Lack of access to at-risk civilians in southern Somalia has contributed to an “unabated humanitarian crisis,” a top U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) official told a joint congressional hearing on July 7, 2011. The hearing, Assessing the Consequences of the Failed State of Somalia, featured testimonies from State Department officials and humanitarian organizations who underscored the urgent need for immediate assistance to the nearly three million Somalis facing starvation inside the war-torn country. This includes those trapped in places controlled by al-Shabab, a designated terrorist organization. U.S. anti-terror laws make it nearly impossible to deliver aid to civilians in places such designated terrorist groups operate.

BBC: The UN declares famine in two regions of southern  Somalia
Eliza Griswold (New America Foundation): U.S. Red Tape Could Doom Somalia
CSN: Legal Roadblocks for U.S. Famine Relief to Somalia Creating Humanitarian Crisis

Reuben Brigety, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the State Department, called for immediate assistance to relieve what he described as “the desperate and deplorable state of malnutrition” among many Somali children.

Nancy Lindborg, Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Affairs at USAID, told Congress that U.S. assistance reaches approximately 1.2 million people in the accessible areas of the county, but is unable to reach “more than 60 percent of the people in Somalia who need life-saving assistance.”

Under the U.S. counterterrorism regime, delivering aid to the people trapped in al-Shabab territory would require the Treasury Department to issue a license, because Executive Order 13224 bars any transactions with al-Shabab. But it can be waived by issuing a license. According to Eliza Griswold, a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, Treasury is unlikely to do so because “of worries about running afoul of a murky law against giving money to terrorists.” Under these laws, distributing aid to at-risk civilians living or trapped in regions where designated groups operate is barred, if doing so is in any way “coordinated” with the designated group. Learn more about these laws and what can be done to remedy them here. 

“In order to deliver assistance to these areas,” Lindborg said, “we have developed a risk mitigation strategy to enable us to provide assistance to the Somali people with an emphasis on assuring our assistance reaches those most in need. We have put into place basic risk mitigation procedures, risk-based assessments, and special conditions for our grant agreements. We continue to work to ensure our programs in Somalia are appropriately and accountably managed and monitored.” Despite these efforts to demonstrate proper due diligence about the assistance to people trapped in southern Somalia, Treasury has refused to grant licenses.

The short-sightedness of this approach was criticized by several speakers at the hearing. David H. Shinn, professor at George Washington University, said, “while it is important to keep counterterrorism high on the priority list of U.S. concerns, it should not overwhelm U.S. and international community actions that might make a stronger contribution to diminishing the influence of al-Shabaab in the region …More importantly, [a military only strategy] does nothing to mitigate the root causes that led to the rise of and continue to generate support for al-Shabaab and similar organizations.”

Bronwyn Bruton, a Fellow at the One Earth Future Foundation, said the desperate and unmet need for humanitarian relief threatens to overwhelm all other priorities in southern Somalia. “Without a dramatic increase in humanitarian aid, tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children living in these communities will die painful, unrecorded deaths. The failure to meet the most basic human requirements of Somalia’s population conflicts with every precept of counterinsurgency strategy, and will undoubtedly deliver some desperate communities into the hands of al-Shabaab.”

Al-shabaab had banned foreign aid organizations from operating in the region in late 2009, forcing the UN’s World Food Program to pull out of the country. Rapidly deteriorating conditions, however, likely forced it to reverse its stance on July 6, 2011 saying it welcomed help from outside groups. On the same day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convened a meeting of senior officials from the State Department and USAID about the crisis.   State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Clinton tasked her staff with looking at what else can be done to “avoid a major humanitarian catastrophe,” including probing whether al-Shabaab can be taken at its word.

“The secretary wants to ensure we do all we can to avoid a humanitarian disaster, and if al-Shabaab is now saying it will allow these humanitarian efforts, then the international community should test,” Nuland said.