The severe drought and humanitarian crisis affecting millions in the Horn of Africa has become the latest battleground in America’s campaign to vanquish al-Qaida.

Al-Shabaab Islamist militants, taking a beating in the one of the most failed states in the world, have taken steps to preserve their standing among the Somali people as they face the worst drought in decades. The militants made an unprecedented announcement last week, saying they were lifting a ban on humanitarian aid to help the displaced and malnourished Somalis in its territories.

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The United Nations tested this over the weekend when it conducted its first airlifts of medicine and food to areas controlled by the Islamist rebels. Al-Shabaab had barred foreign aid organizations in 2009, accusing them of being anti-Muslim. But on Sunday United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) delivered five metric tons of essential supplies to Baidoa in volatile southern Somalia.

“The aid would have come earlier if the Al-Shabaab hadn’t banned international aid before. But now they are in a crisis after suffering setbacks. They have lost a lot of areas and are trying to gain back the sympathy of the people,” Bashar Goth, a veteran Somali blogger and journalist told The Media Line.

Starving refugees by the tens of thousands have been streaming into neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya where the UN has set up transit camps. UNICEF says some 11 million people need humanitarian assistance in the Horn of Africa, where Somalia is the epicenter of the crisis.

“Our heart is broken when mothers tell us that after having walked for days to reach safety they have lost their children on the way,” Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said during a visit to one of the camps in Ethiopia.

The UNICEF chief warned that the crisis would get worse before it got better.

“We are possibly seeing a perfect storm in the coming months…. We are going to do everything we can to ameliorate it,” UNICEF Director Anthony Lake told Agence France Presse as he visited Kenya’s drought-hit Turkana region. “We are scaling up in every way we can…. It is very bad now. There will be no major harvests until some time next year. The next six months are going to be very tough.”

The BBC quoted experts saying that the drought has wiped out half of Somalia’s camels and in some parts nearly 80% of its livestock. With seven million camels, war-torn Somalia had the world’s largest dromedary population.

Al-Shabaab, which aims to overthrow the government and install Islamic (sharia) law, has begun changing its tune at a time when it has begun to suffer military set backs.

The Washington Post reportedly that two weeks ago the US started using drones for the first time to attack Al-Shabaab members, and The Nation, a left-wing magazine based in the United States, reported this weekend that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had started running counter-terrorism training in the capital of Mogadishu itself.

The apparent intensified strikes against Al-Shabaab come as the US has marked high profile successes against al-Qaida including the assassination of Ossama Bin Laden and the killing of the al-Qaida East Africa chief Fazul Abdullah  Muhammad, who was responsible for the 1998 bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, in Mogadishu itself. 

“I think now is the moment, following what happened with bin Laden, to put maximum  pressure on them,” new US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said last week. “I do believe we can really cripple al-Qaida as a threat.”

Al-Shabaab control most of southern and central Somalia and parts of Mogadishu, but they have recently sustained setbacks in clashes with the African-backed forces of the transitional government (TFG), who have not only held their own but have improved their positions.

“They are now in a crisis situation because they lost a lot of areas. They are trying to whitewash their image too,” said Goth, who is from Somaliland but is now based in the United Arab Emirates. “After the Americans killed bin Laden, the Al-Shabaab are trying to show a softer side and portray themselves to the Western world that they are not linked to al-Qaida.”

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