Somalia's Drought Raises a Thorny Issue—Talking to Al-Shabab

Somalia IDPs
Internally displaced Somali families rest as they flee from drought-stricken parts of the Lower Shabelle region before entering makeshift camps in Somalia's capital Mogadishu on March 17. Many Somalis suffering from the drought are living under al-Shabab, which controls many rural parts of southern Somalia. Feisal Omar/Reuters

Updated | Just hours after Somalia's new prime minister named his first cabinet at the presidential compound in Mogadishu Tuesday, a massive explosion occurred just a few hundred yards away.

Footage of the aftermath of the blast shared on social media showed several burnt-out vehicles and a crater-like dent in the ground where the explosion occurred outside Somalia's national theater. Somali police said that at least 10 people were killed in the blast, which happened when a suicide attacker rammed a car bomb into a security checkpoint.

On Wednesday, a familiar foe claimed responsibility for the attack: Al-Shabab, an extremist militant group affiliated to al-Qaeda, which is waging war on the Western-backed federal government.

The assault is the latest obstacle to meaningful engagement between the new Somali government and Al-Shabab, at a time when analysts and diplomats have said it is most needed: the current drought in Somalia, which is at risk of escalating into famine, is part of what a senior U.N. official recently called the "worst humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations" in 1945.

Somalia's government is barely a month old: The new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, was only inaugurated on February 22, and the cabinet ministers appointed Tuesday have not yet been approved by Parliament. And yet the challenge facing it is huge. Not even six years after a famine that claimed the lives of more than a quarter of a million people, Somalia is again at risk of human disaster on an enormous scale. Some 6.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and the United Nations is appealing for $825 million to avert a catastrophe in the Horn of Africa country. There are increasing reports of Somalis across the country starving to death, along with pictures of skeletal livestock, left to perish without pasture. As clean water becomes more scarce, Somalis are turning to unsafe water sources, resulting in cholera outbreaks.

The new government has formed a National Drought Response Committee and has urged Somalis in the diaspora to donate; the committee's chairman tells Newsweek that around $2 million has already been raised, and a further $3 million in donations has been pledged. Aid has started to come from the international community, and the United Nations has also been active in opening drought relief centers in some of the worst-affected areas.

But any national response in Somalia is being hampered by the fact that the government does not control all its territory—Al-Shabab still controls significant portions of Somalia, particularly in the South and in rural areas. Former Somali president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud told Newsweek in September 2016 that the militants held around 10 percent of territory in the country.

Analysts say that, even in areas that Al-Shabab does not fully control, the militant group still exerts a semi-territorial presence that can deter government or humanitarian actors. The chairperson of the National Drought Response Committee, outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Mohamed Omar Arteh, has publicly stated that some of the areas worst-affected by the drought are under Al-Shabab's control. Finally, the ongoing conflict between the militant group and the Somali security forces, backed by an African Union mission, has played a role in food shortages in Somalia by displacing many and halting agriculture.

This poses a conundrum for the government, U.N. and other humanitarian actors—to open channels of communication with an extremist militant group in order to ensure aid reaches civilians; or to keep the lines down, potentially risking the fate of a substantial swathe of the Somali population.

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmajo, makes an address in Mogadishu after he was elected president on February 8. Despite allegations of corruption and a limited electorate, Mohammed says Somalia's recent elections constituted a step forward for the country. MUSTAFA HAJI ABDINUR/AFP/Getty

The U.N.'s top official in Somalia has already indicated that the drought might necessitate a change of tact with the militants. "The drought is highlighting the need to engage with Al-Shabab, because al-Shabab controls areas where large numbers of people live," said Michael Keating, the special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General in Somalia, at a talk at U.S. think tank the International Peace Institute in January. (Keating did add a caveat to his statement about engaging with the militants: "We are not there yet.")

Keating was unavailable when contacted for further comment by Newsweek , but the U.N.'s deputy humanitarian coordinator in Somalia, Vincent Lelei, says it has had "no contacts with Al-Shabab militants regarding the drought response thus far" and that there were no plans to coordinate efforts with the group. Lelei added that Al-Shabab "has not provided access directly to U.N. humanitarian agencies to reach people affected by the drought in areas under its control."

