Al Shabaab's History with Humanitarian Assistance

July 27, 2011

Somali refugees wait at the entrance to the registration area of the IFO refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya on July 24, 2011 (Oli Scarff/Getty Images).

The United Nations recently declared that there is a famine in Lower Shabelle and Bakool regions and near-famine conditions throughout southern Somalia. This declaration has called attention to the humanitarian plight in Somalia, and also raised questions about the wisdom of trying to send humanitarian aid to an area dominated by an al Qaeda-affiliated militant group. The dilemma, however, is not simply a matter of politics or preference. It is, rather, one of practicality. Al Shabaab, which has al Qaeda ties and controls most of southern and central regions of the country, has historically banned international aid agencies from operating within territories under its control. The group has enforced this ban with violence: militants raid local offices, destroy foodstuffs and medical supplies, and kidnap aid workers. Al Shabaab has, in fact, contributed to the humanitarian disaster many Somalis now face through these tactics. As the international community and the U.S. discovered in the early 1990s, getting humanitarian aid to needy Somalis is not an apolitical undertaking. It may not even be possible without being drawn into conflict in the Horn of Africa once again.

Al Shabaab established the Office for the Supervision of the Affairs of Foreign Agencies (OSAFA), a body to monitor the movements of all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations operating within Somalia, on July 20, 2009.[1] At the same time, al Shabaab ordered the closure of the offices of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations Department of Security and Safety (UNDSS), and the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) for engaging in activities “hostile” to Islam.[2] The offices of the International Medical Corps and CARE had already been closed.[3] Immediately following the issuance of the ban on the UN agencies in Somalia, al Shabaab militants raided UN offices in Baidoa in Bay region and in Wajid in Bakool region. The UN was forced to suspend its operations in those two cities.[4] Al Shabaab administrations throughout southern and central Somalia targeted select humanitarian organizations and attempted to prevent these organizations from operating. By November 2009, the local al Shabaab administration in the Bay and Bakool regions required aid agencies to abide by 11 conditions.[5]

Strict restrictions on aid activities and food distributions severely impacted humanitarian assistance operations in areas under al Shabaab control. In early November 2009, al Shabaab leader Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Ali, also known as Abu Mansur, accused the World Food Program (WFP) of destroying the local agriculture market by distributing aid during harvest time. He also banned any aid with the American flag on it.[6] At the time, the WFP was one of the few aid agencies permitted to operate in al Shabaab-controlled territory. On November 25, 2009, al Shabaab issued an English-language statement ordering the WFP to purchase food from local farmers and to empty all warehouses by the end of the year, and warning local contractors to cut business relations with the aid agency by January 1, 2010.[7] The WFP announced on January 5, 2010 the suspension of its activities in southern Somalia due to a lack of security.[8] A March 1, 2010 al Shabaab statement claimed that following the suspension of WFP activities, the population became increasingly self-sufficient.[9] By mid-September 2010, at least six other aid agencies were banned from Somalia, including Mercy Corps, Med-Air, and Horn Relief.[10]

Somalia is one of the most hostile environments for humanitarian activities. Al Shabaab’s attacks on aid workers and agencies’ offices have made most of southern and central Somalia inaccessible.[11] The WFP reports that since 2008, 14 of its employees have been killed by al Shabaab.[12] Al Shabaab has used the presence of aid agencies to its advantage. In some instances, the group has benefited financially through fees extracted for security assurances or from ransom payments from the kidnapping of aid workers.[13] In other instances, the families of al Shabaab militants have registered as refugees in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), where they receive food rations.[14] Further, in some instances, access to the camps themselves is controlled by militants.[15] Humanitarian aid organizations with established operations in pro-government or government-controlled regions of Somalia remain at risk. Conditions on the ground are not fixed. In April 2010, al Shabaab militants seized control of a town where there was a WFP warehouse and distributed the food aid to needy families.[16]

The severe conditions in southern Somalia have driven families to seek assistance in areas outside of al Shabaab’s control. Some reports indicate that al Shabaab has prevented some of these families from leaving its territories.[17] Al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage, also known as Ali Dhere, refused the entry of banned humanitarian agencies into famine-afflicted regions, saying that the declaration of a famine was part of a political agenda.[18]

