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Systematic human rights abuses, proportionate with those committed by the Islamic State, are being committed by al-Shabab militants in Somalia. There are reports of the al-Qaeda-affiliated group extorting huge sums of money from starving villages and forcibly recruiting hundreds of suicide bombers and child soldiers. Despite formerly controlling much of central and south Somalia, as well as the capital Mogadishu, al-Shabab was forced to retreat to rural communities by a military force compromised of regional armies. Seven years later, the group has proved resistant and remains one of the most lethal terrorist organizations in the world. However, intelligence reports, interrogations of defectors, and interviews conducted by the Guardian have demonstrated that the group is suffering from financial pressure and a crisis of morale, prompting them to extract revenue from poor rural villages. They continue to lose leaders to U.S. airstrikes and territory to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
United Nations envoy Michael Keating reminded the Security Council that even though al –Shabab “is on the back foot as a result of financial pressures, counter-terrorism operations and airstrikes,” the group “remains a potent threat.” Although al-Shabab has been weakened financially and militarily, recent defectors talk of the group demanding payment from communities and boosting its numbers through forced conscription of children.
A defector told Somali government interrogators that al-Shabab has an extensive parallel government, with a “finance ministry” that imposes taxes on communities and forces “Muslims to pay for pretty much everything except entering the mosque.” Water wells, the only source of water in many Somali villages, are taxed at US$20,000 per month with a fee of US$3.50 levied for each camel drinking there. The defector explained that in one small town, the community was forced to pay an annual collective tax of a thousand camels, each worth US$500, and several thousand goats. In addition, vehicles using roads controlled by al-Shabab must pay US$1,800 per trip, and five percent of all land sales are taken as tax. As Somalia is among the world’s poorest nations, with an astounding 73 percent poverty rate, al-Shabab’s extortion techniques are wreaking havoc on communities.
Another defector described how all boys must attend al-Shabab boarding schools, where they are trained to fight in preparation for joining al-Shabab fighting units in their mid-teens. According to Somali authorities, government forces stormed an al-Shabab school in January and rescued 32 children who were being “brainwashed” to become suicide bombers. Furthermore, al-Shabab has grown their operations into the thick expanse of forest in neighbouring Kenya’s Lamu County. With numerous bombings in the area over the past six months, this resurgence pours cold water on forecasts of al-Shabab’s possible defeat.
Somalia has been plagued by severe famine and violent conflict since the early 1990s when clan-based warlords overthrew authoritarian President Mohamed Siad Barre. Since then, al-Shabab has emerged, aiming to topple the United Nations-backed Somali Government and establish its own governance based on a strict interpretation of Sharia law. With AMISOM supporting Somali troops that are combating the insurgents, legitimate regional administrations emerging, and reports of al-Shabab on the back foot, there is hope for Somali communities. However, optimism about the Islamic group’s defeat should be softened by the fact that they have proven their resilience.