The UN is pushing Middle Eastern countries to crack down on a multimillion dollar charcoal trade that funds al-Qaeda-linked jihadis in Somalia in violation of international sanctions.
Charcoal is the economic lifeline of the al-Shabaab Islamist militants, who control much of southern Somalia and regularly conduct terror attacks in Mogadishu, the capital.
The UN Security Council's committee on sanctions in Somalia meets on Friday to consider the case of two vessels docked in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which UN officials say are "test cases" of whether Middle East countries will enforce international sanctions.
UN officials have previously accused businessmen based in Gulf countries of illegally importing Somali charcoal, but this is the first time they have given prior warning to a government that a shipload of contraband charcoal was heading its way, putting pressure on it to implement the sanctions regime.
The UN estimates that al-Shabaab pocketed more than $25m (Sh2.2 billion) from charcoal in 2011, fuelling its operations and undermining efforts to promote stability in a fragile country suffering from terrorism, piracy and more than 20 years of clan warfare.
UN-backed African troops pushed al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu two years ago, but although weakened it still holds vast swaths of the southern
countryside - which is filled with acacia tree forests that are cut down for charcoal - and launches regular suicide attacks.
In a letter addressed to Ahmed Al-Jarman, the UAE's permanent representative to the UN, dated August 30 and seen by the Financial Times, the co-ordinator of the UN's sanctions monitoring group on Somalia, Jarat Chopra, said his group had verified that a vessel, the MV Energy 3, had docked in southern Somalia's Kismayo port on August 2 and taken on board 140,895 sacks of charcoal. Eleven days later the ship docked in Dubai's Port Rashid.
Chopra said, in a separate letter, that Dubai-based charcoal traders were treating the fate of the MV Energy 3 vessel as "a test case for the effectiveness of the charcoal ban" in the Middle East. He also named six more vessels plying the illegal charcoal route.
The UAE has told the UN that the shipment and vessel have been seized, but acknowledged the charcoal had been offloaded, but only because "smoke was rising from the vessel". Abu Dhabi's ambassador to the UN said in its letter that "investigations have been launched to verify the documentation of the cargo".
A UN sanctions report published in July stated Somalia's illegal charcoal exports are worth more than $360m (Sh31.3 billion) on the international market, and that two al-Shabaab traders control a third of exports. "[Gulf] countries continue to be the principal importers of Somali charcoal in violation of the Security Council ban," said the UN sanctions report, which singled out UAE and Saudi Arabia as the worst perpetrators.
"There are strong links between the Kismayo charcoal traders and the large charcoal businessmen in Dubai," the report stated.
In a separate case, a Dubai-owned vessel, the MV Loai IV, left an al-Shabaab-controlled port bound for Saudi Arabia late last year but
was refused entry and instead docked in Egypt, which impounded the shipment estimated at more than 100,000 sacks of charcoal. In a letter
dated August 30, Egypt asked the UN whether it could permit the cargo to leave its waters. The UN is seeking further details about the destination of the vessel.
This week, al-Shabaab claimed it conducted a "martyrdom operation" directed against Ahmed Madobe, the Kenya-backed militia leader turned
Administrator, who controls the fraught region home to Kismayo port and its charcoal exports. Mr Madobe escaped but said several of his guards were killed.