Terrorism is an expensive hobby – how do Somalia’s al-Qa’ida franchise, al-Shabaab, pay the bills?
It starts with a call from an unknown number – but every shopkeeper, truck driver or camel herder in Somalia knows who it is. The call is straightforward: we know how much your business is worth, you need to pay this amount in ‘zakat’. You have a week to send the money via EVC (the Somali equivalent of MPesa) or pay it into a particular bank account.
‘Zakat’ in its true form is one of the five pillars of Islam (along with prayer, pilgrimage, fasting and belief in Allah and his messenger, Mohamed). It is the obligation of all those with a certain amount of wealth (‘nisab’) to pay 1/40th of that wealth to the care of orphans, the poor and so on and it is paid yearly around Eid al-Adha. The UK newspaper The Guardian recently described authentic, Islamic zakat as the largest organised charitable effort in the world.
Al-Shabaab’s ‘Zakat’ Not Charitable
Al-Shabaab’s version of ‘zakat’ is neither authentic, Islamic nor charitable: it pays the wages of fighters and buys guns, bullets and bombs for them to use in terrorist attacks. That accounts for about a third of the money al-Shabaab brings in: a third is believed to go to al-Qa’ida itself and the other third goes into investments in property abroad and leaders’ pockets.
Few are daring – or is it daft? – enough to refuse to pay. The Elite Hotel, which sits in a prime position on Lido Beach in Mogadishu did, and got a visit from two cars packed with explosives and half a dozen men with automatic rifles and suicide vests in response. Everyone else pays, from a widow selling washing powder and lollipops from a tin shed to a national cellphone network. The bigger players pay in cash and in person – large sums going via mobile money transfer or into a bank account might attract attention.
Even international charities and the Turkish and Chinese companies that operate in the city (running the logistics in the air- and seaport and conducting large scale tuna fishing respectively) are rumoured to pay as well.
What Do You Get For You Money?
What do those who pay get in return? Very little, apparently. Al-Shabaab’s illegal checkpoints in the areas it controls in the Somali hinterland are apparently efficient, issuing receipts on entering the area. Unlike government controlled areas, that is a one-off payment that is enough to ensure safe-passage: in contrast, a 40km trip such as the trip from Mogadishu to Wanlaweyn, through a government controlled area, can mean encountering as many as eight illegal checkpoints manned by unpaid government soldiers and policemen, each demanding payment.
But for everyone else, ‘not being blown up or shot’ seems to be all that comes in return for paying al-Shabaab’s army of extortionists. Perhaps it might be time to start thinking of al-Shabaab less as a terrorist group and more as a group of gangsters, slowly but surely trying to legitimise their ‘business’ and enjoy their ill-gotten gains without nervously scanning the night skies for a missile armed American drone.