The drought in the Horn of Africa is one of the worst droughts in the past 60 years. Similar conditions in 1992 prompted an emergency humanitarian aid response.[19] The WFP estimates that 2.85 million Somalis need emergency assistance, of whom 57 percent (1.65 million) live in al Shabaab-controlled territory.[20] The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Somali Red Crescent Society are among the few organizations that have not been banned from al Shabaab territories and have provided some relief to drought-stricken regions in southern Somalia.[21] Access to food and water, however, remains limited and an average of 3,500 Somalis a day enter Kenya and Ethiopia seeking help.[22] The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has responded to the flood of refugees by airlifting emergency supplies destined for refugee camps to Nairobi, Kenya.[23] Aid agencies have also responded to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Somalia by increasing their operations in pro-government or government-controlled areas. Conditions are expected to worsen over the next two months in the south, exacerbated by limited humanitarian access.[24]



[1] “Shabaab Restricts NGO Activity; Closes UN Offices,” Site Intelligence Group, July 20, 2009. Available at SITE.
[2] One of the offenses listed was the cooperation with and support for the UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which al Shabaab has labeled as an apostate government. Al Shabaab ordered the closure of the UN Mine Action Program in Somalia on December 12, 2009 citing UNMAP’s relationship with the TFG’s security forces. See: “Shabaab Bans UN Mine Action,” Site Intelligence Group, December 18, 2009. Available at SITE.
[3] Al Shabaab accused the organizations of helping to provide the intelligence that led to the death of al Shabaab leader Aden Hashi Ayro.
[4] “Somali Radicals Loot UN Buildings, Forcing Some Operations to Close,” UN News Centre, July 20, 2009. Available: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=31520&Cr=somali&Cr1
[5] In early November, al Shabaab’s Bay and Bakool administration issued a statement with a list of eleven rules under which aid agencies would have to operate. These include a $20,000 registration fee, to be paid every six months, no democracy-promotion work, no female employees, no observation of a holiday on Sundays, and the removal of all logos on vehicles.
“Somali Rebels Issue Aid Rules,” Agence France Press, November 6, 2009. Available: http://www.news24.com/Africa/News/Somali-rebels-issue-aid-rules-20091106
Somalia Humanitarian Overview, Vol. 2, Issue 11 (November – 154 December 2009. United Nations. Available: http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/reliefweb_pdf/briefingkit-4de21688616ce5b94b0708cf59f41b5c.pdf
[6] “Al-Shabaab Bans WFP Food Distribution in Southern Somalia,” Garowe Online, November 2, 2009. Available: http://www.garoweonline.com/artman2/publish/Somalia_27/Al-Shabaab_bans_WFP_food_distribution_in_southern_Somalia.shtml
[7] “Shabaab Demands WFP Alter Operations in Somalia,” Site Intelligence Group, November 25, 2009. Available at SITE.
“Militia Warns UN to Buy from Somali Farmers or Cut Aid,” CNN, November 25, 2009. Available: http://articles.cnn.com/2009-11-25/world/somalia.warning_1_wfp-somali-food-aid?_s=PM:WORLD
Ibrahim Mohamed, “Somali Rebels Order WFP to Halt Relief Food Imports,” Reuters, November 25, 2009. Available: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2009/11/25/idUKGEE5AO2B2._CH_.2420
[8] Offices in Wajid, Bu’aale, Garbaharey, Afmadow, Jilib, and Beledweyne were closed. At the time of the suspension, a WFP spokesman reported that al Shabaab controlled 95 percent of the WFP area of operation in Somalia. Al Shabaab also demanded $20,000 to ensure six months of security. See: “UN Suspends Food Aid to Southern Somalia” by Scott Baldauf, CS Monitor, January 5, 2010. Available: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2010/0106/UN-suspends-food-aid-to-southern-Somalia
“WFP Facing Growing Humanitarian Challenge in Somalia,” UN World Food Program, January 5, 2010. Available: http://www.wfp.org/stories/wfp-facing-growing-humanitarian-challenge-somalia
[9] The head of al Shabaab’s Zakat (Charity) office reiterated this sentiment in April 2011.
“Shabaab Bans WFP Operations in Somalia,” Site Intelligence Group, March 1, 2010. Available at SITE.
“Shabaab Releases Video Interview with Zakat Office Head,” Site Intelligence Group, April 1, 2011. Available at SITE.
