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Aid Workers and Al Shabaab: The persistent kidnapping threat in Somalia

Following yet another kidnap for ransom targeting humanitarian workers in Somalia, Gabrielle Reid examines this persistent threat to the efforts of aid workers assisting the most vulnerable in the country.

On 9 August, suspected Al Shabaab militants kidnapped five members of the Somali Red Crescent Society, in Busle village, outside Baidoa. The Somali Red Crescent Society forms part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (ICRC) and the August incident marked the second suspected Al Shabaab abduction targeting the organisation this year. Earlier in 2018, Al Shabaab was believed to have been behind the kidnapping of German aid worker, Sonja Nientiet, from the ICRC compound in Mogadishu in May. In both instances, the gunmen were able to infiltrate the offices of the aid organisations, holding staff at gunpoint, before abducting the victims, demonstrating a high level of organisation and preparation in their attacks.

Although various militant and criminal groups operate in the country, it is widely believed that the Islamist militant organisation, Al Shabaab, was involved in both attacks. The group continues to operate with near impunity across large areas of southern and central Somalia and the near-weekly terrorist attacks in Mogadishu reflect the group’s ongoing capacity to operate within the capital. Furthermore, the group has a strong historical precedent for conducting kidnappings to raise funds through ransoms; foreign nationals, in this regard, have been, and remain, lucrative targets.

At least 16 attacks involving abductions targeting local and foreign aid workers occurred in Somalia between January 2016 and August 2018.

In a trend mirrored across the continent, kidnappings involving aid workers have become increasingly frequent and by corollary, the targeting of foreign aid workers has also risen in recent years. According to the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD), an arm of the Humanitarian Outcomes consultancy, at least 16 attacks involving abductions targeting local and foreign aid workers occurred in Somalia between January 2016 and August 2018. Additionally, according to the UN, at least 30 individuals employed by aid agencies were abducted between 2016 and 2017 alone. Aid agencies have sought to combat this threat by relocating foreign staff to satellite camps across the border or outside of conflict zones to reduce the opportunity for attacks, relying on local staff to conduct their work domestically. However, militant groups, including Al Shabaab, have now sought to target local staff employed by international agencies and their local partners in an effort to solicit a higher ransom from the parent organisation. In July 2017, for example, Al Shabaab kidnapped seven local humanitarian workers near Baidoa. The group demanded USD 200,000 in ransom from the victims’ undisclosed organisation for their release; the individuals were released eight days later, although it remains unconfirmed whether the ransom was paid. 

Although Al Shabaab maintains a diversified funding network, comprising extortion, taxation and the smuggling of contraband such as charcoal and sugar, kidnap for ransom activities continue to be useful earners. In this regard, kidnapping will remain a key operating threat to humanitarian organisations in Somalia. Yet, while organisations should prepare for such attacks, they are equally vulnerable to other extortion activities by the group. Unofficial roadblocks are another key revenue source for Al Shabaab. In fact, the UN has previously reported that the group has been able to solicit upward of USD 5,000 a day at one site outside Baidoa alone. Aid convoys will again present lucrative targets for these operations, amid the ever-present threat of abduction facing staff who refuse to pay top dollar to transit through Al Shabaab territory.

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