Al-Shabab Fights Tech Warfare Against Efforts to Cripple its Financial Network

Al-Shabab fighters display weapons as they conduct military exercises in northern Mogadishu, Somalia in 2010. [File: Mohamed Sheikh Nor/AP]

The success in Somalia’s battle against terrorism financing lies in the ability to put in place a national identification database.

While the war against the al-Shabab, an organization which has consistently fought against the successive Somalia governments and civilians, continues in the battlefield, efforts to curtail its financial networks remain unsuccessful.

Farah Abdi, not his real name, worked in Somalia within an al-Shabaab-controlled territory, issuing the Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards to residents.

Abdi, who has since retired from his job as a telecommunications officer, found himself in a life and death situation after issuing a SIM card to a person he identified as a relative of an al-Shabab Commander in South Central Somalia.

It was an early morning encounter with a client known to him as a relative of an influential al-Shabab operative.

The man requested for a SIM card, which Abdi, not his real name, issued.

“I issued the SIM card. I registered it under the name of the al-Shabaab Commander. It was only fair to register it under his name and not under the name of the relative. Less than one hour after the registration, the threats began,” Abdi said in an interview.

The al-Shabab operatives came back with instructions that the name on the SIM card be changed and be registered under his relative. The orders were to change the name and issue another line, Abdi said.

Abdi said he could not decline the request for the name change because of the lack of a proper national identification document to help ascertain the identity of the subscribers.

It remains difficult to ascertain the actual identity of any citizen for the purposes of issuing the SIM cards.

The ability of the Somali authorities to create a national registration database to form the primary source of civilian identification remains work in progress.

The telecom company employee was initially reluctant to make the changes sought for obvious reasons but the threats continued. He received a call from the al-Shabab Commander.

“The caller instructed me to change the SIM registration details. He instructed that his details on my mobile phone should also be deleted from my phone,” Abdi said.

The al-Shabab members and senior Commanders like the one who had an encounter with Abdi, use their influence to threaten telecommunications workers into surrender.

The Commanders and the entire leadership, threaten and extort the local communities using different mobile phones numbers.

The numbers keep varying. They call from different phone numbers. Those who do not follow their orders become victims of assassins bullets. Most are killed.

In November 2018, eleven employees of Hormuud Telecom, the country’s largest telecommunications company, were killed in Mogadishu by gunmen affiliated with the Islamic State and Al Shabaab after the company refused the group’s extortion demands.

The al-Shabab continues to penetrate the national telecommunications networks, with supporters and members using loopholes in the registration of new lines.

The operatives acquire various mobile telephone lines using different documents.

The mobile telephone companies that resist attempts to flood their networks with the extortionist callers at times risk attacks.

In fact, the al-Shabab regularly attacks and destroys telecom network infrastructure belonging to various mobile telephone companies that resist complicity with attempts to extort.

Security experts point out the lack of a national identification document in Somalia as a key barrier to tackling al- Shabab finances and extortion networks.

According to the Global Identification For Development (ID4D) dataset compiled by the World Bank Group, Somalia has the highest population percentage without identification cards.

The ID4D discovered 77 percent of the people in Somalia lack official proof of personal identification.  

In 2021, al-Shabab banned the mobile network service operation of three telecom companies in eight regions for refusing to pay the extortion fee.

The companies closed their business for a few days and ordered their workers to stay home for their safety.

Abdi, the former telecom worker, issued a new sim card to a militant region commander under his brother’s name.

The success of the technology warfare against the al-Shabab lies in the ability of the Somali federal government institutions to identify and curtail the expansive terrorism financing network that keeps the organization alive.

Traders, company owners as well as high-net-worth individuals send money to the al-Shabab through mobile money transfers.

The business owners and individuals defend their payments of the extortion fees to al-Shabab.

The richer Somali business owners insist their continued payments to the al-Shabab extortion squads are meant to shield them from potential attacks.

The fear for personal safety makes the business community in Somalia to pander to every al-Shabab’s whim without question.