[10] Al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage, also known as Ali Dhere, announced the ban on September 16, 2010 in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab banned World Vision, Adventist Development and Relief Agency, and Diakonia on August 10, 2010.
“Somalia Pres Denies Dispute with PM, Al-Shabaab Expels 3 Aid Agencies,” Garowe Online, September 16, 2010. Available: http://www.garoweonline.com/artman2/publish/Somalia_27/Somalia_pres_denies_dispute_with_PM_Al-shabaab_expels_3_aid_agencies.shtml
[11] A WFP base in Wajid, near Baidoa, was raided on April 8, 2010 and militants took control of a local airstrip, according to reports. The base was already emptied. See: “Al Shabaab Militants Raid UN Base in Somalia,” BBC, April 8, 2010. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8609096.stm
Please see: “OCHA Somalia – Humanitarian Access Report,” UN OCHA, May 2011. Available: http://ochaonline.un.org/OchaLinkClick.aspx?link=ocha&docId=1238528
[12] “Al-Shabab Prevents Aid from Reaching 2.2M Somalis,” Associated Press, July 23, 2011. Available: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gAzQvJqOi0be4FkrVYH29lrNKsDw?docId=06fc13705b374f79a498c3ad1d505448
[13] On July 17, 2009, three aid workers employed by Action contre le Faim were taken from Mandera, Kenya, into Somalia. The receipt of a $1,361,668 ransom payment on October 3, 2009 secured their release. Abdullahi Ali “Luway,” a local al Shabaab financier and associate of leader and former spokesman Mukhtar Robow Ali, also known as Abu Mansur, owned the bank account where the money was deposited. See page 67 of the UN Security Council Report of the Monitoring Group of Somalia, March 10, 2010. Available: http://www.un.org/sc/committees/751/mongroup.shtml
Jeffrey Gettleman, “U.S. Delays Somalia Aid, Fearing it is Feeding Terrorists,” New York Times, October 1, 2009. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/02/world/africa/02somalia.html
[14] UN Security Council Report of the Monitoring Group of Somalia, March 10, 2010. Available: http://www.un.org/sc/committees/751/mongroup.shtml, page 61
[15] UN Security Council Report of the Monitoring Group of Somalia, March 10, 2010. Available: http://www.un.org/sc/committees/751/mongroup.shtml, page 61
[16] “Somalia: Al Shabaab Seize Town, Distribute WFP Food Aid to Residents,” Garowe Online, April 25, 2010. Available: http://www.garoweonline.com/artman2/publish/Somalia_27/Somalia_Al_Shabaab_distribute_WFP_food_aid_to_residents.shtml
[17] Al Shabaab’s mayor in Kismayo warned against leaving for Kenyan refugee camps, adding that anyone doing so would face consequences.
“Al Shabaab Blocks Drought-Hit People from Fleeing to Kenya,” Shabelle Media Network, July 9, 2011. Available: http://allafrica.com/stories/201107110361.html
[18] Hamsa Omar, “Somali Militants Reject Aid as Thousands Seek Shelter in Nation’s Capital,” Bloomberg, July 23, 2011. Available: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-07-23/somali-militants-reject-aid-as-thousands-seek-shelter-in-capital.html
[19] The UN requested armed peacekeepers to assist in relief operations in Somalia because of the security situation. A U.S.-led multinational force entered Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope in December 1992. In October 1993, 19 U.S. servicemen were killed in Mogadishu and several soldiers’ bodies were dragged through the streets, an incident that has come to be known as “Black Hawk Down.”
[20] The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) estimated on July 25 that 3.7 million Somalis were in need of emergency assistance. See: “Somalia Dekadal Food Security and Nutrition Monitoring,” FEWSNET, July 25, 2011. Available: http://www.fews.net/docs/Publications/SO_dekadal1_230711.pdf
“Somalia Emergency Operation 200281,” UN World Food Program, July 2011. Available: http://one.wfp.org/operations/current_operations/project_docs/200281.pdf
[21] “Somalia: A Population Exhausted,” ICRC Operational Update, July 22, 2011. Available: http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/update/2011/somalia-update-2011-07-22.htm
[22] Horn of Africa Drought Crisis Situation Report, No. 5, UN OCHA, July 21, 2011. Available: http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Full_report_170.pdf
[23] Horn of Africa Drought Crisis Situation Report, No. 5, UN OCHA, July 21, 2011. Available: http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Full_report_170.pdf
[24] “Somalia Dekadal Food Security and Nutrition Monitoring,” FEWSNET, July 25, 2011. Available: http://www.fews.net/docs/Publications/SO_dekadal1_230711.pdf