Your news explained: Al Qaida picks up where UNESCO leaves off?

Now that the US will no longer be funding UNESCO, will Al Qaida’s generosity be the future? The Guardian reports that Al Qaida is making cash payments to victims of the Somali drought. DLR, is this a kinder, gentler Al Qaida? Does this signal a policy shift?

The Guardian splashed the story about AQ largesse in Shabab-controlled aid camps in Somalia yesterday. But the story was actually breaking a few weeks ago (read the NYTimes‘ version here). That’s not to denigrate the Guardian story, which involved travelling to the camp and then trucking out with some of the famine victims to their homestead. We’re all for investigative reporting in the most dangerous country on earth that involves interviewing Islamist insurgents. It’s just not the massive splash the Guardian claimed.

Also, there’s little in the way of verification of the story, which leaves a lot of questions. Who are these bescarved individuals handing out aid? Where did they come from (some seem to be Western)? Why would the Shabab let AQ distribute aid and cash rather than just distribute it themselves? How can the Guardian tell the difference between the Shabab and AQ anyway, ‘cos we blinkin’ can’t?

There’s a possibility that the whole story is total bollocks and a PR exercise by the Shabab, who are currently under the cosh for (a) initially denying a famine existed (b) possibly helping the famine develop and (c) preventing Western aid agencies from entering the famine area and distribute aid/trying to tax the aid they brought. Why would the Shabab let TV cameras in anyway, given how reluctant they often are to talk to Western media? And why would AQ ‘suddenly’ turn up in the camp when the cameras are there like fairy godterrorists, throwing money and dates around like some kind of Arabic Zwarte Piet?

So, what is the story? Are the Shabab pretending to be Al Qaida? Why would they do that? It seems to make no sense.

Well, no one knows. We’re talking about a militant nationalist-Islamist organisation that controls some of famine-ravaged southern Somalia and a militant Islamist transnational terrorist organisation that still has 50% of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted terrorists in its ranks. They are not averse to a little deception.

There is the possibility that the Shabab would construct an elaborate ruse for several reasons: one, it would create AQ as mythical ‘external’ aid givers, allowed into the country by the Shabab. The Shabab are somewhat tainted by the fact that they denied the famine and prevented the World Food Programme from distributing aid. This way, they can say they are allowing foreign aid distribution, but only from organisations aligned with the Shabab. Two, the Shabab is seen as colluding with AQ, which still maintains a powerful image despite recent setbacks, and could reflect well on the Somalis. Three, who knows? Maybe AQ did send some cash, but was unable to send any people? The Shabab could then dress up as AQ, let in some cameras, and everyone’s happy.

Whatever the answer, militant organisations distributing aid is not a new phenomenon: just ask Pakistan’s Lashkar e-Taiba, whose charitable arm, Jamaat ud-Dawa, was incredibly active in earthquake-shaken Pakistanin 2005, winning hearts and minds all over the place. AQ is a long way from that kind of operation, but given that the organisation’s main influence is psychological, anything that can boost its image and counter some of the more negative ideas around its murderous tendencies, while helping fellow Muslims, could be useful for them.

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