Terrorizing Aid to Somalia

The United States is willfully letting millions of Somalis go hungry in its drive to hunt down terrorists.

There is a new humanitarian crisis unfolding in Somalia, and the United States is partly to blame. Despite sending $2 million and 40 tons of arms and ammunition to the country's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) earlier this year, now, the United States is withholding humanitarian aid until relief agencies agree to comply with strict, game-stopping conditions.

The decision to abruptly halt assistance came following suspicions that U.S. aid might be ending up with Somali "terrorists." The main worry is an al Qaeda-linked group called al-Shabab, the leading Islamic militant group fighting against the feeble but internationally backed government. Al-Shabab controls most of south-central Somalia, while the TFG controls only a few areas of the capital, Mogadishu. The south-central region is home to 2.7 million of the 3.63 million Somalis in need of emergency assistance. So, reaching many of Somalia's people with aid would likely entail operating on al-Shabab's turf and interacting with elements of the group to facilitate logistics.

U.S. Treasury Department sanctions strictly prohibit any financial transactions or dealings with al-Shabab and other Somali groups labeled as "terrorists."  Yet clearly the concern is not absolute; the U.S. government seems less concerned that the guns and ammo sent as military assistance, intended to prop up the fragile government and keep control of a country brimming with violence, are allegedly being resold on the streets of Mogadishu.

The halt in humanitarian assistance will cripple the work of relief organizations and, as a consequence, hurt their Somali beneficiaries. U.S. officials justifiably fear that they and their partners could be held responsible, even prosecuted, for supporting terrorists if relief funds ended up in the hands of al-Shabab. At first, the U.S. government reviewed the situation and "delayed" funding. Subsequently, Washington issued conditions with which aid agencies must comply to legally operate in Somalia. But the conditions are so restrictive that it would be virtually impossible for operating agencies to meet them. (To preserve the security of those groups on the ground, specific conditions cannot be stated here.)

The damage is not just temporary. The new, politically charged rules would destroy relief organizations' neutrality in Somalia. Humanitarian aid derives its legitimacy from impartiality -- the notion that aid is provisioned on need alone, rather than politics. In Somalia, where the U.S. government is often viewed unfavorably, political impartiality is a practical consideration as well; it is central to the ability of relief agencies to function safely and effectively. The new U.S. conditions would undermine this core principle by making it nearly impossible for relief agencies to legally operate in al-Shabab-run territory, including many of the most desperate regions of Somalia. The country is already one of the most dangerous for humanitarian workers, so the United States' attempt to bring relief workers under its purview will only increase Somali suspicion toward them and make the environment more precarious.

On top of this policy disaster, money for relief in Somalia is running out. The U.N. World Food Program estimates that its coffers will be empty within the next few weeks. Even if more funds were pledged today, it could require as many as four months for the money to reach beneficiaries on the ground. There will be an inevitable gap in assistance to Somalis. 

The timing could not be worse. The country's already catastrophic humanitarian crisis is being compounded by a drought that has struck much of the Horn of Africa. Nearly half the population is estimated to urgently need aid -- some 3.63 million people.

The U.S. government is holding the Somalia relief enterprise and its beneficiaries hostage to its counterterrorism policy. Agencies have resolutely upheld their commitment to humanitarian impartiality and refused to be shut down by unreasonable conditions. Unfortunately, that precludes them from accepting U.S. funds -- normally half of all aid to Somalia. Until Washington lets agencies fulfill their mission unhindered, the U.S. mission to win "hearts and minds" in Somalia, a feared up-and-coming stronghold of terrorism, will be completely undermined. Knowingly allowing millions of people to suffer is no way to win friends.



Nuclear Network Theory

We all know that terrorism comes from nonstate actors. So why is the nonproliferation world still focused on rogue countries instead?

