The Life and Times of a Tiger 4×4 Armored Vehicle

On January 26th, al-Shabaab, the Islamist group fighting in Somalia, released photos of their fighters celebrating the capture of an armored vehicle. The high quality of the photos and the unique nature of the vehicle allow its recent history to be tracked, including where the vehicle came from, where it’s been, and where it is now.

Let’s start with the basics – what is this vehicle and where were these pictures taken?

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According to Defence Blog, the truck is a Chinese Tiger 4×4 armored fighting vehicle built by the Shaanxi Baoji Special Vehicles Company. It also has lot number 04 (seen on the upper left windshield and upper left of the truck’s rear) and is affixed with Somali Army license plate number 05828. Outside of the truck itself, the picture was taken near the ocean, as a patch of blue water to the left of the middle image is visible. Finally, the pictures were taken in an area of thin vegetation on sandy soil – possibly a beach or dunes located close by.

Where exactly could these images have been taken? Since there are no particularly unique features in the images, it is difficult to say for sure. However, the land northeast of Marka, Somalia seems to be a likely candidate. This region abuts the ocean, contains plenty of sand and sandy soil, and is interwoven with dozens, if not hundreds, of small patches of dirt surrounded by brush large enough to contain an armored vehicle but small enough to hide it from government patrols or reconnaissance aircraft.

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Now as for the truck itself: when and where did this vehicle arrive in Somalia? A Twitter account purporting to be an official account of the Somali National Army’s Danab special forces unit posted a picture of 12 trucks parked in a lot on September 3rd, 2017:

Geolocation reveals the exact spot to be a dirt lot quite close to Mogadishu’s port, with easy road access to the docks:

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Therefore, the vehicles likely arrived by ship on or before September 3rd, 2017. But where have they been since then? After trawling through thousands of social media, Google Image, and YouTube results, there are numerous instances (not including the al-Shabaab photos) where these vehicles show up. Based on the company the Tigers keep, as well as the locations they were spotted in, they were most likely assigned to a special forces unit battling al-Shabaab throughout the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia.

The Tigers first appeared during clashes with al-Shabaab in Bariire, Somalia in September 2017. A small detachment of at least three Tigers was seen accompanying AMISOM forces in Bariire after an al-Shabaab suicide attack.

(Credit to Radio Muqdisho for these images)

Unfortunately, these photos are incredibly low resolution. While a license plate and lot number are partially visible in the bottom image, we can’t tell which actual numbers they are. The glare makes it difficult to tell, but the lot number might be painted red, which would exclude the lead truck from being the one captured by al-Shabaab, which had a white lot number. Nonetheless, features in those images are clearly located in Bariire, as seen in the Google Earth shot below:

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The Tigers don’t appear again for quite some time. In fact, the next appearance of the Tigers after the fighting in Bariire was not until spring 2018, when they appeared on the northwestern outskirts of Mogadishu during clashes between Somali military factions. These photos were taken on or about April 23, 2018.

Unfortunately, the photo quality is not good enough to determine if the license plates on these vehicles match the 05828 on the Tiger captured by al-Shabaab. However, both of the vehicles in these photos bear white lot numbers similar to the white lot number 04 on the al-Shabaab truck. While it’s not certain that one of the trucks in the communal clashes is the one captured by al-Shabaab, it is likely that they are the same because relatively few of the trucks pictured in the lot in Mogadishu bear white lot numbers.

Geolocation reveals these trucks to be on a major thoroughfare near a military academy on the northwestern outskirts of Mogadishu.

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The third time a Tiger shows up is during the battle for Marka, Somalia, in August 2018. The AMISOM Twitter account posted a series of photos from the capture of Marka on August 20, 2018. One of the photos is a close-up, high resolution image of a Tiger armored vehicle leading a column of troops and smaller vehicles:

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It took a while, but finally, here is the vehicle captured by al-Shabaab: this Tiger’s license plate ends in “28” and a white lot number can be seen on the upper left windshield, both of which are features shared by the captured vehicle. As for the Tiger’s location, there aren’t many clues in the image, besides a white, sandy road no further than a few hundred meters away from the ocean and perpendicular to the shore. Fortunately, there is a road that fits the bill on the southern edge of Marka, Somalia:

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The fourth time the Tigers appear is during an extended campaign to capture Gendershe and Jilib Marko areas in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region. A video posted to YouTube by Hage Media on September 17, 2018 contains an eleven second clip of Somali military officers speaking in a town near some shops (0:10-0:21). Although the vehicle’s license plate is obscured, a white lot number beginning with “0” is clearly visible. The number after the zero looks like it could be a four but without more imagery (or moving the vehicle’s inconveniently placed windshield wiper), it is difficult to confirm.

The fifth time the Tigers (including, again, the one that got captured) appear in open-source imagery is during a military parade in Mogadishu on September 22nd, 2018.

