Sleeping with the Enemy: Are KDF and Humanitarian Agencies Doing Business with Al Shabaab?

By Rasna Warah

For several years, Somalia-watchers have suspected that aid and humanitarian organisations make deals with Al Shabaab in order to gain access to territories controlled by the terrorist group. Now, these suspicions have been confirmed by none other than former United States officials and heads of donor agencies and humanitarian organisations who are urging the Kenyan government not to request the United Nations Security Council to list Al Shabaab as a terrorist organisation because such a designation will hinder humanitarian work in Somalia. According to a Daily Nation report, the group—which includes the former US Ambassador to Kenya, Mark Bellamy, the former Undersecretary of State, Thomas R. Pickering, and the former USAID administrator, J. Brian Atwood—says that Kenya’s proposal will “break the current working relationship where humanitarian workers are allowed certain windows to reach extremist-held regions”. In a letter to the US Secretary of State Mark Pompeo, the group stated that such a move could put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk. Now it is not very clear why the Kenyan government has suddenly decided that Al Shabaab should be declared a terrorist organisation by the United Nations, given that Kenya and several other countries already recognise Al Shabaab as a terrorist outfit. Speculation is rife that such a listing in the UN Security Council would release more funds for counterterrorism efforts, which could financially benefit Kenya, which is both a frontline state and a major target of Al Shabaab’s terrorist activities. The timing of Kenya’s bid is also strange given that in 2010 the UN Security Council had designated Al Shabaab as a threat to peace and security and had added it to a list of sanctioned entities that are subject to travel bans, asset freezes and arms embargoes.

According to a report prepared jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol, after losing Kismaayo, Al Shabaab began imposing “taxes” at roadblocks along routes in the hinterland that were used to transport charcoal to the port. At just one roadblock in Somalia’s Badhadhe District, the terrorist group was estimated to have made between $8 million and $18 million per year from charcoal traffic.

Some Kenya government officials have hinted that if Al Shabaab is listed as a terrorist organisation along the same lines as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), this will lead to an international military campaign to counter the group, an effort which is currently being shouldered mainly by African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, of which Kenya is a part.

Whatever the real motives of the Kenyan government, the admission by the aid sector that it has contacts with the terrorist organisation has unleashed all kinds of conundrums, and exposed the convoluted nature of aid to Somalia.

What is surprising is that former US officials and diplomats are at the forefront of stopping the Kenyan government from presenting its proposal to the UN Security Council. After all, the United States designated Al Shabaab a terrorist organisation as far back as February 2008 following the group’s proclamation of its allegiance to Al Qaeda. Subsequently, Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom also listed Al Shabaab as a terrorist organisation.

Protection money

Two things happen when a group is declared as a terrorist organisation by a donor country or aid organisation. One, donor countries who name the group as a terrorist organisation put in safeguards to ensure that their funding/aid does not directly or indirectly benefit the organisation. There are severe consequences for those who break this rule. For instance, in the United States, violations can result in both civil and criminal penalties, including fines of up to $1 million or 20 years in prison. Two, donor countries stop or reduce funding to the country where the terrorist organisation is based.

Yet in the case of Somalia, these rules became a bit blurred, especially at the height of the 2011 famine in the country, when there was an international effort to raise millions of dollars for food aid. Sceptics wondered how the UN and other aid agencies expected to deliver food to large swathes of central and southern Somalia that were controlled by Al Shabaab, considering that the terrorist group had banned several UN agencies and international NGOs from operating there. (Al Shabaab views international aid organisations as fronts for Western intelligence agencies.) This was when it became apparent that in order to gain access to Al Shabaab-controlled territories in Somalia, aid agencies and NGOs on the ground had been making deals with the terrorist group; many UN agencies and international NGOs were paying taxes or “protection money” to Al Shabaab through their local implementing partners (usually Somalia-based NGOs).

Whatever the real motives of the Kenyan government, the admission by the aid sector that it has contacts with the terrorist organisation has unleashed all kinds of conundrums, and exposed the convoluted nature of aid to Somalia.

A paper published in December 2013 by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) titled “Talking to the other side: Humanitarian negotiations with Al Shabaab in Somalia” explained how the system worked: “While banning some organisations, Al Shabaab permitted others to work – albeit under increasingly tight rules and regulations. With the consequences for disobedience clear, the threat of expulsion compelled agencies either to comply or to withdraw, which was seen by many as unacceptable given the scale of the need. In November 2009, Al Shabaab imposed 11 conditions on remaining aid agencies in Bay and Bakool, including payment of registration and security fees of up to $20,000 every 6 months.”

