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The Fact of the Matter: Al-Shabaab is Not Mining Uranium in Somalia to Sell to Iran

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By Cindy Vestergaard

The Common Misconception

Militants are strip mining uranium deposits in Somalia to sell to Iran.

Fox News: “Al Qaeda affiliate mining uranium to send to Iran, Somali official warns US ambassador.”
VOA: “Somalia Seeks US Help, Says Militants Plot to Supply Uranium to Iran…the letter might be intended to draw additional military support from Washington more than anything else.”

The Fact of the Matter

A letter sent by Somalia’s Foreign Minister Yusuf Garaad to the U.S. Ambassador of Somalia, Stephen Schwartz, on August 11 overstates the risk of nuclear proliferation as an attempt to bring the United States into what is a decades-long protracted, factional conflict further complicated by high food insecurity, terrorism and no functioning central government.

Additional Background

There are no operating uranium mines in Somalia, nor any plans to construct one. The country’s known reserves are small and highly expensive to extract[1] with data largely based on geological mapping efforts done in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, mining activities in Somalia are described as small-scale and artisanal, mainly gemstones and salt production in Somaliland,[2] a self-declared independent (but not internationally recognized) region of Somalia.

Any development of the minerals sector is complicated by Somalia’s grim security environment. Twenty-six years of war, famine, foreign intervention, and terrorism have left Somalia’s 12 million inhabitants hungry, acutely malnourished, and displaced with most of the population (73%) living on less than US$2 per day. Mogadishu and other towns are now under government control, but the situation is far too divided and violent for democratic elections — the last were held in 1969. Somalia is Africa’s most failed state[3] and has been called “the worst place in the world.”[4]

The letter’s claim that Al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group allied to al-Qaeda, is “strip mining triuranium octoxide” from “captured critical surface exposed uranium deposits in the Galmudug region” would suppose first that Al-Shabaab has an interest in excavating the land for uranium and secondly has the large industrial equipment, dump trucks, solvents and know-how to break and crush ore then extract and separate out uranium, and process it into a concentrate form for transport. No extremist group is known to have the resources for a mining operation, even if taking over an-already operational mine, nor would such an operation go unnoticed by intelligence agencies.

Lastly, the letter’s claim that Iran is the destination is a gross distortion even if al-Shabaab had the ability to mine uranium. The United Nations Security Council would know if uranium concentrates were being transferred to Iran. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached by Iran and six other powers (the United States, China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom) plus the European Union in July 2015 monitors all transfers, trade and/or domestic production of uranium ore concentrates. Moreover, if Iran wanted to buy uranium it can do so openly through a ‘procurement channel’established by the JCPOA and endorsed by United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 (2015) for States wanting to transfer nuclear or dual-use goods, technology or related services to Iran. All such activities are to be approved by the Security Council, including any acquisitions by Iran of an interest in a commercial activity in another State involving uranium mining or production of nuclear materials.

If the argument has an oddly familiar ring, it is because uranium — or rather the fear of it — was a key part of the justification by the George W. Bush Administration (and by U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair) for invading Iraq in 2003. The claim was discredited and eventually retracted by the White House four months after the United States had begun military operations in Baghdad.

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Cindy Vestergaard is a Senior Associate with the Nuclear Safeguards program at the Stimson Center.


[1] Uranium recoverable at a cost less than USD 260/kgU. See: OECD-IAEA Red Book, : http://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/pubs/2016/7301-uranium-2016.pdf

[2] https://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/country/2011/myb3-2011-so.pdf

[4] “The Worst Place in the World: See What Life is Like in Somalia,” Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/somalia-is-the-most-failed-state-on-earth-2013-7?r=US&IR=T&IR=T

Somali News

BREAKING: Somali general shot dead in capital Mogadishu

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MOGADISHU (Reuters) – A Somali general was shot in the head and killed in the capital Mogadishu on Thursday and a colonel who was his deputy has been arrested for the murder, senior army sources said.

The killing of Marine general Saiid Aden Yusuf in what was apparently an internal dispute is a fresh sign of problems facing the army as it battles an insurgency by Islamist militant group al Shabaab with the help of African Union peacekeepers.

“Our marine general was killed by his deputy at Mogadishu seaport today. The murderer was seized. It was unfortunate and unexpected. An investigation goes on,” marine officer Ahmed Ali told Reuters.

Mogadishu resident Nur Mohamed told Reuters the colonel fired several shots from his pistol and hit the general in the head.

“I was chatting with the general shortly before he was killed …. I heard the gunshots and when I ran to the scene I was shocked to see the general lying on the ground, bleeding,” he said, adding that Yusuf died on the scene from bullet wounds.

Marine officer Ahmed Ali said the colonel was arrested.

Al Shabaab is fighting to oust the government and establish its own rule based on its strict interpretation of Islam’s sharia law.

The group has been pushed out of most of its urban strongholds but it is able to mount deadly attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere.

Somalia has faced violence and lacked a strong central government since President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991.

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Humanitarian Watch

UN: More than half of Somalis need emergency aid

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The United Nations says more than half of Somalia’s population is in need of emergency aid due to a major drought and worsening conflict.

Millions have been forced from their homes and hundreds of thousands of children have been left malnourished.

The UN says the situation will worsen unless it receives $1.6bn in extra funds.

Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith reports.

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Briefing Room

Somalia to Probe Evictions of Thousands of Displaced Families

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NAIROBI — The Somali government responded to widespread criticism by aid agencies on Wednesday, promising to investigate reports that thousands of families fleeing drought and conflict were forcefully evicted from more than 20 informal camps.

The United Nations and groups such as the Somalia NGO Consortium say more than 4,000 families, or about 20,000 people, had their homes bulldozed last month inside settlements on the outskirts of the capital of Mogadishu.

The demolitions on private land were unannounced, they said, and pleas by the community — largely women and children — for time to collect their belongings and go safely were not granted.

Some aid workers who witnessed the evictions said uniformed government soldiers were involved in the demolitions.

“Regarding the forced evictions, we are really deeply concerned. We are investigating the number of evictions,” Gamal Hassan, Somalia’s minister for planning, investment and economic development, told participants at a U.N. event.

“We have to make sure we investigate and have to make sure we know exactly what happened. And then we will issue a report and you can take a look at it and see what happened and how it happened,” he said by video conference from Mogadishu.

The impoverished east African nation of more than 12 million people has been witnessing an unprecedented drought, with poor rains for four consecutive seasons.

It has also been mired in conflict since 1991 and its Western-backed government is struggling to assert control over poor, rural areas under the Islamist militant group al Shabab.

The U.N. says drought and violence have forced more than 2 million people to seek refuge elsewhere in the country, often in informal settlements located around small towns and cities.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on Wednesday condemned the demolitions, and said the fate of those evicted did not fit with the progress Somalia has made.

“Not only did these people lose their homes, but the basic infrastructure that was provided by humanitarian partners and donors, such as latrines, schools, community centers — has been destroyed,” said Peter De Clercq, head of OCHA in Somalia, at the same event.

“I reiterate my condemnation of this very serious protection violation and call on the national and regional authorities to take necessary steps to protect and assist these people who have suffered so much.”

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