Ukraine has sent 28,000 tons of grain to Somalia, enough to feed 1.5 million people for a month. Somalia faces its second major famine since 2011. That one killed at least 250,000 people. The 2022 famine threatens over seven million people, is worse than the 2011 famine and the worst since the 1980s. This time at least a million potential famine victim on living in al Shabaab controlled areas where the Islamic terrorists demand cash to allow aid to reach those who need it.
The UN complained that only two percent of the money needed for food aid in Somalia during 2022 had been pledged. With half the Somali population in need of food aid, fewer have been receiving it over the last year. This is because more donors were refusing to contribute. The donors were sending their aid elsewhere, where it was less likely to be stolen and more likely to reach the people who needed it.
Corruption in Somalia has long been epic and recognized as the worst in the world for over a decade. Corruption ratings come from the annual Transparency International survey. While the hunger and suffering in Somalia are often reported in mass media, the donor nations face more demand that aid donors can handle and are increasingly refusing to provide aid for nations where little of the aid, particularly food aid, reaches the people in need and are featured in the mass media. Foreign journalists are allowed to cover hunger but not corruption. Doing so will get you arrested or worse. Media that depend on local sources for details on corruption have a difficult time documenting the aid thefts but it is obvious after more than three decades of disappearing aid that is not getting through. This scam has been ongoing in Somalia for decades.
There are frequent incidents reminding everyone how the culture of corruption works. For example, in 2019 the far north an unexpected failure of the annual monsoon rains caused a severe drought, major crop failures and many people facing famine and starvation. Aid for this was difficult to obtain because of the chronic corruption that often cripples such aid efforts and enriches a few local officials and gangsters. These droughts and famines have always been present in this region but emergency foreign food aid is a late 2oth century development that has saved a lot of lives and made a lot of local leaders and gangsters rich. Much of the food never gets to those who need it most (the ones who cannot afford to even buy food) but enough of the food does reach famine victims to make it worthwhile to keep trying.
Part of the foreign aid problem is the nature of Somali culture. It is very competitive, entrepreneurial, violent and resourceful. For many Somalis al Shabaab is not so much a religious movement as it is an opportunity to make some money. Al Shabaab is very much a criminal organization whose main goal is to make more money so it can recruit more members, arm them and use violence, bribes and extortion to obtain still more power and wealth. This Somali outlook put al Shabaab at odds with al Qaeda and other international Islamic terror groups. In the end the Somalis won that argument in Somalia.
The resourcefulness can be seen in how al Shabaab has overcome the problems with widespread cell phone use. Initially this made it more difficult for al Shabaab to operate because people who opposed them could alert the security forces, or local militia, when al Shabaab activity was spotted. Shutting down the cell phone systems was a common approach with Islamic terrorists but al Shabaab saw different opportunities. Cell towers and other cell phone assets were only attacked if the cell phone companies would not pay a “tax” to operate in an area where al Shabaab was active and able to make good on threats. With control of the cell phone service providers, al Shabaab was able to communicate, especially with their informants. Al Shabaab paid for useful information and becoming an al Shabaab informant was a good way to make some extra cash, as well as stay off the al Shabaab hit list. Al Shabaab isn’t the only group in Somalia that uses cell phones like this. Powerful clans maintain armed militias and an informant network among clan members. This is why the media regularly report the government or peacekeepers “consulting clan elders”, negotiating with al Shabaab (or another clan). Often al Shabaab will have to deal with the clan elders because al Shabaab has found that making an enemy of a powerful clan is bad for business. An example occurs in the south, on the Kenyan border, where al Shabaab has found its operations disrupted because of disputes with the powerful Marehan clan. Most situations where al Shabaab has problems doing business is because they have run afoul of a powerful (and usually heavily armed) clan. Al Shabaab tries to intimidate clans into cooperating but failing that al Shabaab must either fight, make a deal or move somewhere else. Somalia is a patchwork of areas where al Shabaab tries to avoid because of the powerful clan organizations. These clans are usually the ones with “clan elders” who can negotiate with al Shabaab. For example, clan elders were called on three years ago when two Cuban doctors were kidnapped by al Shabaab and held for a $1.5 million ransom. While the Cuban economy is a wreck, the country does provide free medical school for nearly all Cubans who are capable of handling the demanding courses. Cuba has lots of doctors but little money for medications or medical equipment in general. Cuba does demonstrate that good primary care has a very positive overall impact. Cuba eventually had more doctors than they could use and found that renting out its doctors for foreign countries, especially in South America and Africa, could be lucrative. That business now brings in over $10 billion a year. The Cuban doctors involved are paid more than they receive back in Cuba and have opportunities to defect, which a growing number do. The Cuban government holds kin of doctors hostage but that, and the fact that kin will no longer receive part of the doctors’ foreign pay, is often not sufficient to prevent defection. The Cuban doctors are appreciated in foreign countries, where the local medical facilities are generally better than back in Cuba and the patients grateful for the specialist care and surgical skills the Cuban doctors often provide to people who would otherwise not receive much medical care at all.
