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.
Inside al-Shabaab’s Improvised Explosive Device Foundry
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.
The Flaws in IED Precursor Monitoring
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 Ongoing Threats to Supply Chain Security
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.
Enforcing a Stricter IED Precursor Supply Chain Control Regime
The international community has taken some steps to fill the gaps in monitoring precursor chemicals in Somalia. In November 2019, the U.N. Sanctions Committee passed Resolution 2498 (2019), which implemented a preventive ban and mandatory reporting requirement on a class of highly explosive compounds and electrical devices — such as detonators, firing sets, and detonating cords — entering Somalia as commercial imports. The resolution also added a vigilance requirement for a second class of chemical precursors, which includes ammonium and potassium nitrate, urging member states to more closely scrutinize the sale and transfer of these products into Somalia. This request also recommended maintaining transaction records and sharing information with the federal government of Somalia, the sanctions committee, and U.N. embargo monitors. This particular clause is, however, a recommended measure rather than an enforceable standard — and it is here where the opportunity for leakage is most acute.
This is a good first step. However, in the absence of non-compliance penalties — including potential blacklisting and sanctions designations — it is unclear whether commercial importers will voluntarily notify local authorities (and U.N. embargo monitors) of export transactions involving dual-use chemical precursors destined for Somalia. It is similarly unclear whether U.N. member states will comply with the reporting requirement and preventive ban placed on materials with an unambiguous link to IED production. If U.N. member states are unable (or unwilling) to enforce the ban on materials that have a clear link to IED production, it is unlikely that they will exercise the recommended diligence on dual-use chemical precursors. Such an outcome would simply reinforce the status quo ante.
Resolution 2498 has the potential to bring visibility into the murky world of IED precursor flows. It, however, lacks the necessary enforcement heft required to motivate compliance. Without financial penalties or the threat of potential U.N. sanctions or blacklisting of non-compliant parties (especially at the commercial vendor level), it has slim chances of success.
The sanctions committee can nonetheless capitalize on Resolution 2498 to construct the informational base required to identify repeat violators. Commercial vendors that flaunt the preventive ban and notification requirements would be catalogued alongside evidence detailing and certifying their violations and forwarded to the sanctions committee for blacklist consideration. Consideration for U.N. sanctions would also expose repeat offenders to potential U.S. and E.U. enforcement action, especially if their business operations interact with the U.S. or E.U. financial system.
While some U.N. member states may object to the immediate blacklisting of commercial violators, the defense of repeat offenders would be untenable as the catalogue of violations accrues. An established repository of violations would also allow individual member states to take additional enforcement measures — at the state level — where capacity and willingness exists. These actions could include company de-registration, withdrawal of trade licenses, closure and seizure of financial accounts, and litigation where such action is merited. Where a willingness gap prevents meaningful action, public exposure (and potential embarrassment) could jolt reluctant member states into action.
Lastly, individual member states that are unwilling to enforce U.N.-based diligence requirements could expose commercial vendors registered in their commercial or legal jurisdictions to enforcement actions by the United States or the European Union. Exposure to U.S. or E.U. enforcement action is particularly relevant for commercial vendors whose business operations require interaction with the American or European financial or trade systems, either directly or indirectly. Such vendors in Turkey, India, or even China may be forced to reconsider their compliance calculus if violations in Somalia expose them to adverse financial and operational consequences elsewhere in their regional or global operations.
The combined effect of U.S. and E.U. enforcement action would be to raise the risk calculus for commercial vendors who may otherwise ignore U.N. diligence requirements. These actions would altogether lift the veil on commercial activity that has been so far invisible to both investigators and to the public. Enforcement action would also be an important and necessary step in improving the identification and detection of dangerous material flows to one of the most lethal al-Qaeda affiliates in current operation.
In 2019, the United Nations confirmed al-Shabaab’s escalating production of homemade IEDs, and the role of commercial chemical precursors in this production chain. U.N. monitors also presented evidence indicating that the group had the ability to penetrate port operations, and therefore, potentially access high-risk, dual-use materials that are easily diverted into IED production. So far in 2020, the group’s IED attacks have shown no signs of abetting. Al-Shabaab IED attacks have targeted both military and civilian targets with lethal effect, further challenging an already-feeble government in Mogadishu.
Analyses of al-Shabaab’s IED production have shown that stricter supply chain due diligence measures are urgently required to identify and prevent the leakage of commercial precursors into al-Shabaab control. U.N. Resolutions 2444 and 2498 provide an initial framework for increased diligence but stronger deterrents and penalties — including the threat of sanctions — are required to compel stricter compliance. Al-Shabaab has proven to be both a formidable military opponent and a shrewd supply chain operator — and it is here, in the global trade in dual-use chemical precursors that the international community can meaningfully disrupt the group’s vicious IED campaign across Somalia.
Peter Kirechu is the former program director of the Conflict Finance and Irregular Threats Program at the Center for Advanced and Defense Studies (C4ADS). He is a specialist in illicit transnational networks in the Middle East and Africa.
Image: African Union Mission to Somalia (Photo by Stuart Price)