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Humanitarian Watch

Funding al-Shabaab: How aid money ends up in terror group’s hands

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Baidoa, Somalia (CNN)The murderous al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab is making millions of dollars each year by exploiting foreign aid money sent to Somalia by the very western nations who are trying to eliminate the terror group.

A CNN investigation has revealed how money given directly by the United Nations to people displaced by conflict and famine is ending up in the hands of Africa’s oldest terrorist organization.

Former members of al-Shabaab and Somali intelligence agents said the terror group is extorting thousands of dollars per day through road blocks and taxes on merchants attempting to transport food and supplies to sell to internally displaced people in towns where they are concentrated.

People who have fled their homes and are living in a sprawling camp in the central Somali city of Baidoa are screened by the UN and issued cash cards that the UN tops up with around $80 to $90 each month, enabling them to buy essentials from local merchants.

UN officials say this direct payment system will avoid distorting local markets by flooding them with free food, and relieve the UN of the burden of running food convoys that are vulnerable to attacks and theft.

Businessmen now truck food bought on the open market to places like Baidoa, where internally displaced people (IDPs) arrive every day. But they must pay al-Shabaab, which controls the main road into the town, to move their goods.

Former members of the terror group and Somali intelligence agents said that tolls taken from trucks and other vehicles at just two al-Shabaab roadblocks on Somalia’s busiest road raked in thousands every day. The UN has estimated that a single roadblock generated about $5,000 per day on the road to Baidoa.

‘Tax’ collectors

Speaking at a secret location on the outskirts of Baidoa, a former zaqat (tax) collector for al-Shabaab, who was captured in a recent raid by agents from Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency, confirmed that the extraction of tolls at roadblocks was one of the biggest sources of money for al-Shabaab.

The two biggest sources were the road to Baidoa and the main artery which connects the capital Mogadishu with the agriculturally-rich Lower Shabelle region.

The gouging is more subtle today than it was in the early 1990s, when local warlords deliberately starved hundreds of thousands of Somalis in order to profit from international aid money. Scenes of mass death on the streets of Baidoa in 1992 provoked the United States to lead a multinational UN-backed military intervention in the same year.

In Baidoa back then, a truck known as the Death Bus collected around 100 bodies a day, all of them skeletal from starvation, from the dusty streets of the town every morning.

Aid organizations were so desperate to help that they paid warlords to permit access to starving victims. Until Western nations intervened, the warlords worked to sustain the famine in order to keep the aid money flowing into their coffers — effectively exploiting desperate people to turn a profit.

Back then, organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross had to pay for armed guards — the ICRC spent $100,000 a week on protection in Mogadishu.

The money went into the hands of mere gangsters — not international terrorist organizations, who are less forgiving when their debts go unpaid.
In 2018, if local merchants don’t pay up, “they’re captured and killed,” said a former al-Shabaab fighter who collected tax for eight years and now works with Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency.

Speaking in a secret location in Baidoa, he explained how for every sack of rice delivered to the city by private merchants, al-Shabaab would cream off about $3 in tolls, taking nearly half the difference in the price of a sack that sells for $18 in Mogadishu and $26 in Baidoa.

On top of that the merchants are then forced to pay an annual tax to al-Shabaab — even in towns and cities that are not under the group’s control, like Baidoa and Mogadishu.

These allegations have been confirmed by the regional government and the president of the South West State of Somalia, Hssan Sheikh Ada.

Michael Keating, the UN’s head of country, acknowledged the scam but said that most of the foreign aid still reached its intended destination.

“Unfortunately those in need, and those who are going to be targeted by humanitarian organizations to receive assistance, do become attractive for those trying to make money, and there will be all sorts of scams going on,” said Keating, a veteran UN official with years of experience in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

“To deny it is happening would be wrong, but I think to take examples of it happening, and to say the whole response is like this, would be a gross misrepresentation of what is going on.”

Forced to flee

The paying of “zaqat” isn’t confined to road tolls and taxes on businessmen. Ordinary Somalis have to pay an annual tax to the al Qaeda group which was behind terror attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the massacre at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall four years ago.

Fatima Ali Hassan used to own dozens of goats and cows. Driven out of her home by drought and demands for money by al-Shabaab, the mother of seven now lives in a tent made out of rags in Baidoa. She’s one of tens of thousands who have made their way to this hungry city.

But even here, she’s an asset to the terror group, like the other 270,000 displaced people living in the city — and more are pouring in every day. The UN fears that the ongoing drought will once again threaten Somalia with famine and provide al-Shabaab with even greater opportunities to make money from foreign aid — particularly if the group maintains control of the main routes through the interior of the country.

Somalia’s national army is a patchwork quilt of rival militias sewn together by thin threads of hope that one day it will be able to prevail against the extremists.

