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The U.S. is the key international player. Since the 1993 battle known as Black Hawk Down, when 18 U.S. troops died during an intervention to support a U.N. mission in an earlier famine and the bodies of two were dragged through the streets, few Americans have set foot in Mogadishu. But Washington pays close attention. Osama bin Laden first shot to the top of the CIA's danger list not on 9/11 but on Aug. 7, 1998, when his Somalia-based unit blew up U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 230 people. When al-Shabab allied with al-Qaeda, it too found itself in American crosshairs.
The U.S. strikes when it can. When Ethiopia invaded Somalia in late 2006 to topple the Islamist government, U.S. Special Operations troops went with them and detained about 20 al-Qaeda suspects. Washington has also assassinated several Islamist leaders in Somalia, using Predator drones, cruise missiles launched from warships in the Indian Ocean and, once, a helicopter gunship. Those efforts are assisted by a CIA station in Mogadishu and U.S.-funded mercenary operations. Also, Washington bankrolls the unelected TFG, which is perhaps best understood as a U.S. attempt to create a Somali leadership whose authority does not depend solely on firepower.
In spite of such labors, al-Shabab was ascendant a year ago. It seemed set to take Mogadishu and announced its international debut in July 2010 with twin suicide-bomber attacks in Kampala, Uganda, which killed 76 people.
Aid as a Weapon
By then another U.S. initiative was starting to bite. In 2008 the U.S. State Department listed al-Shabab as a foreign terrorist organization, making aiding or abetting it a serious crime. Al-Shabab was stealing aid to feed itself and to sell. Theft of aid is a routine occurrence, but when al-Shabab was designated as a terrorist group, it meant that U.S. officials and foreign aid workers whose actions benefited al-Shabab, even unwittingly, would be penalized. By late 2009 the U.S. was withholding about $50 million in food aid from al-Shabab's territory in southern Somalia, saying it had no legal alternative. By early 2010 the U.S. was in a standoff with aid workers, requiring them to refuse to pay the tolls al-Shabab demanded if they wanted U.S. funding. For its part, al-Shabab expelled the World Food Programme (WFP) in January 2010, saying food aid created dependence and that the organization was an American proxy: 60% of the WFP's food is from the U.S. Al-Shabab also claimed WFP contractors were corrupt; a Western investigator tasked with probing the WFP's operations in southern Somalia tells TIME many contractors were indeed skimming anywhere from 25% to 65% of aid to sell in the market.
In effect, southern Somalia was largely without aid and lacked a reliable distribution network through which to move emergency supplies in the event of a disaster. Warning of a crisis, Mark Bowden, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, accused the U.S. of fighting its war with aid. "We're no longer involved in a discussion about the practicalities of delivering humanitarian assistance with proper safeguards," he told reporters in February 2010. It had become "an issue of where assistance can be provided on political grounds."
On its narrow terms, U.S. strategy succeeded. Al-Shabab has been severely weakened by a combination of famine and the loss of Middle Eastern funding since the political turmoil there. The group has suffered desertions and bloody internal divisions over whether to accept aid. On Aug. 6, it withdrew from Mogadishu.
But what impoverished al-Shabab's few thousand fighters also helped push a few million Somalis to the brink of starvation. The same areas ruled by al-Shabab are those now blighted by famine. On the ground in those regions are the International Committee of the Red Cross, several Islamic charities, a handful of Médecins sans Frontières workers and local UNICEF contractors. That's it. The U.N. says just 20% of the 2.8 million southern Somalis in need are being reached. The WFP, the giant of famine relief whose slogan is "fighting hunger worldwide," is absent.
Asked whether the U.S. inadvertently contributed to the famine, Bruce Wharton, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, chooses his words carefully. "U.S. sanctions against al-Shabab do not and have never prohibited the delivery of assistance to Somalia, including those areas under de facto control of al-Shabab," he says. While Wharton is technically correct, the practical effect of U.S. sanctions has been, precisely, to block aid to southern Somalia. That's something the U.S. implicitly acknowledged in early August when it felt the need to issue new guidance to humanitarians, which, Wharton says, "should help clarify that aid workers who are partnering with the U.S. to help save lives under difficult and dangerous conditions are not in conflict with U.S. laws and regulations."