Somalia: Al-Shabab Is using Somalia’s hunger crisis to win support

Al Shabab fighters train outside Mogadishu in 2011. The U.S. has increased operations against the group, bombing a militant training camp in March. The Pentagon said the strike killed over 150 militants. MOHAMED SHEIKH NOR/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The UN is urging the international community to take action to save people in East Africa from “starving to death”

The al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab is taking advantage of Somalia’s hunger crisis to improve its image and bolster support, even as it has been blamed for destabilizing the African nation and neighboring countries. The UN has said the world faces its largest food shortage in decades. Al-Shabab, which has blocked access to aid and has stolen food, has released pictures allegedly showing its militants distributing food and water to thousands of families in the drought-stricken areas in south and central Somalia under its control.

Shahada News Agency, one of al-Shabab’s propaganda wings, posted last week that the terror group has “invested many efforts” to help the local population overcome the drought and boasted of supplying thousands of families with humanitarian aid.

Last week, pictures purporting to show al-Shabab militants distributing sacks of flour, sugar, rice and cooking oil to local citizens were also posted. On Saturday, other images showed the militants arriving with trucks loaded with water tanks bearing their flags, giving water to locals.

Al-Shabab, translated in Arabic into “The Youth”, is al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia that imposes a strict version of Sharia law in areas under its control. It also aims to win hearts and minds by providing basic needs to the local population, presenting itself as an alternative to the Somali government in Mogadishu, a regime it has been fighting for over a decade.

On Friday the UN urged the international community to act to save people from “starving to death,” saying “we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN.” The organization’s Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien warned that “the current indicators mirror the tragic picture of 2011, when Somalia last suffered a famine.” He said more than half of Somalia’s 6.2 million population needs aid, with 2.9 million of whom require immediate assistance.