Somali chaos aid militants' fund-raising
ILLICIT ivory, kidnappings, piracy ransoms, smuggled charcoal, extorted payments from aid organisations and even fake charity drives pretending to collect money for the poor - the al-Shabab militant group has shifted from one illegal business to another, drawing money from East Africa's underworld to finance attacks, like the recent deadly siege at a Nairobi shopping mall.
Now, officials here and in the West are redoubling efforts to defeat or at least contain the group - with a watchful eye on its hydra-headed sources of money - before its fighters can strike again.
For years, United States officials have been deeply worried about the Somali militant group, which claimed responsibility for killing more than 60 men, women and children in the mall in the Sept 21 attack.
Despite comprehensive multi-agency efforts to shut down its sources of money, the group still controls lucrative smuggling routes in southern Somalia, extracts protection money from a variety of Somali businesses, and has raised hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars abroad, part of it from the US.
Somali elders say al-Shabab employs a team of accountants - essentially white-collar militants - who have devised elaborate taxation schemes in Somalia, for instance US$500 (S$630) per farm per year or US$2 for every sack of rice that passes through their checkpoints.
In addition to its illicit financing activities, the group has also proved adept at stealing from Islamic charities, like mosque-building projects and schools, according to several Somali elders.
"They have a diversified income stream," said Mr Jonathan Schanzer, the vice-president for research at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and a former counterterrorism official at the US Treasury. "Sort of a perfect cocktail that created this nightmare scenario."
Somalia's perennial chaos makes al-Shabab's tendrils even more difficult to remove.
Militant groups around the world dabble in the felonious, but the long history of anarchy in Somalia, whose central government imploded in 1991, creates the ideal environment for war profiteers.
Al-Shabab militants are able to extract extortion fees, kidnap Western aid workers along the Kenyan border, collude with Indian Ocean pirates, and then retreat to their strongholds with no worries about being arrested or prosecuted because law enforcement is virtually non-existent in Somalia.
Mr Schanzer said the attack on the Nairobi mall probably cost the group "close to US$100,000", calculating the price of the automatic rifles, bullets and grenades that were used, along with training costs and possibly rent for a store in the mall that investigators suspect may have been used as a weapons depot before the attack.