As Iran replies to an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) proposal to process their uranium abroad, just days after inspectors from that agency got their first glimpse of the newly revealed Iranian nuclear site near Qom, it's a good time to take stock of U.S. President Barack Obama's Nobel-winning nonproliferation drive. From the sight of it, there is much good work being done. Bilateral talks with Russia to reduce stockpiles are moving apace. Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council is considering what to do with troublesome cases in Iran and North Korea. The president has even called a summit of the world's major nations and nuclear energy-capable countries, now slotted for April 2010.

The hope is that these efforts will help check the worst-case scenario from ever taking hold -- terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons. But there's just one problem: The United States is looking for nukes in all the wrong places. Nuclear terrorism won't come from countries; it will come from vast networks of operatives with only tenuous links to states. Nor are terrorists likely to get their nuclear material from rogue regimes. Far more probable is that they will steal it or obtain it through the growing global black market. If this is to be prevented, the United States and its allies will have to give their counterproliferation mindset a sweeping overhaul.

Today's terrorist threats are far less tangible than the traditional, state-centric security ones embodied by such countries as Iran, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel. Rather than diplomatic channels, terrorist networks use advanced information technology to advance their ideology, goals, and missions. They are bound by none of the norms and restraints of states.

Of course, none of this is news in the world of counterterrorism. And in the years following the September 11 attacks, the U.N. Security Council passed a set of resolutions mandating that all states take action to tackle nonstate extremists with violent goals. The most important of these for nonproliferation was U.N. Resolution 1540, which calls on countries to monitor and regulate the activities of illicit nonstate actors while securing potentially deadly materials that could be used to fashion a weapon of mass destruction.

The biggest challenge relates to highly enriched uranium (HEU) -- the stuff that could be most easily made into a crude nuclear device. A "gun type" warhead would require only two shaped blocks of HEU, slammed together by a focused conventional explosive, to generate a small but real fission reaction. Making the weapon would be fairly easy from a technical perspective once the necessary amount of HEU is obtained; instructions can even be found on the Web.

The key question, then, is how would terrorist groups get their hands on raw nuclear goods? Contrary to popular belief, a state like Iran is extremely unlikely to pass along its HEU to a nonstate group. States value nuclear material for its strategic prestige and deterrent value within the context of a central government arsenal; even the roguest of rogue states aren't in the business of giving highly coveted nukes to a group whose actions they cannot predict or control.

That means the most likely channels of acquisition by an al Qaeda-type group would be illicit purchase or stealing. Terrorists would have to finance their acquisition of HEU, which would be expensive even if the HEU were stolen, not bought. To do so, they would likely use the profits from trafficking in illicit drugs, arms, or people; payoffs from indirect investments in legitimate companies; dividends from the bribery or blackmail of officials; and countless other forms of criminal activity and corruption.

In short, nuclear terrorism cannot be separated from the global illicit economy. And HEU is inherently dangerous, be it owned by a U.S. ally such as South Korea or a U.S. antagonist, such as Iran.

Taken together, these two data points mean the focus of nonproliferation will need to shift from agonizing over "rogue states" to worrying about poor law-enforcement regimes that are unable to keep illicit activities in check.

Here's a sneak peak at what a new nonproliferation regime could look like. There is a crying need for a global buildup in law-enforcement capabilities that can detect human networks involved in both conventional and unconventional terrorist acts. That would entail funding to build up "rule of law capabilities" across the developing world in league with specialized organizations such as the IAEA, Interpol, and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Among the specific goals would be improving international databases to allow for real-time data sharing on extremist groups. International aid to developing countries to build up more advanced legal capabilities  would also be needed to ensure compliance with international conventions on crime and trade, since these have become too numerous and complex for many developing states to implement. Also important would be new capabilities devoted to identifying phony or "front" businesses used by illicit transnational actors to generate and move money and dual-use materials. Success in nonproliferation will require the creation of a cadre of national and transnational civil servants trained to crack down on black market trade.

These combined actions should carry the weight of a strategic security goal on par with enforcement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, itself aimed at keeping nuclear material out of the hands of rogue states. Since HEU is a threat everywhere, every country -- no matter its nuclear status -- should be on high alert. You never know where the next rogue network will arise.