Al-Shabab Bans Plastic Bags to Protect People and Livestock

East African militant group Al-Shabab is generally not known for its concern over the well-being of civilians. The brutal extremist organization has killed thousands of people since it was formed in the mid-2000s, and has been a crucial player in the chaos that turned Somalia into a failed state.

But Al-Shabab's leaders have shown their caring side this week, in banning single-use plastic bags in the territories they control. Quoting media agencies affiliated to the group, the BBC said Al-Shabab cited the serious threat posed to people and livestock as the reason for the ban.

The comments were attributed to Mohammed Abu Abdullah, a local Al-Shabab governor. He did not specify how the group would enforce the ban, though its reputation for violence will go some way to persuading people to stop using the material.

Members of Al-Shabab ride in a pick-up truck near Ala Yaasir camp outside Somalia's capital Mogadishu, on September 3, 2011. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

The new law might make the militants seem green, but BBC World Africa Editor Mary Harper said Al-Shabab's past activities had helped create an environmental crisis in Somalia. In the past, the group made "huge amounts of money" from the export of charcoal, the production of which involves chopping down trees. "So I wouldn't say they're environmentally sound through and through," Harper told the BBC's Global News Podcast.

Harper explained that much of Somalia's landscape appears blue because of the number of plastic bags latched onto vegitation. She expects that people will respect the ban because locals are so scared of the consequences if they do not.

The jihadist group is believed to have somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters. It has been waging war against the Western-backed Somali government for more than a decade. The group controls significant chunks of territory in the south of the country, though the government retains nominal control of the capital Mogadishu. Al-Shabab is particularly strong in rural areas where it enforces a strict version of Sharia law.

Al-Shabab fighters have regularly shown the ability to launch large and devastating attacks throughout government-held territory and even in neighboring countries that support the Mogadishu administration.

One of its most infamous attacks was at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013. Four militants assaulted the popular shopping center with rifles and grenades, killing 67 people and wounding almost 200. The group has been blamed for the most devastating attack in Somalia's history, when at least 587 people were killed in a truck bombing in Mogadishu.

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A shopper carriers a plastic shopping bag, on April 23, 2018, in New York City, U.S. Many nations are phasing out such bags. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Al-Shabab is allied with Al-Qaeda, one of the world's most infamous extremist organizations. But even the group behind the 9/11 attacks has promoted its own environmental policy, and criticized America's lack of action on the issue.

When Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, letters seized from his compound in Pakistan urged then-President Obama to "save humanity from the harmful gases that threaten its destiny" and his warnings to fighters that the future could bring "catastrophic climate conditions."

Many countries are phasing out single-use plastic bags to minimize the environmental issues associated with their use. Even when disposed of properly, plastic bags take years to decompose and can clog waterways, sewers and pose a danger to wild animals.

The self-declared Republic of Somaliland—a separatist region in the northwest of Somalia—banned plastic bag use in 2005. New enforcement teams were established in 2016 to make sure the law was being observed.