Al-Shabaab fighter at food distribution camp Somalia 31 (R).
(photo credit: Feisal Omar / Reuters)
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.
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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.
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
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
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
“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
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.”