Like Abdi, a majority of Somalia’s essential personnel whose sensitive tasks are key to curtailing terrorism financing, often cave in to the demands of the organization.

Abdi said he ordered for a new SIM card and deleted the previous SIM card registered under the al-Shabab’s Commander’s name to avoid consequences.

“I was hesitant for few days to make changes. I did not want to risk my life over a SIM card. I knew the risks of allowing him to hide the identity because of the harm involved but I had no choice. You have no choice. They can come for you.” Abdi said.

Somalia’s Interior Ministry announced plans in October 2022 to start registering the Somali population for new federal identification documents.

The government believes the fresh registration for the national identity documents would aid the government’s planning, service delivery and security objectives.

Interior Minister Ahmed Moalim Fiqi, said the adoption of a biometric registration system would facilitate the government’s efforts to identify citizens and to improve data security, which is currently lacking.

Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry warned employees of various state agencies against sharing information concerning various business owners whose goods are cleared through the various channels.

The al-Shabab members tend to glean more information from the various sources, which its members use to issue threats against the business leaders.

The government has also taken measures, including curtailing various sources of income, including from prominent business owners to the al-Shabab.

The Somali Ministry of Commerce, has also taken steps to ensure that henceforth, businesses paying the extortion fees and business licenses to the al-Shabab would lose their ability to conduct any business in the Somalia territory.

The government has threatened to revoke the licenses permanently and to ensure such businesses do not operate anywhere within the Somali national territory.

It is believed the various government officials, especially customs officers, operating at the Mogadishu Port and airport customs enforcement officers are complicit in sharing the personal information with the al-Shabab.

With the information within its custody, the insurgent group erects checkpoints throughout the territory, extorting from freight transporters, security personnel said.

The al-Shabab generally collects on average about US$300 and US$1,200 per truck, depending on the load, according to a recent UN monitoring report on Somalia.

The mobile money transfer between various operators is the main line through which the business supporting the al- Shabab operatives work.

The funds move in and out of Somalia with little effort to curtail its flow because of the inability to identify the faces of those involved.

Experts familiar with the pressure to reform the Somalia registration of persons quagmire, say biometric identification documents could help solve some of the problems upsetting Somalia’s efforts to rid itself of the Al Shabaab.

However, authorities will also need monitoring, reporting and investigations into money laundering and terrorism financing.  

Somalia established the Financial Reporting Center in 2016 to monitor, report, investigate, and sanction money launderers and those who finance terrorism.

The agency has yet to move an inch into its investigation into the financiers of terrorism.

Authorities also urged banks and telecommunications companies to close accounts associated with the members of Al Shabaab.

The World Bank, in its 2018 Somalia Economic Update Series, said more than 70% of the population uses mobile money services and over 66% of all payments are made via mobile money platforms.

The UN Panel of Experts on Somalia estimates that Al Shabaab requires between US$500,000 and US$1 million per month to pay the salaries of 5,000 to 10,000 fighters.  

In recent weeks the Somali government has launched an operation targeting the militant group on the battlefield and their financiers.

Somalia federal authorities plan legal action against the terrorism financiers and those running businesses on their behalf.

The insurgents long lost ground but still control the population through fear.

“There is no cleric who is with the group today for a religious reason but they are with them because of fear and some for financial reasons because the group continues to extort people and forcefully collect people’s livestock,” said Ahmed Madobe Jubaland State president, at government function on how to eradicate the group from Somalia.

The Somali government’s latest move to eradicate the militant group targets their financial streams.

The Somali authorities expect the population to cooperate by not succumbing to the group’s extortion tactics.

Recently, the United States issued sanctions targeting nine suspected Islamic State and the Al Shabaab financiers and arms traffickers.

“We take direct aim at the networks funding and supplying both ISIS-Somalia and al-Shabaab that support their violent acts,” said Brian Nelson, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.

Somalia lacks a coherent policy to combat terrorism financing.