The United States is expanding its fight against al-Qaida’s affiliate in Somalia, adding a new, expansive round of sanctions to drone strikes and military advice from U.S. forces on the ground.
The Treasury Department Monday unveiled sanctions targeting four senior al-Shabab leaders as well as five operatives, all said to be key players in a network charged with raising money, recruiting fighters and procuring weapons.
According to the U.S., the smuggling network took in money from a variety of sources, including non-governmental organizations, helping al-Shabab generate an estimated $100 million per year, helping to grow the terror group’s size and capabilities.
A report earlier this year by the Mogadishu-based security think tank, the Hiraal Institute — subsequently affirmed by intelligence estimates shared by United Nations member states — indicates about a quarter of that money, or some $24 million, is spent on weapons alone.
Treasury named one of the key leaders as Abdullahi Jeeri, al-Shabab’s chief of weapons procurement.
Treasury said Jeeri has been active as recent as late last year, often getting weapons from local sellers and international suppliers based out of Yemen. U.S. officials also said Jeeri is responsible for collecting payments levied against various Somali businesses. The U.S. says Jeeri is a member of al-Shabab’s Shura (Consultative) Council, the group’s second highest administrative body after the Tanfid (Executive) Council.
A former Al-Shabab official who defected from the group but could not be named for security reasons described Jeeri as the group’s commander of logistics.
“He controls all the weapons, sending them to the frontlines, storing them,” he said, adding Jeeri is connected to weapons smugglers in the Horn of Africa.
Another sanctioned al-Shabab official, Khalif Adale, reportedly answers directly to the terror group’s emir, Ahmed Diriye, and served as the point of contact for organizations forced to pay off the group.
Adale is one of the first Somali businessmen who openly joined the group early on. People who know him say that by using his business connections, he used to import uniforms, communications equipment and GPS devices for the group.
The U.S. Treasury also sanctioned Abdikarim Hussein Gagaale, a deputy finance official, and Hassan Afgoye, a key negotiator responsible for overseeing various racketeering efforts. Gagaale previously served as the group’s military commander in the Hiran and Galgudud regions of central Somalia. He was also a top operational militant officer.
Afgoye previously served as head of the group’s financial department, which resulted the United States putting a $5 million bounty on his head.
He is currently said to be head of financial investigation for al-Shabab, an office that accounts for how al-Shabab spends. The U.S. State Department calls him “critical to the group’s continuing operations.”
“Treasury is focused on identifying and disrupting al-Shabab’s illicit networks operating in Eastern Africa,” Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson said in a statement.
“We will continue to take action against the weapons smuggling and fundraising activities of al-Shabab and other al-Qaida affiliates,” he added.
Horn of Africa regional analyst Matt Bryden says targeting al-Shabab’s finances is a significant strategy.
“The most important thing about it is that it demonstrates that the United States government and presumably the Somali federal government are demonstrating a commitment to a whole-of-government approach to fighting al-Shabab,” he said.
“This is a clear sign that the battle against al-Shabab is no longer simply going to be fought militarily on the ground, but that it's going to involve attacks on al-Shabab financial networks.”
Bryden said although the impact of the sanctions may not necessarily hurt al-Shabab members, it’s still a warning to those who are dealing with the group.
“Obviously sanctioning people, members of al-Shabab who are in Somalia [who] don't have foreign bank accounts, don't travel, is not going to have an impact, but it's a very important international signal, and it's also a signal to Somali businesspeople and political people who actually do business with them,” he said.
The U.S. sanctions follow recent moves by the Somali government to curtail al-Shabab’s fundraising and militant operations, part of what Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has described as an “all-out war” on the terror group.
This past Saturday, Somalia’s government warned businesses to stop paying off al-Shabab, saying there would be stiff penalties for anyone succumbing to the group’s extortion efforts.
"Any merchant who obeys instructions issued by the terrorists, and pays them income, will never be allowed to do business in Somalia again," the ministry of commerce and industry said in a letter to traders.
Last week, the government in Mogadishu won support from neighboring Ethiopia to end a partial arms embargo on Somalia to allow its forces to better take on al-Shabab.
And the Somali government has also announced a crackdown against media outlets that publish information considered to be favorable to the terror group.
Somalia’s recent counteroffensive against al-Shabab has been making some gains, according to government officials who say that as of earlier this month they have retaken more than 40 localities from the group.
Those gains follow a U.S. decision this past May to deploy a few hundred troops to Somalia to help advise Somali forces in their fight against the terror group.
In addition, the U.S. has carried out a handful of airstrikes in support of Somali government forces over the past several months, with estimates suggesting dozens of al-Shabab fighters have been killed.
But despite the recent airstrikes, al-Shabab has since claimed some of those areas are back under its control. And recent intelligence estimates suggest al-Shabab is still a force to be reckoned with.
One assessment, shared in July by the United Nations terrorism monitoring team, said al-Shabab commands between 7,000 and 12,000 fighters, up considerably from earlier estimates.
Other assessments suggest al-Shabab has also become more influential within al-Qaida, due in part to its help funding core al-Qaida activities.
This past July, the outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Africa warned of an increasingly aggressive al-Shabab, saying in response to a question from VOA that a series of incursions by al-Shabab in Ethiopia were not a “one-off.”
“It's only been less than a year ago that al-Shabab emir [Ahmed] Diriye called for an increased emphasis on external attacks and increased emphasis on attacking Western targets in the Horn of Africa,” General Stephen Townsend said at the time. “This is a response.”
Ahmed Mohamed contributed to this report.