A deadly dilemma: how Al-Shabaab came to dictate the terms of humanitarian aid in Somalia

11 December 2013
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Aid agencies face difficult decisions every day in humanitarian crises. But few compare to the impossible choice that aid agencies had to make in Somalia at the height of the 2011 famine that claimed over 250,000 lives: pay off Al-Shabaab, a listed ‘terrorist’ organisation, or let people die.

Somalia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers. One of the most formidable obstacles to reaching people in need of assistance has indeed been Al-Shabaab – an armed group that has carried out deadly attacks on civilians and aid workers, including the Westgate mall attack in Kenya earlier this year. It is a force to be reckoned with, having once controlled nearly all of southern and central Somalia.

Al-Shabaab sees itself not just in opposition to the Somali government, but as a ‘government in waiting’. Although it may seem paradoxical, it has a Humanitarian Coordination Office (HCO), responsible for monitoring, regulating, registering and ‘taxing’ aid agencies operating in Al-Shabaab territory. This highly elaborate system has allowed the group to carry out systematic intimidation and taxation, coopting aid to their benefit. Aid organisations were regularly faced with a gruesome ethical dilemma; faced with nearly 750,000 people at threat of starvation during the famine, some agencies gave into Al-Shabaab demands for payments as high as $10,000 USD.

Al-Shabaab’s desire to capitalise on humanitarian aid in their territory has at times clashed with their deeply entrenched suspicion of Western aid agencies, which it sees as fronts for Western intelligence services. As one Al-Shabaab official put it: ‘Whether they call themselves humanitarian or not, we know who they are: they are the civilian face of the infidel forces’. Many organisations, including the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), have been expelled from Al-Shabaab territory following allegations of ‘espionage’, ‘illicit activities’ and ‘misconduct’.

Some aid agencies tried to negotiate with Al-Shabaab on a regular, structured basis, and in gaining their acceptance, succeeded in avoiding some of the group’s most unreasonable demands. But few agencies carried out thorough engagement with Al-Shabaab or spoke out about these payments for fear of falling foul of counter-terrorism laws and measures, such as those passed in the US and the UK, that prohibit the provision of ‘material support’ to Al-Shabaab. In essence, the strength of these counter-terrorism laws created a culture of silence around engagement with Al-Shabaab as not many agencies welcomed the possibility of potentially facing criminal prosecution for their efforts to provide aid in Somalia. Fearing exposure, aid agencies accepted these demands, instead of uniting to create the leverage to oppose Al-Shabaab’s demands.

Moreover, for many aid agencies, their donors were those very governments that had passed counter-terrorism legislation that could lead to relief groups facing criminal prosecution for engaging with Al-Shabaab. As images of starving Somali children filled the international media, donors provided increased funding to help those in need, without any open acknowledgement of the compromises, and potentially ‘criminal’ actions, they would be compelled to make.

Now, nearly two years after the famine, Al-Shabaab has lost large swathes of territory. However, it is no less of a threat than it was at the height of its power – at least to aid agencies. The group has not disappeared. Fighters have melted back into the population, waiting to be mobilised: suffering military losses is not the same as defeat. Al-Shabaab’s attack on the United Nations Development Programme office earlier this year serves as a stark warning for aid agencies seeking to capitalise on the militant group’s seeming lack of presence. As one aid worker in Somalia noted, ‘In former Al-Shabaab areas the Somali National Government is nominally in power but Al-Shabaab still has its powers of infiltration. They know everything: who’s there, who’s doing what and so on … They have stated that even if they have left, the rules will be the same’.

This is not an issue that will simply go away, nor is it unique to Somalia. Humanitarian agencies confront similar challenges in Syria, in Pakistan, in the Central African Republic – in the many conflicts around the world today. For the sake of the millions in need of humanitarian aid and those on the frontlines delivering it, we must find a better way of negotiating with armed groups. Governments must take a long, hard look at counter-terrorism laws and measures: supposedly created to help fight terrorism, is it acceptable that they made it more difficult for aid agencies to stand up against ‘terrorists’ in order to support people under their control?

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This blog is drawn from a report "Talking to the other side: humanitarian negotiations with Al-Shabaab in Somalia". The report is based on over 80 interviews with former Al-Shabaab officials, aid workers and civilians and presents a previously ill-understood picture of Al-Shabaab’s systematic methods of aid diversion and control of humanitarian aid in Somalia.

This publication is an output of the following project: Humanitarian negotiations with armed non-state actors