New Strategy of Killing Aid Workers in Somalia – But Whose Strategy Is It?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 28

As the regional head of a World Health Organization mission to central Somalia was leaving the local mosque after sunset prayers, a young man approached him, pointed a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. Fortunately for Abdullahi Ahmad Ma’alin, the weapon failed to fire and the would-be assassin fled (Puntland Post, July 26). Unfortunately, many of his fellow humanitarian aid workers in Somalia have not been so lucky, falling victim to a determined campaign to kill or kidnap foreign and local aid workers in the strife-torn country.

In the last year, humanitarian agencies estimate at least 20 of their officials have been killed by unknown assailants and many more abducted (VOA, July 24). Both Somalia’s Islamist insurgents and the U.S.- and Ethiopian-supported Transitional Federal Government (TFG) accuse each other of responsibility for the murders.

On July 24, Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys vowed to protect the workers. The former leader of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), who is on the U.S. list of designated terrorists, claims to have taken over the leadership of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) from Shaykh Sharif Ahmad after the latter signed a peace agreement with the TFG, though this claim is still disputed (BBC Somali Service, July 22; Garowe Online, July 26). Aweys said the ARS would do what it can to protect aid workers in their territory: “We are very grateful to the aid workers who are helping the starving Somali community and we strongly condemn those who kill or abduct them. We shall do what we can to safeguard aid workers, especially in the areas under our control. We shall help, escort and defend them. They are killed by [our] enemies who then put the blame on us” (Reuters, July 24). A spokesman for Shaykh Awey’s Asmara-based faction of the ARS implicated Ethiopian occupation troops in the killings: “We are condemning the killing of the U.N. officials in Mogadishu. And this act is actually perpetrated by the Ethiopian occupation and the militia of [TFG President] Abdullahi Yusuf in order to starve the Somali people whom they have displaced from their homes and from their neighborhoods in Mogadishu” (VOA, July 24).

A shadowy figure using the virtually anonymous name of “Shaykh Muhammad” told Mogadishu radio that anti-government fighters of the Islamic Front (Jabhal Islamiya) were responsible for the targeting of humanitarian workers and relief organizations. According to Shaykh Muhammad: “The UN relief agencies took part in the war that resulted in the defeat of the Islamic Courts Union by giving arms, money and fuel to the forces ranged against the mujahideen… I urge the mujahideen to make relief agencies their main target because they are assisting the enemy. This struggle has started and is yet to be accomplished (Codka Nabadda Radio [The Voice of Peace], July 14; Garowe Online, July 14). Shaykh Abdirahim Isse Adow, an ICU spokesman, condemned the murders but suggested the UNDP was supplying Somali police with vehicles and salaries (al-Jazeera, July 13).

On July 8, Shaykh Muqtar Robow Abu Mansur, leader of al-Shabaab—the ICU’s military wing—declared the mujahedeen were not behind the killings. Defending the militants against accusations of responsibility for the July 6 killing of Ali Osman Ahmad, head of the UNDP’s Somalia Program, Abu Mansur said it was unbecoming for al-Shabaab to kill important persons who help the same Somali people on whose behalf they are fighting, adding: “We condemn those behind his killing and we have a feeling that those behind his killing had a special interest in his death or had projects which he (the deceased) refused to approve” (Xaragaga Online, July 8). Abu Mansur blamed the murder on the TFG, claiming the murderers drove TFG militia vehicles and were escorted by TFG militia units on their way to Mogadishu. Several days later the UNDP announced it was withdrawing from the town of Baidoa as a result of the targeted killings of its staff (Shabelle Media Network, July 14).

Aid agencies believe they are being driven out of Somalia through an organized terror campaign (Shabelle Media Network, July 8). Leaflets recently surfaced in Mogadishu streets calling aid workers infidels and warning them that they will be methodically hunted down (al-Jazeera, July 13; Reuters, July 14).

On July 23, the African Union admitted its peacekeeping efforts in Somalia had been a failure and urged the immediate deployment of UN peacekeepers in their stead (Reuters, July 24). In the current hostile environment, it is possible that Somalia’s aid workers may be the next to withdraw.