogadishu, after the president did not hold scheduled elections. That raised questions about the depth of Somalia's political instability - and about if U.S. strategy needs to shift.

But there have been few changes to U.S. policy since the Trump administration ordered the removal of 700 U.S. soldiers from the country, with the United States continuing to support military operations in the region against al-Shabab.

Al-Shabab controls the majority of Somalia's interior and has about 10,000 active fighters in the country, experts believe, with a much larger network of supporters. An attack it launched in Kenya last year killed one U.S. service member and two American private contractors, according to a U.S. military statement. But the biggest risk al-Shabab poses, experts say, is for residents within Somalia and for its neighbors in the region, where attacks are regular.

President Joe Biden's top intelligence official said Monday that the greatest terrorism threat to the U.S. does not come from Afghanistan but from countries including Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

Members of the U.N. Security Council released a statement Saturday expressing "deep concern about the ongoing disagreement within the Somali Government and the negative impact on the electoral timetable and process."

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he is closely monitoring current political divisions within Somalia and "deeply concerned about the trajectory of the country."

"With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia and an emboldened al-Qaida network from the continued debacle in Afghanistan, al Shabaab is surely taking notes," McCaul said in a statement. "They remain a dangerous and capable threat to U.S. interests and the homeland. Unfortunately, years of support to the Somali armed forces and billions of dollars of assistance has barely moved the needle toward lasting stability in the country."

Facing intense pressure from the West after the violence in February, including threats of sanctions from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Somalia's president - once a Department of Transportation administrator in Buffalo - backed down and agreed to hold elections. Roble was tapped to lead the process in May.

It was not too long after - on June 26 - that the analyst Talil was abducted, said her mother Qali Mohamud Guhad in an interview. The last time she spoke with her daughter was via a WhatsApp call that night, Mohamud said. Talil told her that she was going to see the security chief Yasin, who she said had been calling her all day.

The intelligence agency announced in early September an investigation found that al-Shabab had killed Talil. But the terrorist group quickly denied it, saying it takes responsibility for attacks on intelligence officers and did not kill her.

Mohamud said she is still holding out hope that her daughter is alive, held somewhere in captivity. She said she does not know why Talil was abducted, but noted that her daughter had information about soldiers from Somalia who were rumored to have been sent by the government to fight in Ethiopia, which has been one of the many political weak spots for Somalia's president.

Mohamud personally met this month with Roble, who she said assured her that he would take the steps necessary to achieve justice.

Roble's decision to suspend Yasin - over the objections of the president - reportedly led last week to a brief military standoff, after each selected a different person to lead the intelligence agency. Roble's spokesman, Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimuu, said in an interview Saturday that he views the president's suspension of his powers as unconstitutional and that the prime minister is committed to seeing the elections through.

"The more [the president] stays and keeps doing these illegal and unconstitutional behaviors, the closer we get to a civil war," said Ismail Osman, a former NISA deputy chief, who is based in Washington.

Matt Bryden, director of Sahan Research, a Somalia-focused think tank, said that al-Shabab's strength is always in inverse proportion to the weakness of its adversaries.

"It fills a vacuum," he said. "And this is a protracted vacuum."

- - -

Faruk reported from Mogadishu.

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