Somali militant group Al-Shabaab may have outgrown its reliance on illegal charcoal export for revenue and turned to 'local means', a move that could free the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) from perennial accusations of having a hand in smuggling.
A new report by the UN Panel of Experts on Somalia says the ban imposed to curtail the group's terrorist activities may have lost its steam as the fighters go for alternative, albeit illegal, sources of money.
The new trend in expansion of Al-Shabaab's "mafia-style taxation" is revenue taxation of imports into Mogadishu port, extortion as well as enticing the public by providing "basic services, such as access to judicial recourse... where State institutions do not reach".
The revelations could free KDF, which the panel had perennially accused of abetting the illegal charcoal trade. The military has denied the charges.
As part of the African Union Mission in Somalia, KDF has been stationed in Jubbaland since 2012, when they rehatted and joined the UN-mandated combat mission.
The panel says recent efforts, by the federal government in Mogadishu and partners, to seal off illegal trade routes for charcoal trade have forced the militants to opt for other "taxations" as well as improvised local sources of weapons.
Since August 2018, the panel has reported no charcoal exports from Somalia that violated the UN Security Council's ban, compared to the three million bags reported in 2017.
The drop is largely because Middle East countries such as Iran, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have implemented stringent customs rules that require exporters to provide sufficient paperwork, often absent in smuggling.
But it could also be because al-Shabaab now has easier alternatives.
"Were exports of Somali charcoal to cease entirely, Al-Shabaab's ability to wage its insurgency is unlikely to be significantly affected," the report released on Tuesday says.
"The Panel of Experts has therefore recommended that the council carry out a review of the charcoal ban, with a view to assessing its continued appropriateness."
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However, illegal charcoal trade within Somalia is continuing - the panel observed unsold stockpiles in Kismayu and Buur Gaabo, both in Jubbaland, of between 600,000 and 900,000 bags worth about $45 million.
The panel, initially known as the UN Monitoring Group in Somalia and Eritrea, was given a new mandate and a different name in December 2018, after Eritrea was removed from sanctions for its suspected role in supplying weapons to Somalia.
It says that Al-Shabaab, even in the era of an arms embargo and restricted financial support, is thriving on innovations.
This year, the group raised its tempo of attacks in Somalia, becoming the highest in history, using improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
With support from the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, both US entities, they discovered that all explosives used in the attacks were locally sourced.
"Post-blast chemical analyses obtained by the panel provided definitive evidence for the first time that Al-Shabaab had been manufacturing its own home-made explosives since at least July 2017, and likely before then," the report says.
Previously, the militant group relied on military explosives, often obtained from explosive remnants of war and those captured from the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), to construct IEDs.
With home-made devices, the panel says there has to be amendments to the arms embargo imposed on Somalia, ostensibly to limit Al-Shabaab's access to weapons.
"Given the prominence of the improvised explosive device as Al-Shabaab's weapon of choice, the arms embargo should be simplified and updated to reflect the modalities of modern counter-insurgency warfare, for example by seeking to restrict Al-Shabaab's access to chemical precursors and other components it uses to construct improvised explosive devices.