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What’s behind al Shabab’s new love for the U.N.?

As the almost entirely unreported humanitarian disaster in the Horn of Africa grows — with the number of people in need of food aid expected to rise to an estimated 10 million in the coming weeks — one interesting development has been the reversal by al Shabab (the militant Islamist group tied to al Qaeda) ...

As the almost entirely unreported humanitarian disaster in the Horn of Africa grows — with the number of people in need of food aid expected to rise to an estimated 10 million in the coming weeks — one interesting development has been the reversal by al Shabab (the militant Islamist group tied to al Qaeda) to allow aid workers into areas of Somalia under its control. Today, the U.N. World Food Program indicated it might take the group up on its offer.

"We’re assisting thousands of Somali refugees … but if we need to enter south Somalia, we need to work with al-Shabab," a spokesperson told Al Jazeera. The aid organization had to pull out of al Shabab-controlled areas last year after security risks proved too severe.

Al Shabab controls most of the country and about half of the war-torn capital, Mogadishu, but it has avoided trying to govern its territories and provide social services, experts say, choosing to remain a purely military force. The group has a complicated history with Western aid organizations. In the past, segments of al Shabab worked with aid groups — even helping to retrieve kidnapped aid workers. (That said, they’ve also kidnapped foreigners.) That changed about three years ago as the terrorist group moved closer to al Qaeda and came to see Western aid as politically motivated and anti-Muslim. They’ve called U.N. and other international aid staffers spies and said they were legitimate targets. Among other ludicrous assertions, they’ve said food aid was a plot to drive Somali farmers out of business.

They declared war on the U.N. and Western NGOs, according to the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson, and killed 42 aid workers in 2008 and 2009. As a result the World Food Program ceased its operations there in January, 2010.  

So, what’s behind al Shabab’s reversal? For starters, it is a testament to the overwhelming scale of the humanitarian disaster — the worst the country has seen in over 20 years.

One unnamed aid worker in the region told the BBC: "You know things are desperate when even al Shabab is forced to appeal for help. They are a deeply unpalatable lot but we have to work with them if we are to save lives."

For al Shabab, there is also a degree of embarrassment at play. Many refugees are coming from areas they control like southern Somalia (and are either finding their way to other parts of the country, or are leaving to camps in Ethiopia or Kenya). Many say the lack of aid forced them to flee.

In the past, al Shabab defectors have cited the banning of food aid and other cruel practices against people in their areas as reasons for leaving the group. But this crisis surpasses anything in recent memory. Even al Shabab can’t ignore it.

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