Ashley Jackson and Abdi Aynte, the authors of the report, say that such behaviour is not limited to Somalia; aid agencies in Afghanistan have also been known to negotiate with the Taliban.

Some aid and humanitarian organisations resisted this form of “taxation”, but those that complied had to factor in these fees in their project budgets. Yet, these same organisations continued to deny that they gave money to Al Shabaab in exchange for access—such an admission could have led to reduced funding and perhaps even sanctions against the organisations.

KDF’s links

What is surprising about Kenya’s recent move is that the government itself has not been averse to dealing with terrorist organisations in the past, as when Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) recruited the Ras Kamboni militia to fight alongside it when KDF invaded southern Somalia in October 2011. It is common knowledge that the Ras Kamboni militia’s leader, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam, better known as Madobe, was a high-ranking official of the militant Islamic group Hizbul Islam, which was formed in 2009 by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys (who has been designated as an international terrorist by the United States) before he joined the Kenyan forces.

Madobe was the governor of Kismaayo during the short-lived rule of the Islamic Courts Union, and later joined and then defected from Al Shabaab, ostensibly after protesting against its brutal methods. He later formed the Ras Kamboni militia to fight his former allies and to regain control over the prized port of Kismaayo, which was under the control of Al Shabaab when his and the Kenyan forces entered southern Somalia. (This could have been his primary motive for collaborating with the Kenyans.) All these double-dealings and defections should have been a cause for concern to KDF, but apparently they were not factored in when KDF—or rather the government of Mwai Kibaki—recruited Ras Kamboni militia for Kenya’s military mission in Somalia.

What could have prompted the Kenyan government to not only join forces with a known insurgent but even train his soldiers? Was it not a huge risk to be partnering with a militant group that had previous links with Al Shabaab? Wasn’t supporting such a group a security risk to the Kenyan forces? What if the Ras Kamboni soldiers defected? Given Madobe’s own record of defections, could he be relied on as a steady and committed ally?

Some observers believe that because he already knew the lay of the land, and had similar objectives as the Kenyan forces—to gain control of Kismaayo, Al Shabaab’s economic lifeline—Madobe was identified, and probably presented himself as a natural ally of the Kenyans, who were keen to create a friendly “buffer zone” in Jubbaland in southern Somalia. His Ogaden clan, which has for years sought to control southern Somalia, and which is also politically dominant in northeastern Kenya, could have also worked to his advantage.

It is important to note that the Kenyan government did not seek UN Security Council approval before it invaded Somalia. Kenyans were told that the operation was merely an “incursion” that had the blessing of the Federal Government of Somalia in Mogadishu and which was aimed at ousting Al Shabaab from areas along Kenya’s border with Somalia. It is ironic that the Kenyan government is now seeking the UN Security Council’s support.

The hypocrisy of the Kenyan government vis-à-vis the UN Security Council was further exposed when KDF were re-hatted as AMISOM. In September 2012, almost one year after the Kenyan invasion, when Kismaayo, the prized port that was Al Shabaab’s main economic base, fell to the Kenyan and Ras Kamboni forces, rumours began to emerge of Kenyan and Ras Kamboni soldiers exporting charcoal from the port, despite a UN Security Council ban.

Apparently, when the Kenyan and Somali forces entered Kismaayo, they discovered an estimated four million sacks of charcoal with an international market value of at least $60 million lined up by Al Shabaab and ready for export. In its report to the UN Security Council, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea claimed that the Kenyan and Ras Kamboni forces decided to export the charcoal despite the UN ban, and that the export of charcoal more than doubled under their watch.

The Kenyan and Ras Kamboni forces, like Al Shabaab, it seemed, had turned Kismaayo into a cash cow. The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea estimated that charcoal worth $250 million was shipped from Somalia in 2013 and 2014, and that an average of 20 trucks, each carrying 5 to 12 tonnes of charcoal, were arriving in Kismaayo every day.

