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Displaced Somali children line up at a food distribution center in Mogadishu

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Al-Qaida and the politics of aid in Somalia

Al-Qaida and the politics of aid in Somalia

The relief effort in Somalia offers al-Qaida an opportunity to 'do business', especially in areas controlled by al-Shabaab

Posted by Jamal Osman Nov 1, 2011

Video: Al-Qaida fighting for hearts and minds in famine-hit Somalia

Al-Qaida medical workers at ala-yasir camp in Somalia, also known as K50. Photograph: Jamal Osman for the Guardian

Al-Qaida operatives distributing aid to drought-affected Somalis may shock people but for the displaced, al-Qaida is as good as anyone else giving them something to eat.

Since the famine was declared in July, aid agencies have descended on Somalia; some old faces and some new ones. Al-Qaida is the latest to join the enormous aid industry in the country.

Al-Qaida's Islamist ally, al-Shabaab, which controls most of drought-hit southern Somalia, has banned some large humanitarian organisations from the region, which has drawn condemnation from the international community.

Many international organisations are still trying to support those affected by the famine either working in government-controlled areas or through partners.

However, al-Shabaab has welcomed Muslim charities, in particular those from the Gulf states and Turkey. So, why is al-Shabaab banning some organisations and yet inviting in al-Qaida?

If you talk to Somalis, regardless of their political views, the overwhelming majority are suspicious of western aid agencies. It is a fear that appears to be based on the perception that they "side with particular political groups or clans, and bankroll warlords".

Since the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Siad Barre regime, some of the big agencies established bases in Somalia and aid became big business it still is. While Somalis are grateful for their humanitarian work, they are also uncomfortable with their role in the Somalia conflict.

I have investigated aid corruption in Somalia in the past and saw firsthand the bad side of aid. A UN investigation last year found that the World Food Programme worked with known corrupt transport contractors to deliver aid on its behalf. The WFP subsequently ended work with them, claiming that the businessmen were either linked to or were themselves warlords. The implication is that some humanitarian organisations are bankrolling warlords and prolonging the war. This has come to be known as "blood aid".

Neutrality is another huge problem the aid community faces in Somalia. As much as some people hate al-Shabaab, one of the group's arguments for banning certain agencies is that they are funding "their enemies".

For example, the African Union soldiers supporting the weak Somali government are funded by the UN. In 2009, the UN's political office for Somalia set up a trust fund "to finance support for the African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom) and to assist in the re-establishment, training and retention of Somali security forces".

For al-Shabaab, it is logical to say: "If you are funding my enemy, you are my enemy too."

But the newcomers from the Muslim world such as Turkey's Kimse Yok Mu and the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the International Islamic Charitable Organisation based in Kuwait, and Islamic Relief UK are proving to be more pragmatic. So far, they have stayed away from internal Somali politics, choosing their partners carefully, avoiding warlords and hiring individuals with a known track record.

These groups seem able to operate across Somalia without fear of being killed or kidnapped because Somalis see them as genuine helpers. Time will tell if they remain that way. For now, they are filling the gap left by some western agencies.

Often, foreigners fail to recognise the complexity of Somali society and treat the current situation as good versus evil. But Somalis frequently switch sides: within a short period, former enemies become friends and former friends become enemies. Former Islamists like the current president are running the western-backed government.

In Somalia, word goes around quickly on which particular aid organisations are funding certain political groups or clans. And that makes them a target, and unwelcome in parts of Somalia. For instance, I've met al-Shabaab fighters who have worked in the aid industry in Somalia for many years and know very well the inside dealings of the business.

If the humanitarian community wants to help the poor, they need to redefine their roles. They must remain non-political, non-partisan and work with non-corrupt Somalis. Otherwise, groups like al-Qaida will fill the vacuum left by big aid organisations. For al-Qaida, it is an opportunity to do business in Somalia.


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