The state and terror in Somalia

Charcoal: Somalia's burning issue

In the Somalia capital Mogadishu, the government is officially waging war against the Al-Shabaab terrorist militia. Economically, however, both seem to be pursuing common interests, as a CORRECTIV investigation shows. According to our investigation, both the Islamists and state officials profit from the multi-million dollar charcoal trade. A business that threatens nature and livelihoods: through domestic and international trade and through the systematic extortion of those who merely want to survive. The victims of this system give a first-hand account of the crossroads they find themselves at. Despite the substantial risks involved for them.

By Marc Engelhardt, Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, Bettina Rühl, Assia Shidane

13 December 2022

When the heavily armed Islamists stormed the hotel in the Somali capital, the government officials inside fled through the windows. Al-Shabaab fighters held around 60 people hostage for more than 12 hours. Residents reported explosions and gunfire. By the end, the attackers, one police officer and eight civilians were dead. The attack at the end of November is only one of a number of Al-Shabaab attacks in recent months. One month earlier, 120 people died after Islamists detonated car bombs outside the Ministry of Education. The government has declared war on Al-Shabaab. After a particularly violent attack that left 587 people dead in 2017, then President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed announced that he would defeat Al-Shabaab across the whole country. His successor Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declared shortly after his election in August of this year that he is planning an “all-out war” against the terrorists, including bombardments as well as ground and air attacks. Indeed, the Somali army has just recaptured a strategically important town. That, however, is not the whole truth, as a CORRECTIV investigation reveals. If what the involved parties report is true, then those in power and the terrorists have common interests, a dirty business in which both sides make money: the multi-million dollar trade in charcoal produced from the rapidly dwindling acacia forests in the Sahel region of the Horn of Africa and then exported abroad. When confronted with these allegations, the Somali Ministry of Information did not react to the results of our investigation.

LKW beladen mit Holz Aschehaufen nach der Holzkohleproduktion Säcke gefüllte mit Holzkohle Ein Mann trägt einen Korb mit Holzkohle

Drivers with trucks bring logs to charcoal burners, where they are processed into charcoal. Because trucks are rare in Somalia, the cargo is stacked as high as possible. The logs are mainly acacia wood felled in areas under Al-Shabaab control. The photo, like all the photos in this gallery, was taken by Somalis who shared it with us anonymously.

When the wood arrives at the charcoal burner, it is stacked in a pile and hermetically covered with earth before being set on fire. In these simple kilns, the wood is charred for several days. The temperatures in the kiln can reach up to 400ºC. At the end, about a third of the wood volume remains as charcoal.

The finished charcoal is packed in sacks that will either be delivered to Somali traders or exported. Because of its acacia aroma, Somali charcoal is especially popular with shisha smokers in the Arab world and is valued accordingly. A UN imposed embargo is not being complied with, as has been confirmed by the UN's own inspectors.

A man carries a basket of charcoal that he has unloaded from a truck. For Somalis, charcoal is the most important source of energy. According to the UN, 98 percent of all households in Somalia's towns and cities use it for cooking or heating. Small stoves called "jiko" are set on the ground. Their effectiveness is very low.
Image: Freya Morales/Redux/laif

0 Million
Since 2012, 8.2 million trees have been cut down and turned into charcoal in Somalia

Those involved in this illegal business expressed their views in the CORRECTIV CrowdNewsroom (see box: This is how we investigated). The production of charcoal and its trade for export have been prohibited by law in Somalia since 2012. Loggers, charcoal burners and truck drivers form a value chain with traders and buyers. Satellite image expert Niklas Jordan has verified their statements for CORRECTIV using photos and satellite images. They paint a picture of a complex operation that represents a multi-million dollar source of income for the Islamists. This operation is, however, not stopped by the Somali army. Probably because this business is profitable for both sides. For nature and the climate, on the other hand, the consequences are catastrophic. According to a joint study by the EU and the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, seven per cent of the already sparse vegetation was cut down for charcoal production between 2006 and 2012, when Al-Shabaab were at the height of their power. In 2012, the UN Security Council banned the Somali charcoal trade and Somalia’s weak government followed suit. Nevertheless, in the years that followed, according to the UN, another 8.2 million trees, mainly acacias, were cut down and turned into charcoal.

Karte Somalia Satellitenbild Jilib 2006 Satellitenbild Jilib 2020 Satellitenbild Buurhakaba 2006 Satellitenbild Buurhakaba 2020

Somalia remains a torn country to this day. The government controls the capital Mogadishu and other cities. In contrast, the trail to the raw material of Somalia's "black gold" leads deep into the Somali hinterland, where Al-Shabaab rules.

Government and allies
Various groups / unclear

According to our investigation, large-scale deforestation is happening mainly in three regions: Jubaland, Lower Shabelle and Bay.

Government and allies
Various groups / unclear

Around the Islamist-controlled city of Jilib, for example, the lush greenery that satellite images in 2006 still showed has...