For now, the country’s primary fighting force is a 22,000-strong African Union (AU) contingent that has been protecting the country’s fledgling government in Mogadishu, and working to wrest control of south back from al-Shabaab. But it’s withdrawing slowly and is expected to be out of the country in two year’s time.

The African Union military leadership admits that it can’t push al-Shabaab off the major roads that provide it with so much income.
“Instead of reducing [AU forces], it should have been increased,” said Lt. Colonel Chris Ogwal. “We are now overstretched, we are just conducting minor offensive operations.”

Ogwal commands the Ugandan contingent which controls the road between Mogadishu and the small town of Afgoye — but not, critically, the rest of the way to Baidoa.

That remains al-Shabaab’s financial artery.

Ogwal said that any reduction in AU forces would inevitably leave a vacuum that al-Shabaab would fill.

This leaves a growing number of American troops — more than 500, including Special Operation Forces — shouldering the ever-increasing security burden in Somalia.

But this year is the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu, the infamous clash in which 18 Americans and more than 1,000 Somalis were killed when US Special Forces attempted to arrest Somalia’s most powerful warlord at the time, Mohammed Farrah Aidid.
Images of a dead pilot being dragged through the dust of the Somali capital swiftly undermined a mission that had been intended to bring humanitarian relief and resulted in a US withdrawal two years later.

But the systems of corruption and manipulation of aid in Somalia remained, and have now been co-opted to finance a terrorist movement that controls about a third of the country and may become a magnet for ISIS jihadists on the run from their former caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Humanitarian Watch

Aid agencies switch to cash-based cards in Somalia

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In Somalia, the UN says almost three million people are at risk of drought and malnutrition.

Many of them have had to leave their homes in search of water and food, but there isn’t always enough.

As TRT World’s Adesewa Josh reports, aid agencies are turning to cash to find ways around the problem.

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Briefing Room

A Child Dies, a Child Lives: Why Somalia Drought Is Not Another Famine

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DOLLOW, Somalia (Reuters) – At the height of Somalia’s 2011 famine, Madow Mohamed had to leave her crippled five-year-old son Abdirahman by the side of the road to lead her eight other starving children toward help.
When she returned to search for him, she found only a grave. He was among the 260,000 Somalis who perished.

“You can never forget leaving your child to die,” she says, wiping away tears at the memory seven years later. “It is a hell that does not end.”

This time, the drought has been harsher. Three seasons of rains have failed, instead of two. But none of Mohamed’s other children have died – and the overall death toll, although unknown, is far lower. The United Nations has documented just over 1,000 deaths, mostly from drinking dirty water.

Why?

Earlier donor intervention, less interference by a weakened Islamist insurgency, a stronger Somali government and greater access for aid workers have been crucial.

Another reason is that aid agencies are shifting from giving out food to cash – a less wasteful form of aid that donors such as Canada, Europe and Australia have embraced, although the United States still has restrictions on food aid.

The U.S. Congress will debate a move toward cash-based aid this year when lawmakers vote on a new Farm Bill. Christopher Barrett, an expert on food aid at Cornell University, is one of many scholars, politicians and aid agencies demanding reform.

“A conservative estimate is that we sacrifice roughly 40,000 children’s lives annually because of antiquated food aid policies,” he told Congress in November.

FROM FOOD TO CASH

In 2011, a few donors gave out cash in Somalia, but the World Food Programme only gave out food. It was often hijacked by warlords or pirates, or rotted under tarpaulins as trucks sat at roadblocks.

Starving families had to trek for days through the desert to reach distribution points. Their route became so littered with children’s corpses it was called “the Road of Death”.

Now, more than 70 percent of WFP aid in Somalia is cash, much of it distributed via mobile phones. More than 50 other charities are also giving out cash: each month Mohamed receives $65 from the Italian aid group Coopi to spend as she wants: milk, medicine, food or school fees.

Cash has many advantages over food aid if markets are functioning. It’s invisible, so less likely to be stolen. It’s mobile so families can move or stay put.
WFP said it gave out $134 million directly to Somali families to spend at local shops last year.

“We … basically gave confidence to the market to stay active,” said Laurent Bukera, head of WFP Somalia.

And money is more efficient than bags of food: in Somalia, cash aid means 80 cents in every $1 goes directly to the family, rather than 60 cents from food aid, said Calum McLean, the cash expert at the European Union’s humanitarian aid department.

Cash might have saved little Abdirahman.

“I could have stayed in my village if I had had cash. There was some food in the markets. It was expensive, but if you had money, there was food to buy,” Mohamed said sadly.

GLOBAL SHIFT

Aid groups have been experimenting with cash for two decades but McLean says the idea took off five years ago as the Syrian civil war propelled millions of refugees into countries with solid banking systems.

Donors have adapted. Six years ago, five percent of the EU’s humanitarian aid budget was cash distributions. Today, it is more than a third.

