Somalia: Short-sighted U.S foreign policy risks revitalising terrorist groups


Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist group that has wreaked havoc in the war torn nation of Somalia over the last decade, has kept a relatively low profile in recent months. Banished from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, by African Union (AU) troops in August 2011, al-Shabaab’s control over Somalia has gradually shrunk. In the same year, their legitimacy in the eyes of the population was severely damaged by their refusal to accept foreign aid during a famine which killed as many as 260,000 people, half of them under the age of 6.

In 2012, they were forced from the port of Kismayo, which provided a vital source of funding through its lucrative charcoal trade. Although many still suffer under the fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia law enforced in the rural areas still controlled by al-Shabaab, it appears as if their reign of terror in Somalia had gradually drawn to a close.

However, the encouraging news from Somalia in recent years was brought into question this week as al-Shabaab catapulted themselves back into the headlines, injuring the deputy prime minister in a suicide bomb attack that killed 25 people outside a hotel in Mogadishu. Days later, the group released a propaganda video calling for attacks on shopping malls in Britain, Canada and the Mall of America in Minnesota, which is in an area home to America’s largest Somali population.


Above: al-Shabaab militants training in Somalia

The sudden re-emergence of al-Shabaab appears darkly ironic in light of a recent change in American foreign policy towards Somalia. Earlier this month, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) issued a cease and desist order to the last U.S bank still processing money transfers to Somalia on the grounds that some of the money may be funneled to al-Shabaab. The ‘hawala’ system of remittances, which allows money transfers from foreign countries to reach even the most remote Somali villages, makes up 50% of Somalia’s GNP and over 40% of the population rely on it for survival.

The ‘hawala’ system has proven astonishingly successful, arguably saving hundreds of thousands of lives during the 2011 famine and reliably providing money transfers to one of the poorest nations of the world at over half the average African interest rate. Around 43% of Somalia’s population still suffer from food shortages, and by cutting off this vital lifeline the U.S. is making it impossible for American Somalis to provide for their families back home. Once again, the U.S government has demonstrated how short sighted their foreign policy can be in the pursuit of the ‘war on terror’.

Somalia Money Transfers
Somali Americans rally at the Minnesota State Capitol to protest the closure of money service businesses Friday, Jan. 6, 2012, in St. Paul, Minn. They are asking banks to restore relations with the companies wiring money to millions of Somali refugees in the Horn of Africa. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Above: American Somali’s protest the cutting of remittances in Minnesota in 2012

When interviewed about the decision, Deputy Comptroller Grovetta Gardineer asserted that, “The Somali situation is a terrible human tragedy that cannot be solved by bank regulators,” suggesting that instead “it requires an international government and private-sector effort involving organizations that have greater expertise in providing humanitarian assistance and building the infrastructure necessary.” This statement embodies the blinding ignorance demonstrated by the OCC’s decision. Oxfam America estimates that remittances to Somalia total $1.3 billion a year, more than the combined foreign aid and private investment; not only has the U.S not increased its allotment of aid to Somalia to make up for the losses caused by the ending of remittances, the suggestion that increasing humanitarian aid will solve Somalia’s problems undermines everything that makes the ‘hawala’ system so successful.

Somalia is identified by the CIA as the second poorest of the world’s 228 nations, tied with Zimbabwe and Burundi, and Transparency International has declared Somalia to be the most corrupt country in the world, alongside North Korea and Afghanistan. The rampant corruption at all levels of Somali society has severely hampered the provision for humanitarian aid, with a UN monitoring group declaring in 2012 that 70% of the money earmarked for development and reconstruction had disappeared. The same report suggested that out of every $10 received by Somalia’s transitional government between 2009 and 2010, $7 remain unaccounted for. The New York Times has reported that up to half the food aid sent to Somalia is diverted to a web of corrupt contractors and al-Shabaab militants. Whereas the ‘hawala’ system flourished because it provided small, reliable, low risk transfers of money between family members, the system of humanitarian aid in Somalia suffers through its size. It relies on shady government officials to oversee the distribution of huge sums of money and aid, and consequently much of it is lost before it reaches those in need.

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Above: American aid arriving in Somalia. Up to half of food aid sent to Somalia is diverted through illicit channels

While some money sent through the ‘hawala’ system may indeed have end up being funnel led to al-Shabaab, it is apparent that the system the OCC suggests should replace it increases the likelihood of money ending up in their hands. Equally, by destroying the livelihoods of thousands of people already living in abject poverty, the U.S government risks pushing disenfranchised Somali youth further into illicit activities, be they piracy, the illegal ivory trade, charcoal smuggling or terrorist organizations. In the pursuit of destroying a group estimated to have only around 7000-9000 members, the OCC has alienated tens of thousands more innocent people. It is, as The Guardian’s George Monbiot points out, like “banning agriculture in case fertilizer is used to make explosives.”

With the shocking military successes of ISIL in the Middle East and Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria stealing headlines this year, it is easy to view the recent resurgence of al-Shabaab as the desperate attempts of a fading group attempting to remain relevant; their new propaganda video, for example, is clearly styled on the slick media productions of ISIL. However, as Anton de Plessis, managing director for the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa, suggests, “they are still a force to be reckoned with,” and the ending of remittances increases the risk of funds being captured by al-Shabaab by forcing money transfers underground. In light of the news that HSBC processed billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels, but were allowed to continue operating because of the threat to American jobs, the OCC reveals the racist hypocrisy embodied by their short-sighted policy. To destroy al-Shabaab and begin the arduous task of rebuilding a nation wrecked by three decades of civil war, the American government must permit money transfers to Somalia, and instead focus their attention on increasing the transparency of ‘hawala’ system, a tactic that has already proven successful in Britain. By outlawing remittances, the OCC risks revitalizing a terrorist organization that finally seemed to be falling apart.

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