The 2019 kidnapping in northern Kenya had an immediate impact. Local tribal elders and others with contact or clout with al Shabaab began negotiations to get the doctors released. After all, the doctors also treated Kenyan Somalis and refugees from Somalia. Clan elders soon reported that the two doctors were back in Somalia and safe. In fact, the two doctors were regularly treating patients there. Before the kidnapped doctors were freed, other Cuban doctors working near the Somali border withdrew to safer areas until their colleagues were released and Kenya increased security for those Cubans working in areas where al Shabaab is known to operate.
In short, al Shabaab is powerful but not omnipotent. They can be hurt by things you rarely hear about, like feuds with powerful clans. More visible things that hurt al Shabaab are American UAV missile strikes and the American intelligence gathering effort that provides the location of targets for the missile strikes. These missile attacks concentrate on doing major damage to al Shabaab leadership or operations. The peacekeeper force is another problem. The government security forces (army and police) are easier to deal with (via intimidation or bribes). Another al Shabaab asset is corruption in the Somali government which means many officials are for sale or rent. This is one reason the Americans keep their local intelligence network separate from anything the Somali government is doing in that area. The Americans share some intel with the Somali government or the peacekeeper force. Some of this intel gets back to al Shabaab and the usual result is al Shabaab itself is impressed and intimidated at how much the Americans know. Most of the American intel comes from UAV video and electronic (of communications) surveillance.
September 13, 2022: In central and southern Somalia (Hiran and Galgaduud regions) Somali troops and clan militias killed over a hundred al Shabaab gunmen as they cleared al Shabaab out of twenty villages they were using as bases. The operation had the advantage of aerial surveillance and lots of tips telephoned in by locals. Al Shabaab did not suspect such a large and intense operation against them. Most Somalis regard al Shabaab as gangsters with religious pretensions who specialize in kidnapping and extortion.
September 10, 2022: In the south (Lower Shabelle region) soldiers and special forces raided the town of Mubarak, which is95 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu and a base for al Shabaab extortion efforts. The troops killed the al Shabaab leader for the area and another man in charge of kidnapping and extortion activities. Ten other al Shabaab gunmen were wounded and captured. A number of civilian hostages were freed. The day before the Somali air force bombed the al Shabaab base, killing al Shabaab gunmen and some civilian hostages.
This is not the first time Somali troops have tried to clear this area of al Shabaab presence. Villages in the area are used as bases for al Shabaab groups that maintain lucrative checkpoints that demanded fees from vehicles in order to pass. Returning these roads to government control made it more difficult for al Shabaab to terrorize larger towns and the population in general.
September 7, 2022: The new (since May) Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, replaced the mayor of Mogadishu with a Yusuf Hussein Jim’ale, who had served as mayor from 2015-17, when Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was president for the first time. The mayor is also governor of the Banaadir region, which covers the same area as metropolitan Mogadishu. The president wants a mayor with experience in development, something Mogadishu has had little of since 2017.
September 5, 2022: In central Somalia (outside Beledweyne) al Shabaab intercepted and destroyed at least eight vehicles and killed at last 19 civilians overnight. Al Shabaab claimed it was seeking out and killing members of a local clan militia that opposes the al Shabaab presence in the area. Clan leaders are calling on the government to send more troops to the area to chase al Shabaab out once and for all. Al Shabaab has been carrying out a lot of attacks on civilians in the area over the last few years.
September 3, 2022: In the north (Hiran, a region 200 kilometers north of Mogadishu) al Shabaab forces attacked a food convoy as well as passenger vehicles. Nearly 30 civilians were killed and the food aid and the trucks carrying it were burned.
September 1, 2022: Outside Mogadishu (the Galgaduud region) al Shabaab destroyed wells and communications towers. Several towns in the area were also attacked.
August 19, 2022: In Mogadishu al Shabaab attacked the well-protected Hayat Hotel using explosives and gunfire. This got the attackers into the hotel compound where they took hostages and used them as human shields to prolong the siege to about 30 hours. Eventually most of the attackers were killed and over a hundred hotel guests and staff were rescued. There were about 30 dead, mainly the attackers and security forces and twice as many wounded.