Most of the initial cost lies in setting up the database and the distribution system. After that, adding more recipients is cheap, McLean said. Amounts can be easily adjusted depending on the level of need or funding.

“Cash distributions also becomes cheaper the larger scale you do it,” he said.

Most U.S. international food assistance is delivered by USAID’s Food for Peace Office, which had a budget of $3.6 billion in 2017.

Just under half those funds came through U.S. Farm Bill Title II appropriations, which stipulate that most food must be bought from American farmers. The U.S. Cargo Preference Act requires that half of this be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels.

Despite these restrictions, Food for Peace increased cash and voucher programs from 3 percent of the budget in 2011 to 20 percent last year.

But sourcing food aid in the United States is expensive and wasteful, said Barrett, who oversaw a study that found buying grain close to an emergency was half the price and 14 weeks faster. Arguments that food aid supported U.S. farmers or mariners were largely false, he said.

HOW IT WORKS

Aid groups use different systems to distribute cash, but most assess families, then register them in a biometric database, usually via fingerprints. Cash is distributed using bank cards or mobile phones or as vouchers.

Some charities place no restrictions on the cash; others, like WFP, stipulate it can only be spent at certain shops with registered shopkeepers.

In Dollow, the dusty town on the Ethiopian border where Mohamed lives with her surviving children, families say the cash has transformed their lives.

Gacalo Aden Hashi, a young mother whose name means “sweetheart”, remembers trudging past two dead children in 2011 on her way to get help. A third was alive but dying, she said, and her weakened family had to press on.

When she arrived at the camp, men were stealing food aid to give to their families, she said.

“Men were punching each other in line every time at food distributions,” she said. “Sometimes you would be sitting and suddenly your food would be taken by some strong young man.”

Now, she says, no one can steal her money – Coopi uses a system that requires a PIN to withdraw money. Most of her cash goes on food but with a group of other women she saved enough to open a small stall.

“The cash may end, but this business will not,” she said.

PROBLEMS PERSIST

Cash won’t work everywhere. In South Sudan, where famine briefly hit two counties last year, the civil war shut markets, forcing aid agencies to bring in food by plane and truck.

Sending cash to areas hit by earthquakes would drive up prices. But in a drought, where livelihoods have collapsed but infrastructure is intact, cash transfers are ideal, experts say.

Some problems remain. There’s often little co-ordination among donors – for instance, there are seven separate databases in Somalia, said McLean, and monthly stipends can vary widely.

In Uganda, authorities are investigating reports of fraud after the government used its own biometric registration system for refugees.

And if there’s no clean water or health service available, then refugees can’t spend money buying water or medicine.

But most scholars agree that switching to more cash aid would save more lives, a 2016 briefing paper by the Congressional Research Service concluded.

(Additional reporting by George Obulutsa; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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Briefing Room

In a Man’s Death, a Glimpse of Libya’s Horrors

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HRW — A young Eritrean man died on Tuesday in Sicily of tuberculosis compounded by severe malnutrition. His name was Segen.* He was 22.

There is so much about Segen we may never know. Did he prefer to read books or play football? What music did he like? Had he ever been in love? Who did he leave behind?

This is what we do know: Segen was rescued from the Mediterranean on Sunday by Pro Activa Open Arms, a Spanish group, and disembarked in Sicily on Monday. He died in the hospital. He told rescuers he was held captive in Libya for 19 months.

Segen may have been held in an official detention center or by smugglers – in today’s Libya, both are similar and brutal. He may have been held for ransom, or tortured while forced to call home so his family could hear him scream as he begged them to send money. He may have been sold from one smuggling network to another or forced to work without pay.

These possibilities are based on accounts I heard from migrants who escaped Libya. When I went out on a rescue ship run by SOS MEDITERRANEE and Médécins sans Frontières, they rescued many Eritreans and Somalis who had spent many months in captivity in Libya; some were severely emaciated.

If Segen had survived, there’s a good chance he would have been granted the right to stay in Europe; most Eritreans are because of serious repression, including indefinite military conscription, in Eritrea.

Yet European governments are empowering Libyan authorities to stop migrant boat departures and intercept – including in international waters – ones that do launch. All of those on board are then indefinitely detained in Libya.

While implementing policies that effectively trap people like Segen in horrible abuse, European governments are failing to resettle people the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, evacuates from Libya to Niger. Just over 1,000 people have been taken to Niger, but only 55 have been resettled to Europe, leading Niger to ask UNHCR to temporarily suspend the program.

Europe can and should do more. Our governments should focus on ending the cycle of captivity and violence in Libya and help as many people as possible reach a place of safety. Ramping up resettlement is a good place to start.

*Italian authorities registered his name as Tesfalidet Tesfon, but he was known as Segen.

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