16 February 2014

Somalia Powerless to Stop Al-Shabaab Mobile Internet Shutdown

Mogadishu — Osman Ali, the owner of an electronics shop in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, has been hard-hit since Al-Shabaab forced the biggest telecoms company to switch off its mobile internet service in this Horn of Africa nation.

"I don't understand why the government has not done anything to deal with the situation. It could at least try and find an alternative for the people. This has thrown the country into darkness. We are left behind," Ali told IPS from his shop, explaining that his sales had dropped dramatically since the shutdown.

In January, Al-Shabaab issued a 15-day ultimatum for local giant, Hormuud Telecom, to stop proving mobile internet and fibre optic services because it said they were used by Western spy agencies to collect information on Muslims.

Hormuud officials said company staff were forced "at gun point" by Al-Shabaab fighters to switch off the mobile internet service.

According to Internet World Stats, more than 125,000 of the country's 10 million people use the internet in Somalia. Tens of thousands of people who relied on Hormuud's services have been unable to access the internet on their mobile phones from Feb. 6. However, fixed broadband services are still available.

The Mayor of Mogadishu, Mohamed Nur Tarzan, told the media that Hormuud officials had said company staff were forced "at gunpoint" by Al-Shabaab fighters to switch off the mobile internet service.

Hormuud, which claims to be the market leader in south and central Somalia "with over 60 percent of market share in both mobile and broadband services", has not officially commented on the ban.

However, a Hormuud official told IPS on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, that they had no option but to comply.

"I don't think we had another alternative ... we are just business people and cannot confront an armed group's orders. We tried our best to convince them [Al-Shabaab] that our services do not harm the public in any way, but that was in vain," the official said.

The company has switched off the service not only to areas controlled by Al-Shabaab but across the centre of the country and in Mogadishu. However, the ban has not affected the northeastern regions of Puntland and the northwestern province of Somaliland where separate mobile networks operate.

Although officials have condemned the move, the government has faced widespread criticism for its "inaction".

However, following the news of the group's ultimatum, in a statement on Jan. 11, the then interior minister Abdikarim Hussein Guled condemned the ban and cautioned companies against cooperating with the militants.

But local social media has been awash with criticism of the government, saying that if it had at least provided enough security to local companies it would have had the authority to order the continuation of their services.

Maryan Ali, a 20-year-old student in Mogadishu has not been able to access the internet on her Smartphone for nearly a week now.

"I used to follow news and information about the world with my mobile and communicate with family and friends but that is no more," she told IPS.

Al-Shabaab said in a statement that mobile internet services were the cause of air strikes that they said were carried out by "the enemy" in areas under their control and "led to the killing and hunting of Jihadists."

Mohamed Yusuf, an academic in Mogadishu, said that the extremist group's actions to ban mobile internet services in southern and central Somalia were triggered by the Edward Snowden revelations of widespread U.S. government surveillance programmes it maintained in and outside the country.

In 2013, Snowden, a former technical contractor for the National Security Agency, released secret documents showing how the U.S. government was tapping global internet and phone systems on a massive scale.

"Al-Shabaab has not hidden the fact that their move was prompted by the Snowden revelations and that they feared they could also be a key target for U.S. government spying," Yusuf told IPS in Mogadishu.

Yusuf also said that the major reason for the group's decision was the possibility that mobile internet connections could be used to track the leaders and commanders of Al-Shabaab, which the U.S. government considers a terrorist entity and a legitimate target for its drone attacks.

But Mustaf Jama says his mobile internet connection was his sole source of information for his university studies, but now he is unable to access information online from just anywhere and is forced to use internet cafes.

"It was convenient to use the mobile internet to check facts and information as well as news but that is all gone. We are going back a quarter of a century and are being left behind. We don't know why we are being punished this way," Jama told IPS.

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