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This Tiger has the 04 white lot number and 05828 license plate matching those on the truck captured by al-Shabaab in January 2019. The parade took place in a field close to where the clashes involving the Tigers happened earlier in 2018:

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The sixth time Tigers appeared in open source images is once again during the campaign to capture Gandershe and Jilib Marko towns in the Lower Shabelle region. This article, by Daljir News on September 26, 2018, contains three photos of at least one Tiger, among numerous other images of Somali military forces.

As for the Tiger parked in the lot seen above, its license plate is visible, although the truck’s windshield wiper is, yet again, in the middle of the vehicle’s lot number:

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It looks like the plate number is either 05828 (the captured truck’s plate number) or 05829. Although the trees, bushes, and roads in those images are too generic to be confidently geolocated, the location of at least one image in the series of photos from the Daljir News article can be established:

A white spire next to a reddish roofed building like the one seen on the right of this image appears in only one place (that I could find) in the Lower Shabelle region. A small village about halfway between Mogadishu and Marka contains a white spire adjacent to a building with a red roof:

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Although none of the pictures showing the Tigers are confidently geolocate-able, at least one Tiger must have participated in the Gendershe/Jilib Marko campaign, as the small village with the white spire seen in the article is close to both of those areas.

Now that the Tigers’ locations and actions between their arrival in Somalia in September 2017 and the battles in Lower Shabelle in September 2018 are established, can we tell where they were and what they were doing right before al-Shabaab captured truck 04? We sure can! Somalia media outlet Hage Media posted two videos prominently displaying Tigers during January 2019.

The first video, posted on January 8th, shows Tiger number 04 parked outside a government building during a visit by Somali military officers:

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The semi-circular structure at the front of the building and the two rectangular structures on the building’s roof reveal the location to be “Villada Sheekh Zaayid” in Afgoye, Somalia.

The second video, posted on January 15th, shows a unit of at least nine Tiger vehicles (among the 12 shipped to Somalia) conducting exercises near a beach for an audience of Somali military officers. Unfortunately, the only vehicle that is clearly identifiable has license plate number 05827 and lot number 03:

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However, the sheer number of Tigers participating in these exercises makes it fairly likely that the Tiger that was eventually captured by al-Shabaab was taking part in these exercises. While much of the Somali coastline shares the features seen in the video, these exercises likely took place in one of several places between Mogadishu and Marka. In particular, they happened on a clear sandy road between areas of low brush leading to a tan, sandy beach interspersed with very low vegetation. Here, here, here, here, here, and here are several such locations. These two locations in the Lower Shabelle region (Afgoye and the shore between Mogadishu and Marka) were the last two places the Tigers were spotted before 04’s capture ten days later, on January 25th.

To summarize, the Tigers appeared in these locations at these times:

  1. Mogadishu, September 3rd, 2017

  2. Bariire, September 29th, 2017

  3. Mogadishu, April 23rd, 2018 ~

  4. Marka, August 20th, 2018*

  5. Gendershe/Jilib Marko, September 16, 2018 *

  6. Mogadishu, September 22nd, 2018*

  7. Gendershe/Jilib Marko, September 26th, 2018 ~

  8. Afgoye, January 8th, 2019 *

  9. Between Mogadishu and Marka, January 15th ~

  10. (Possibly) outside Marka, January 26th, 2019*

* Denotes confirmed or highly likely sightings of captured vehicle. ~ Denotes possible sightings of captured vehicle.

Here are all those sightings mapped:

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From the distribution of these points, we can tell that the Tigers were highly active in the Lower Shabelle region generally, but also the sector between Mogadishu and Marka specifically. Since 2017, this region has seen nearly constant fighting, which, as shown by the armored vehicles’ repeated appearance during and following heavy battles, certainly involved the Tigers. Aside from their combat role, the Tigers’ repeated appearance in Mogadishu and in parades shows their importance as more advanced and more deadly “prestige” vehicles than the pickup trucks that normally transport the Somali army. Finally, Tigers appeared several times in the presence of high-ranking officers, which may imply an executive protection use-case or further emphasize the trucks’ significance as prestige vehicles. In sum, Tiger 04 may have been assigned to a special forces or quick reaction unit that wore an executive protection, prestige, or heavy combat hat as the circumstances demanded.

Regardless of the role played by the Tiger armored vehicles, al-Shabaab dealt a blow to the morale, effectiveness, and prestige of the Somali military by capturing vehicle 04 in January 2019. Al-Shabaab propaganda monitors should look for Tiger 04 in videos or further photo series from the jihadist group as they look to exploit their propaganda coup. Finally, as further open-source media comes out from clashes, exercises, or parades in either Mogadishu or the Lower Shabelle region, analysts should maintain a weather eye for further appearances from the remaining Tigers.