The Obama administration is relaxing its terrorism rules to enable humanitarian groups to distribute aid within southern Somalia, even if some of the assistance is diverted to al-Shabaab, the militant group controlling large swaths of drought and famine-stricken territory.
Areas of Shabaab-controlled territory, where 2.2 million Somalis live, are some of the worst hit by drought and famine. But aid workers' efforts have been stymied not only by al-Shabaab--which ordered international agencies to leave its territory last year--but by their concerns about U.S. law. Because the State Department considers al-Shabaab to be a foreign terrorist organization, groups are prohibited from providing its members any material assistance. Al-Shabaab has historically charged aid groups "taxes" or "tolls" to deliver assistance, and aid workers worry they will be prosecuted if their assistance is somehow diverted.
“We are seeking to reassure our humanitarian-assistance partners that they need not fear prosecution under [Treasury Department] regulation as long as they are engaged in good faith efforts" to provide aid to Somalis in need, a senior administration official said on a conference call with reporters.
“We’re going to do everything we can to prevent that diversion, but the dimensions of this famine are as such that we’ve got to put taking care of people first," the official said. "We’re deciding that it’s worth running the risk of some diversion."
Under the new guidelines, the U.S. is now authorized to provide grants and contracts to nongovernmental organizations and international agencies to operate with an "expanded license" so long as they are working to get Somalis desperately needed assistance. The official declined to elaborate on the altered policy because the details have not yet been finalized.
“We want our partners to have that comfort and not be worrying about that at a time when they need to be focused on really looking at all the ways to get assistance in,” a second administration official said on the call. The U.N. children's agency says that 800,000 children are at risk of dying without urgent assistance.
Al-Shabaab announced last month that it would reverse its policy and allow humanitarian groups to enter areas in southern Somalia under its control; another Shabaab official said soon after that the group was reneging on this deal. The U.S., which has been working aggressively for months to coordinate with international organizationsto test al-Shabaab’s ban on aid, found areas where organizations can distribute aid.
"We believe that al-Shabab is not a monolithic organization.... Our approach has been to ask al-Shabaab to pull back and allow unfettered, untaxed access to people in need," the official said, while stressing the U.S. doesnt expect a “grand bargain” to allow such access across all of Somalia.
The U.S. is currently providing $80 million inside Somalia, as part of a Horn of Africa-wide assistance package of $459 million. “We’ve moved in additional food, moved to increase the number of health programs,” the second official said. “The new developments that we're talking about today is simply to provide additional flexibility and comfort … [for international organizations] to move at full speed.”