Using economic levers to hurt Al-Shabaab

In recent weeks, the United Nations has sponsored meetings in Mogadishu to help Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) improve security, promote reconciliation and draw up a new constitution for the war-ravaged country. One of the biggest obstacles to ensuring peace in Somalia, however, is Al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization, which controls large swaths of the country and siphons off aid meant to help the country’s destitute. While the international community focuses its attention on the best ways to help Somalia, much more can be done to curtail Al-Shabaab’s influence.

Founded in 2004, Al-Shabaab has been designated a terrorist organization by AustraliaCanadaNorwaySweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The group is a recognized al Qaeda affiliate that is determined to institute its own brand of Salafi Islamic rule in Somalia. Two years ago, the group consolidated control over the southern and central part of the country, and, until recently, it also controlled most of the capital. Governments around the globe now fear that Somalia is becoming another al Qaeda safe haven that will require international intervention.

Al-Shabaab subsidizes its operations through a wide variety of means. According to a report issued last July by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, the terrorist organization generates $70-$100 million annually through taxing and extorting Somalia’s traders and shopkeepers in the country’s airports, seaports and markets. This is often justified as a “religious obligation.” The group controls Somalia’s largest seaport, Kismayo and the world-famous Bakara market. It has also been reported that Al-Shabaab garners revenue from donations from the Somali diaspora in the United States and Europe and sympathetic Islamic charities.

In addition, Al-Shabaab has attracted attention because of its success in convincing Somalis around the globe to return home to engage in jihad. In two well-known cases, involving the “Minneapolis 8” and the “Toronto 6,” the organization managed to indoctrinate and transform young adults in North America into fighters. Shirwa Ahmed, a Somali-born U.S. citizen, blew himself up in a well-publicized attack in northern Somalia in 2008, becoming the first known American suicide bomber. The group was also reportedly involved in planning attacks in 2009 against the Australian police and Barak Obama’s inauguration.

What can the international community do to interfere with Al-Shabaab’s ability to operate? While the U.N. is normally invertebrate on targeted financial measures, the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea did take bold action against Al-Shabaab in late July 2011 by asking monitoring group members to blacklist Al-Shabaab members through a “name and shame” campaign. Designating them through a list maintained by the U.N. would likely hamper the group’s ability to obtain much-needed arms, money and support. Foreign ministries and intelligence agencies all over the world would be well advised to share information with the Monitoring Group on who controls major functions in the organization and who donates significant amounts of funds to it.

The Monitoring Group also called on the United Arab Emirates specifically to take action, stating that any non-local commerce shipped to or from Al-Shabaab-controlled ports would be considered financial support for a “designated entity.” Traders in the UAE buy most of Somalia’s charcoal, which is shipped from ports controlled by Al-Shabaab. These same traders also dominate the import of sugar into Somalia, which reportedly generates $400-800 million dollars annually for the terrorist organization. The Monitoring Group has called on authorities in two of the Emirates in particular, Dubai and Sharjah, to take “more stringent measures on dhows [sailing vessels] conducting trade” with Al-Shabaab-controlled ports.

International organizations such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental body that sets standards regarding terrorism finance and money laundering, also have an important role to play. In its next Paris-based plenary meeting, due to take place next month, the FATF might consider issuing a statement aimed at financial institutions and charities around the world encouraging them to carry out enhanced due diligence on any transactions with Somalia. Such action would prod a variety of international organizations, policymakers, law-enforcement agencies and banking authorities to grapple seriously with the question of how to curb Al-Shabaab’s influence.

Containing the situation in Somalia and averting yet another U.N. or African Union intervention will require concerted international action. As policymakers in various world capitals consider their options, our best hope for exerting leverage over terrorist organizations such as Al-Shabaab might very well be through the use of punishing economic firepower.