Al-Shabaab’s improvised explosive device supply chain gambit in Somalia
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Affected Countries: somalia;
Al-Shabaab ended 2019 with a truck-borne improvised explosive device (IED) attack that killed at least 82 people and wounded dozens more in Mogadishu, Somalia. It capped a decade of increasingly deadly complex suicide attacks by the Somali terrorist group that routinely involves homemade IED devices constructed from commercially imported chemical precursors.
These materials transit through the same supply chains exploited by criminal entrepreneurs — and well-connected militant groups — shuffling narcotics, illicit wildlife products, and weapons through some of the world’s busiest ports and waterways. And it is in the ability to penetrate licit supply chains and access weapon production materials in which al-Shabaab appears first among rivals.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended global supply chains, impeding both the licit economy and the criminal underworld. These disruptions have been visible in the illicit narcotics and wildlife trade but they have also created opportunities in conflict zones where militant groups — including al-Shabaab — sense an opportunity to expand their writs of influence through violent attacks against beleaguered state governments.
While al-Shabaab lacks the scale, capacity, and inclination to deliver effective pandemic assistance, the group’s public messaging suggests that it views the pandemic as an opportunity to further undermine the fledgling government in Mogadishu. The group has maintained a high tempo of IED-borne attacks, demonstrating the capacity to target popular hotels, military outposts, and Somali government operations as the virus circulates and the government flounders. Given the ongoing tempo of attacks, al-Shabaab’s reported penetration of import supply chains raises urgent concerns with the group’s ability to access commercial IED precursors through the same pathways that deliver urgent medical and humanitarian aid.
These threats to the supply chain require immediate redress. Al-Shabaab IED attacks have claimed over 5,000 casualties and approximately 2,177 fatalities between 2017 and 2019. They have increased in lethality as more commercial precursors enter the group’s IED production pipeline, making each single attack more lethal and deadly.
Substantial changes to the current U.N. embargo framework on Somalia are therefore urgently needed to improve the monitoring of dangerous commercial chemical precursors, and enhance the international community’s ability to impose penalties (including sanctions and trade restrictions) on commercial importers who repeatedly fail to exercise due diligence procedures.
In 2019, U.N. investigators reported a one-third, year-on-year increase in al-Shabaab-directed IED attacks inside Somalia — the highest rate recorded so far in the country’s history. This uptick in IED attacks coincides with the group’s expanding use of homemade explosives, many of which are constructed from commercially available precursor chemicals and components. These materials are either imported through Somali ports or trafficked across the Red Sea from neighboring Yemen.
And as al-Shabaab’s IED attacks increase in frequency, scale, and lethality — a growing trend since 2014 — al-Shabaab’s reported access to commercially imported IED precursors challenges the state’s ability to monitor or track the flow of dangerous precursors into the country. Some of these precursors include ammonium nitrate, a chemical substance commonly used in fertilizers as well as in explosives used in mining and construction.
The same chemical compound was responsible for the devastating — but seemingly accidental — explosion in Beirut, Lebanon that claimed over 130 lives and injured thousands more. This incident revived an urgent — though often ignored — discussion on the open and unregulated trade in dual-use chemical precursors that are repurposed for weapons production by a variety of militant groups from the Islamic State to al-Shabaab.
Unlike ammonium nitrate, which doubles as a common fertilizer, some IED precursors found in al-Shabaab custody — such as concentrated nitric acid or potassium nitrate — lack practical domestic uses altogether. The United Nations found that Somalia imported approximately 44 tons of nitric acid from Kenya and the United Arab Emirates between 2017 and 2018, even though it lacked the industrial demand for concentrated nitric acid.
Some of these large quantity imports enter the country formally and are declared and recorded through the U.N. Comtrade System, a voluntary reporting mechanism that aggregates global trade transactions by U.N. member states. Other chemical precursors appear trafficked across Somalia’s porous border with Kenya and the equally active cross-sea trafficking corridor between Yemen and Somalia.
Due to the opaque nature of illicit trafficking activities between Somalia and its northern and southern neighbors, the breadth of IED chemical precursors transferred across the Red Sea or from the southern border with Kenya is difficult to determine. U.N. investigators have, however, found that as early as July 2017, al-Shabaab bomb-makers had progressively moved away from primary reliance on captured munitions as their principal resource for IED construction materials.
Instead, the group appeared to have relatively reliable access to commercially available precursors that have repeatedly appeared in raids on al-Shabaab facilities. Some like ammonium nitrate, were imported into the country in large quantities and into ports where al-Shabaab has demonstrated access to incoming cargoes.
In one such incident on May 17, 2019, a Tanzania-flagged cargo vessel, the Marine Vessel Oriental Queen, offloaded 165 tons of ammonium nitrate and 180 tons of explosives as well as 500 electric detonators to the northeastern port of Bosaso, Somalia. The cargo was sourced in Turkey and later transported to storage facilities for later use in road and port construction.
