Al-Shabaab uses international aid money to fund its operations

By: Blake Gutberlet, Africa Section
Analytical Question: What is the current state of al-Shabaab?

A United Nations investigation has revealed that portions of aid money from international partners, including the United States, given by the UN to people displaced by conflict and famine in Somalia, are ending up in the hands of al-Shabaab. This reinforces our belief, with high confidence, that al-Shabaab is in a general state of resurgence in southern Somalia due to the declining influence of international aid in the Horn of Africa.

Many things have changed in Somalia over the past 30 years. But the use of international aid money by non-state actors to fund their operations was and remains a common tactic used by many throughout the country’s history. During the Somali famine of 1991 and 1992, local warlords deliberately starved thousands in order to profit from the influx of international aid money. Scenes of mass death in the streets of the Somalian city of Baidoa in 1992 provoked the US to lead a multinational UN-backed military intervention. That led to the infamous 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. In Baidoa back then, a truck known as “the death bus” collected around 100 bodies a day from the town’s dusty streets every morning. Aid organizations were so desperate to help the city’s

Baidoa, Somalia

Baidoa, Somalia

population that they paid warlords to permit them access to starving victims. Until Western nations intervened, the warlords worked to sustain the famine in order to keep the aid money flowing.

However, the paramount difference between then and now is that in 1992 the money went into the hands of local gangsters, whereas now it is ending up in the pockets of international terrorist groups. Somalis who have fled their homes and are living in a sprawling camp in the city of Baidoa are screened by the UN and issued cash cards. These enable them to buy essentials from local merchants. UN officials claim that this direct-payment system will avoid corrupting local markets by flooding them with free food, and will relieve the UN of the burden of running food convoys that are vulnerable to attacks and theft. Therefore, local businessmen now transport food bought on the open market to places like Baidoa, where internally displaced people arrive every day.

However, the problem is that the businessmen must pay al-Shabaab, who control the main road that leads into the city. Former members of al-Shabaab, along with Somali intelligence agents, have reported that tolls taken from trucks and other vehicles at just two al-Shabaab roadblocks collect thousands of dollars every day.

Congruently, the UN released a report on this issue on February 15, 2018. The report states that the UN has estimated that a single roadblock, on the road to Baidoa, generated about $5,000 per day. The report also states that the ongoing drought will once again threaten Somalia with famine and provide al-Shabaab with even greater opportunities to earn money from foreign aid –particularly if the group maintains control of the main routes into the interior of the country. For now, the country’s primary state-supported fighting force is a 22,000-strong African Union (AU) contingent that has been protecting the the government in Mogadishu and working to regain control of southern Somalia from al-Shabaab. However, the AU troops are gradually withdrawing and are expected to be out of the country in two years’ time. This withdrawal constitutes a concession by the AU’s military leadership that it is unable to push al-Shabaab off the major roads that provide it with so much income. As it stands, any reduction in AU forces would inevitably leave a vacuum that al-Shabaab will quickly fill.

Due to this development, we continue to believe with high confidence that al-Shabaab is in a state of resurgence in southern Somalia, due to the declining influence of international aid in the Horn of Africa. Therefore, these developments have not changed the original forecast. Reports used for this brief came directly from the UN or reputable news sources and are thus highly credible.


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Kiley, Sam. “Funding al-Shabaab: How aid money ends up in terrorists’ hands.” CNN, Cable News Network, 12 Feb. 2018,
Nyang, Nassoumi. “Al-Shabaab steals international aid money.” Afrika News, 15 Feb. 2018,
Predictable Funding Critical to Preventing Reversal of Hard-Won Gains in Somalia.” United Nations, United Nations, 13 Sept. 2017,
Who’s funding Al Shabaab’s war in Somalia?” Public Radio International, 5 Nov. 2010.