Somalia's new president has shown an eagerness to offer Al-Shabab members another path. In his inaugural speech, President Farmajo outlined a strategy for winning over disaffected youth and promised a "good life" to militants who dropped their weapons. But this has not yet translated into open communication between government officials and the militant group.

"We are not [communicating with Al-Shabab and we don't intend to do so...There are no channels of communication," Mohamed Omar Arteh, the chairman of the National Drought Response Committee and outgoing deputy prime minister, tells Newsweek from Mogadishu. But this does not mean that civilians in Al-Shabab-controlled areas are not receiving aid, Arteh says. The committee, he adds, is using "networks" to ensure that those in need are given supplies, while other government sources tell Newsweek that religious and traditional elders are being used as intermediaries with the militants.

"If I explain what we do then it might jeopardize the whole operation," says Arteh. "[But] the most important thing for us is to deliver and that is what we are trying to achieve, to try to reach every Somali and provide the support and aid that they require, wherever they are and regardless of which authority they are under."

Somalia food aid
A volunteer serves internally displaced Somali people with cooked food from the United Nations World Food Programme initiative at the Sorrdo camp in Hodan district of Somalia's capital Mogadishu on March 11. More than 6 million Somalis are in need of aid due to the drought. Feisal Omar/Reuters

Nevertheless, given the severity of the drought and the limited access to Al-Shabab areas, Somalis living under the militants are likely to be at greater risk, says Abdirashid Hashi, the director of Somalia's first think tank, the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies.

"If the situation is as dire as it is now, then you can imagine that in the areas that Al-Shabab controls, where they are the only ones helping [civilians]...the situation is much worse," Hashi says.

Besides, for Al-Shabab, the drought appears to represent a propaganda opportunity. Sagging white bags of rice, flour and sugar, topped with yellow jerry cans of palm oil, are pictured neatly stacked in piles in the sparse, dry dustlands of southern Somalia in images shared on pro-Al-Shabab social media channels. A video shows a Somali man allegedly saying: "Al-Shabab has provided us with food aid, may Allah bless them." The militant group has its own welfare wing, the Al-Ihsaan Charity Organization—and its own drought emergency committee, whose chairman told Reuters that civilians living under the group's authority "are free" to leave for new pastures in search of food. He also criticized international aid agencies for "talking" while "dying people need action to save them."

Both the U.N. and Somali government sources told Newsweek that anecdotal evidence suggested the militants were providing some degree of drought response, though the images and videos have not been independently verified.

Al-Shabab recruits
Al-Shabab recruits walk through the Somali capital of Mogadishu, March 5, 2012. The Al-Qaeda affiliate has called for attacks on Western countries, including the United States. A U.S. soldier was killed during an operation targeting the group. Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

Al-Shabab's publicity drive may point to an awareness that their response to the 2011 famine did not endear them to Somalis. The group obstructed humanitarian agencies from delivering aid to those under their authority: A 2013 study by U.K.-based think tank the Overseas Development Institute and the Heritage Institute in Mogadishu found that the militants charged exorbitant registration fees of up to $10,000 for aid agencies to work in their areas. In other cases, Al-Shabab simply burned food aid and even killed charity workers. The famine resulted in 260,000 deaths, and the militants lost face over reports that its fighters kept food aid for themselves in many cases rather than distributing to the needy.

Al-Shabab has not indicated any desire to negotiate with the federal government, and any talks would be complicated and delicate. The group does include some moderate elements, and there have been several cases of Al-Shabab fighters renouncing violence for politics, which may be a promising sign for the government's plan to deliver an effective drought response.

But a hardcore of the group remains, as the continued suicide and car bombings in and around Mogadishu attest: Two explosions were reported in the capital on Friday, causing an unknown number of casualties, although the group has not yet claimed responsibility.

The devastating impact of the drought, however, may force Somalia to consider the previously inconsiderable: In some areas, like Somaliland—which is not under al-Shabab control— 80 percent of livestock have reportedly perished.

"In order to operate in these areas, you need to have contact with Al-Shabab, so I'm supportive of that, I think it's worth a try," says Al-Shabab expert Stig Jarle Hansen, a research fellow on Harvard University's international security program. "[The drought] is now an emergency, so it's actually worth the risk."

This article originally misspelled the last name of Mohamed Omar Arteh, the chairman of the National Drought Response Committee.