Somalia: Ex-NISA boss links Qatar to financing of Al-Shabaab, accuses Fahad Yasin of being "middleman"
MOGADISHU, Somalia - Doha has for the first time been dragged into the murky Somalia politics, with a former top Mogadishu official accusing the Middle East nation of financing the Al-Shabaab militants, a claim which could define the relationship between the two nations.
In the middle of the latest accusations is the National Intelligence Security Agency [NISA], Somalia's spy agency which has for far too long battled claims of clandestine operations, which in the long-run affects the stability of the Horn of Africa nation.
Abdullahi Mohamed Ali alias Sanbalolshe, the former director of the spy agency, sensationally linked Qatar to Al-Shabaab ties, drawing the recent release of Italian aid worker, Silvia Romano, who had been under Al-Shabaab for over 18 months after her abduction in Kenya on November 2018.
Without disclosing the role of Qatar in the ransom deal estimated at $3 million, the former spy, however, maintained that Doha "has strong contacts with Al-Shabaab and uses them to help the group generate income" mainly through ransoms obtained from kidnapped individuals.
"Qatar has for far too long had ties with Al-Shabaab which can be traced for the past few years. It funds the group's activities," Abdullahi told Al-Arabia TV, adding that "It's the main sponsor and uses tricks such as in ransom deals to generate finances for them".
Besides the financial support, he noted, Doha is allegedly instrumental in helping the Al-Qaida linked group with intelligence and logistical support, which are integral in the sophisticated operations by the group both within and outside Somalia.
Silvia, 25, who has since converted to Islam "willingly", arrived in Rome on Sunday and was received by the country's top leadership among them Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who termed her experience in captivity, "horrifying".
"We are so glad to welcome Silvia back in such a delicate moment for the country. The state is always there, and will always be there," he said, noting the resilience of the aid worker throughout the 18-month ordeal.
Without disclosing the ransom deal, Conte hailed intelligence services for working "tirelessly" to secure Silvia from the hands of "those mindless terrorists". The Turkish spy agency, MIT, which works closely with Qatar, is credited for securing her from captivity.
In a statement after the release, Al-Shabaab spokesperson Ali Dheere noted that "we were paid for her release", adding that "it's from these funds we use to run our operations against the enemy".
And Abdullahi, who was dismissed from NISA under unclear circumstances, insisted that the current spy chief Fahad Yasin acts as the main link between Doha and the Al-Shabaab militants.
While noting Qatar's other positive contributions, he added that "they have been largely the source of chaos and instability" in Somalia.
Al-Shabaab attacks favour Qatar
For the last few months, Qatar and Turkey have projected themselves as the main financial and developmental partners of Mogadishu, but the opposition has often been consistent about "hypocrisy" in the cooperation.
Al-Shabaab, Abdullahi claimed, has been carrying attacks in favour of Qatar for the interest of finances, a move which he insisted that is aimed at expanding the gulf nation's grip in Somalia, a country which has struggled with instability for over four decades.
“Ransom is not the only source of funding for Al-Shabaab, but one of many avenues. The group carries out attacks on behalf of Qatar inside Somalia and outside in exchange for significant financial resources," said the former spy chief.
Besides the alleged support from Qatar, Abdullahi said, the group has been collecting Zakat from local businesses with "impunity" before senior government officials who "secretly" support their activities in Somalia.
Annually, he noted, the group collects up to $400 million, which helps to finance their operations within Somalia and across the border. Kenya is the worst affected neighbor by the endless Al-Shabaab rampage.
“Al-Shabaab raises up to $400 million annually. A significant part of that comes through extortion in the form of taxes levied on residents of Mogadishu, sometimes on the explicit endorsement of government officials who are secretly working with Al-Shabaab," he added.
Coincidentally, the allegations on close cooperation between Al-Shabaab and senior government officials comes just two months after a group of Mogadishu-based businessmen raised concerns at a press conference in Nairobi.
Previously, the government of Somalia and that of Doha have often dismissed the alleged cooperation as "mere falsehoods" meant to strain relationship between the two nations. None of them have responded to the claims by the former intelligence chief.
KDF intelligence report on NISA
But in all the allegations, NISA's role in financing the militants keeps on coming out, given that Abdullahi's accusations coincide with the confidential intelligence report by Kenya Defense Forces [KDF], which is currently under scrutiny by Nairobi's top leadership.
NISA, the report claimed, has been sharing intelligence briefs about the movement of KDF troops in Somalia, some leading to the onslaught against the AMISOM troops who operate within Jubaland state, one of the most Al-Shabaab inhabited region.
The Somali spy agency, KDF added, also finances the militants by using proxies. It's not clear if the money allegedly from Qatar also goes through NISA agents, who Abdullahi terms as "middleman" before reaching the Al-Shabaab militants.
In a rejoinder, however, Somalia, through the ministry of information and culture, termed the KDF claims as "baseless innuendos" geared towards "undermining the competency of a credible agency like NISA" which observes "professionalism".
But the report was backed by the Forum for National Parties [FNP], a conglomerate of six opposition parties, which called "expeditious investigations" into alleged contacts between top NISA officials and Al-Shabaab operatives in Somalia.
In Somalia, Yasin is seen as a controversial figure who is among others, accused of engineering punitive actions against the opposition politicians. Before his elevation, he was a top reporter for Al-Jazeera, a Doha-based television station.
Nairobi banned him from visiting its territories after endless complaints about his alleged involvement in undermining the competency and role of KDF troops in Somalia. Kenya has close to 3,500 troops who are scheduled to leave in 2021.
Al-Shabaab's dwindling fortunes
Despite the alleged finances from external sources, the Al-Shabaab has struggled in recent weeks to finance its unscrupulous operations within East Africa, according to intelligence reports.
The group leader Ahmed Omar [Abu Ubaidah] is said to be at loggerheads with finance controller Mahad Karate, whom he allegedly tried to expel in February amid resistance from a rival clan, which supports Karate.
And to supplement its dwindling fortunes, the Al-Shabaab has reportedly deployed many fighters near the Kenyan border, where they are said to have imposed a mafia-style taxation approach, targeting the Northern Frontier Districts.
To tame them, the KDF has launched an operation targeting the group's key local contacts in Garissa, Mandera and Wajir counties, which are the hotspot of unending attacks against Kenya. Surveillance along the border has been increased, officials said.
Within Somalia, the group is also confronting mass defections due to increasing ground combats and subsequent airstrikes conducted jointly by Somali National Army, AMISOM troops, and the US Africa Command, reports indicate.
The latest accusation could shape the relationship between Somalia, Qatar, and even the international community, which has been working to restore normalcy within the war-torn nation.
There have been also calls to disband the current NISA team, although FGS has remained tight-lipped about the allegations.