Al Shabaab's History with Humanitarian Assistance
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. 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. The offices of the International Medical Corps and CARE had already been closed. 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. 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.
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. 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. The WFP announced on January 5, 2010 the suspension of its activities in southern Somalia due to a lack of security. A March 1, 2010 al Shabaab statement claimed that following the suspension of WFP activities, the population became increasingly self-sufficient. By mid-September 2010, at least six other aid agencies were banned from Somalia, including Mercy Corps, Med-Air, and Horn Relief.
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. The WFP reports that since 2008, 14 of its employees have been killed by al Shabaab. 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. 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. Further, in some instances, access to the camps themselves is controlled by militants. 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.
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. 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.
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. The WFP estimates that 2.85 million Somalis need emergency assistance, of whom 57 percent (1.65 million) live in al Shabaab-controlled territory. 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. Access to food and water, however, remains limited and an average of 3,500 Somalis a day enter Kenya and Ethiopia seeking help. 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. 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.