Kenya thus has to contend with the fact that the UN Security Council may not be holding a favourable view of Kenyan forces in Somalia because KDF might, in fact, be funding Al Shabaab. In its 2014 report to the UN Security Council, the UN Monitoring Group also made the astonishing claim that profits from the port of Kismaayo, which were made through taxes, charcoal exports and the importation of cheap sugar, were equally divided between the Kenyan forces, the Interim Jubbaland Administration headed by Ahmed Madobe, and Al Shabaab—suggesting that KDF’s presence in Somalia had not affected Al Shabaab’s ability to raise funds; on the contrary, KDF might have been aiding the terrorist group’s income-generating activities.

These claims were also supported by a report by the US-funded Institute of Defence Analyses, which was cited by the Sunday Nation in an article published on 27 July 2014, which stated: “Kenya, although formally a participant in AMISOM, which operates in support of the Somali national government, is also complicit in support of trade that provides income to Al Shabaab, its military opponent, both inside Somalia, and, increasingly, at home in Kenya.”

According to a report prepared jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol, after losing Kismaayo, Al Shabaab began imposing “taxes” at roadblocks along routes in the hinterland that were used to transport charcoal to the port. At just one roadblock in Somalia’s Badhadhe District, the terrorist group was estimated to have made between $8 million and $18 million per year from charcoal traffic. Christian Hellemann, the principal analyst for the report, likened the charcoal trade in Somalia to the drug wars in Mexico in terms of the violence and the amounts of money involved.

An anonymous source who spoke to the Saturday Nation claimed that smuggled sugar was also a major source of income for Al Shabaab and KDF. There were five checkpoints between Kismaayo and the Kenyan town of Garissa; three of them were controlled by Al Shabaab and two by the Kenyan forces. “The sugar trucks are waved through all the checkpoints without any checks,” said the source. “There is a tacit agreement between the owner and these entities and we are sure hefty sums of money change hands in the form of illegal ‘taxes’,” stated the source, who was cited in the article published on 25 April 2015.

These reports were corroborated by other investigations that indicated that about 70 businessmen located in Kismaayo, Nairobi and Garissa were brokers in the sugar trade between Somalia and Kenya.

In other words, Kenyan forces were implicated in aiding Al Shabaab materially. Yet no sanctions have been placed on the Kenyan government or KDF and none of these allegations have affected how Kenyan forces in Somalia are viewed at home. In fact, reports about KDF’s involvement in the illicit charcoal and other trades in Somalia are largely ignored.

Maritime dispute
So what could be behind this new-found urgency on the part of the Kenyan government to compel the UN Security Council to declare Al Shabaab a terrorist organisation? After all, if sanctions are imposed on Kenya as a result of its own alleged affiliation with Al Shabaab, then will Kenya not be the ultimate loser?

Analysts believe that there must be something else behind Kenya’s diplomatic efforts at the UN. “It may have something to do with the maritime dispute between Kenya and Somalia because the Kenyan government is not going to accept a negative result from the court,” says Andrew Franklin, a Nairobi-based security analyst.

Kenya is currently in a legal dispute with Somalia over a maritime boundary along its border—a 100,000 square metre triangular chunk of the Indian Ocean that is suspected to be rich in oil. The International Court of Justice is expected to announce its decision on the dispute soon. It is possible that the Kenyan government is using the Al Shabaab threat to put additional pressure on the Federal Government of Somalia to withdraw the case against Kenya. Maybe Kenya believes that the listing of Al Shabaab as a terrorist organisation could lead to the imposition of UN sanctions on countries that harbour terrorists, in this case, Somalia. Having been weakened by the UN sanctions, Mogadishu might then consider negotiating with Nairobi on the border dispute. (The distribution of oil wealth will no doubt determine the content of any such negotiations.)

But there might be other considerations as well. Kenya has been unsuccessful in bringing back two Cuban doctors working in Kenya who were abducted by Al Shabaab in April this year from the border town of Mandera and taken to Somalia. Perhaps pressure from the Cuban government might have prompted the Kenyan government (which made a deal with Cuba to bring in the Cuban doctors, a decision that has irked Kenyan doctors who have failed to negotiate better terms for themselves with the government for years) to make it look like it is doing something about the Al Shabaab menace, hence the proposal to the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile, Al Shabaab, not one to let an opportunity go to waste, has apparently been using the medical services of the Cuban doctors. “There are rumours that the Cubans are treating Al Shabaab fighters and the general civilian population,” says Franklin. How ironic will it be if these Cuban doctors, when finally released, are charged with aiding a terrorist organisation?

Source:Theelephant by Rasna Warah