Men claiming to be al-Qaida operatives are moving into the humanitarian vacuum in Somalia, distributing aid and cash to drought victims in an attempt to win hearts and minds, a Guardian investigation can reveal.
On a visit to the sprawling Ala-Yasir camp in the south of the country, the Guardian saw an al-Qaida unit handing out rice, flour, oil, dates and milk as well as Islamic books and clothes to some of the more than 4,000 people made destitute by this year’s drought.
This was the first time the group has spoken publicly in Somalia, and the first time it has distributed aid. The unit’s leader was introduced to the Guardian as al-Qaida’s official envoy to Somalia.
Representatives of al-Shabaab, the militant Islamist group trying to seize power in the country, called him Abu Abdullah Muhajir, and said he was a white American. It was impossible to verify his identity or nationality.
Al-Shabaab is closely affiliated to al-Qaida and, after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the group vowed to avenge his death. A number of US citizens are known to have joined al-Shabaab in Somalia, including a suicide bomber from Minneapolis who attacked African Union troops in Mogadishu on Sunday.
Reading from a prepared statement, in American-accented English, Abu Abdullah Muhajir told the crowd: “To our beloved brothers and sisters in Somalia: we are following your situation on a daily basis. And, though we are separated by thousands of kilometres, you are consistently in our thoughts and prayers.”
He then handed out the contents of bags full of Somali shillings to the equivalent of $17,000 (£10,600). The al-Qaida unit also brought along a fully staffed ambulance. Al-Qaida regards the young boys stuck in the camp after being driven from their villages by the drought as potential recruits. The boys gave Abu Abdullah Muhajir a rapturous welcome: “God is great! God is great!”
Osman Hassan, 16, clutched dates, milk and the Qur’an, gifts from al-Qaida. He said: “I pray for them to win over their enemies.”
Muhammad Barre, nine, said: “I ask God to make al-Qaida victorious over their enemies.”
After a decade-long war that has hobbled al-Qaida in eastern Afghanistan, the west’s main concern is that the movement may be able to regroup in Somalia, which has had no functioning central government for more than two decades. The Ala-Yasir camp was set up in response to the worst regional drought in 60 years, which has affected (according to the latest UN report on Somalia) 4 million Somalis. It is located in the southern part of country, an area controlled by al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab members run the camp, having banned some of the international agencies from distributing aid.
The UN World Food Programme says it pulled out of the area because of threats to staff, and demands of informal taxes by the group. Al-Shabaab denies the claims.
Among the dozens of men accompanying the American visitor were several other foreigners, including some with English accents.
Also with them was a member of al-Shabaab calling himself Abu Omar, who was directing the food distribution.
He said he was British, but it was impossible to confirm this independently.
“It’s a religious obligation. It’s a duty upon us,” he said. “I mean, we left our countries. I left, we left our jobs [and] … all these places just to come here and help our people. I’m an aid worker, basically … typical aid worker, as you say in the west.”
Jamal Osman, The Guardian