Since commercially procured explosives and precursor chemicals (even in such large quantities) were not subject to enhanced monitoring or mandatory reporting to U.N. embargo monitors, it presented a high-diversion risk given the presence of both al-Shabaab and the local Islamic State faction in the region. U.N. investigators similarly found that local authorities had limited capacity to ensure the safe storage and transport of the precursor chemicals and accompanying detonators — an attendant risk tragically realized in the Beirut explosions.
The Marine Vessel Oriental Queen incident revealed a significant — though easily overlooked — supply chain security flaw: Without mandatory reporting procedures that require commercial importers to declare the delivery of high-risk, dual-use IED precursor chemicals to U.N. embargo monitors, large quantities could filter into the country undetected. That these products have appeared in al-Shabaab-linked IED attacks suggests that a stricter enforcement regime is needed to prevent the leakage of these materials into militant control.
Many of the chemical products that double as IED precursors often have legitimate commercial uses. They are therefore not subject to strict import or export controls. And where restrictions exist, enforcement is highly variable — even in the context of a weapons embargo as it exists in Somalia. Since both individual states and commercial importers are not required to declare cargoes containing precursor chemicals to the Security Council, U.N. embargo monitors are unable to assess the breadth and size of dangerous precursors entering the country.
The ease of access — backed by the lack of mandatory reporting requirements — makes chemical precursors especially dangerous when accessed by groups such as al-Shabaab. And since these products act as oxidizers, amplifying the strength of explosions, they increase the damage potential of each IED incident.
Public reporting on these precursor imports is similarly scarce. The U.N. Comtrade system aggregates annual trade statistics into general product categories formally known as the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System. The system is, however, quite limited. It only provides a narrow view of the products, quantities, and trade values exchanged. It also does not identify specific importers or exporters, or the specific types, brands, or concentrations of the products involved — all of which is essential to proper tracking and monitoring of precursor flows.
Analysis of U.N. Comtrade data revealed that only four countries had reported exports to Somalia involving six of the nine high-risk precursors identified by the United Nations. The examined data showed that the Netherlands, Kenya, the United Arab Emirates, and China were the principal exporters of the following U.N.-identified precursors to Somalia between 2013 and 2018: ammonium and potassium nitrate, acetone, glycerol, nitric acid, and sodium chlorate.
These exports amounted to approximately 290 tons of precursor chemicals imported into Somalia over a six-year period — though the annual figures varied by year, by exporting country, and by precursor chemical. China appeared as the sole ammonium nitrate exporter (with 76 tons exported in 2014), while Kenya and the United Arab Emirates were the sole nitric acid exporters with 166 total tons exported in 2013, 2017, and 2018. This data is, however, voluntarily reported and does not represent the entire breadth of precursor imports into Somalia (it is just what states are willing to report).
The reported figures also lack the level of specificity on trading entities to support proper tracking of materials at the entity-level where proper due-diligence scrutiny is conducted. In fact, despite the Security Council’s authorization of Resolution 2444 in November 2018, calling for greater monitoring of IED precursor flows into Somalia, the current reporting regime is inadequate to the monitoring task implied.
In the absence of a verifiable baseline of amounts and entities involved in precursor flows to Somalia, an assessment of components potentially diverted is virtually impossible. The current reporting through U.N. Comtrade also makes it difficult to assess (or estimate) illicit transfers through neighboring countries. And given the commercial applications of many of these precursors, it is difficult to discern what proportions (if any) are directly diverted from official imports versus illicitly trafficked overland or by sea.
Al-Shabaab’s infiltration of port operations — including gaining covert access to incoming cargo manifests — makes it both a shrewd and lethal supply chain operator. The group has previously demanded import declarations from Mogadishu businesses prior to their import of any goods entering the city. It has also threatened importers and claimed the ability to cross-reference incoming imports with those already in its possession — a significant supply chain vulnerability that suggests deep illicit access into Mogadishu port operations.
This alleged level of port access suggests close monitoring of port activity and the ability to anticipate (and therefore tax, as well as divert) incoming imports into the group’s control. In the absence of mandatory disclosures and stricter export controls, the true amount of IED precursor chemicals entering Somalia (and potentially diverted into IED manufacture) will remain opaque and invisible to U.N. embargo monitors.
In 2016, U.N. embargo monitors first flagged al-Shabaab’s escalating use of commercial precursors in domestic IED production. Since then, Somali security forces have recovered a broad variety of IED chemical precursors in the group’s custody. Potassium chlorate has been linked to at least six major vehicle-borne IED attacks while sodium chlorate was traced to at least three al-Shabaab vehicle-borne IED attacks between 2016 and 2017. And in 2019, the U.N. Sanctions Committee added both to a list of high-risk precursors requiring additional scrutiny due to their heightened risk of diversion into IED production.
The chemical precursors seized in al-Shabaab custody or linked to al-Shabaab attacks are commonly found in quantities that exceed domestic demand and are above Somalia’s internal production capacity. These seizures also coincide with an uptick in IED-borne attacks using homemade explosives — including those that utilize commercially available chemical precursors. This trend is unlikely to subside as long as al-Shabaab maintains access to commercially available chemical precursors and other bomb-making materials.
Source: War On The Rocks