...given way to the rusty red of the bare ground (satellite image from 2020).

Satellite images from the Bay region paint a similar picture. Since early 2020, there has been little rainfall in the region, five rainy seasons have failed.

The land, eroded after deforestation, resembles a desert. Every second person in Somalia is seriously affected by the drought, and hundreds of thousands are at risk of starvation. In the Bay region, which is mainly controlled by Al-Shabaab, the situation is particularly bad. According to the UN, this is the "epicentre of the crisis".

0 Million
Estimated revenue from charcoal exports to the Gulf region in US dollars

The terrorists themselves are also responsible. Al-Shabaab threatens the hungry as well as traders and aid workers, and demands taxes even from the poorest. Anyone who cuts down trees has to pay, as does anyone who grows crops or sells their last cattle. Mohammed, who responded to our questions during the investigation, is affected by both drought and terror. Nevertheless, he also contributes to both. Because his business, the charcoal trade, is not only destroying the last tiny forests in Bay, accelerating desertification, it also finances his tormentors. For Al-Shabaab, the revenue from the charcoal trade is an important source of income, as a commission of experts working on behalf of the UN found as early as back in 2011. The revenues from exports, mainly to the Gulf region, were estimated at more than 15 million US dollars. More recent studies are not available. But CORRECTIV’s CrowdNewsroom investigation reveals that the terrorists’ revenue remains high to this day: what the opium poppy is to the Taliban in Afghanistan, charcoal is to Al-Shabaab in Somalia. “I’m only doing it because the circumstances are so tough,” Mohammed tells CORRECTIV. “I did not choose this. But I have to make a living, and I can secure a livelihood by making charcoal.”

Mohammed is not actually his real name. Just like the other people we interviewed, he does not want to give his name. Those who criticise Al-Shabaab must fear for their lives. Time and again, critical journalists are murdered. That is why informants speak anonymously in the CORRECTIV CrowdNewsroom. Many of their statements agree. According to their accounts, the charcoal trade is growing and has now reached enormous dimensions. Moreover, the people we interview incriminate not only Al-Shabaab but also representatives of the Somali state as profiteers.

In their strongholds, the Islamists act with extreme brutality. That is what is reported by charcoal burners from rural regions who process wood into charcoal in their kilns, as well as drivers who use patched up trucks and drive logs or sacks of charcoal to the cities, especially to the capital Mogadishu. The Islamists have arrested the driver Aaden several times to extort money, he reports. The Islamists do not hold back when dealing with the drivers. Sometimes they beat us up, and once Al-Shabaab even set my truck on fire.” Aaden reports being abducted while on the road to Mogadishu. “They held us hostage for several days, we begged and bribed them until we were finally free.” Bypassing the blockades is not possible. Only a few roads lead from the arid acacia forested hinterland of the Jubba, Lower Shabelle and Bay regions towards the coast. Somali truckers report that the Islamists camp there to cash in. “I drive charcoal sacks from Gobanle in Lower Shabelle to Mogadishu,” says Abshir, who, like Aaden, drives trucks loaded with wood or charcoal. Anyone who transports logs and branches which still have leaves on them officially violates the restrictions imposed by the Islamists themselves. Abshir says that he only has one choice in the end, “I’ll pay whatever Al-Shabaab demands.” In the end, there is not much left for him, he says. “I earn just enough for daily meals, rent, water, that’s it.” Abshir would like to change jobs, to do something less dangerous. “Charcoal is contraband and can be confiscated at any time, I’m obviously aware of that, but I have a family to support.”

Karte Somalia LKW beladen mit Holz Satellitenbild zeigt Mogadischu Aschehaufen nach der Holzkohleproduktion Karte Somalia Satellitenbild zeigt Straßensperre in Siinka Dheer

Satellite images show that Al-Shabaab continues to receive its funding through the charcoal trade to this day: according to experts, these images show kilns located in areas under its control. Around the villages of Bu'ale, Yaaq Biriweyne and Ceel Qoxle. Charcoal burners, who provided information about the first two sites in the CrowdNewsroom, say, "Al-Shabaab are the worst. Getting the wood is becoming increasingly harder and expensive because the transporters run into so many problems along the way."

Government and allies
Various groups / unclear

The drivers' accounts are further evidence of a booming business. According to their reports, they transport wood in their trucks mainly to Mogadishu, where charcoal is also produced.

Satellite images from the Somali capital analysed by expert Niklas Jordan show such trucks and large quantities of logs. Logs that, according to the drivers we interviewed, come from regions controlled by Al-Shabaab.

The booming profits have changed the business. Charcoal has always been traded in Somalia and other African countries, especially in bad times. To make up for lost crops, farmers would cut down a few trees and sell the charcoal produced from them. However, the trade has now reached a different dimension. Trees are felled on a massive scale, then transported, stored and smouldered into charcoal close to the sales markets.

Satellite images that we examined after receiving information from traders show an actual industrial zone for charcoal on the outskirts of Mogadishu, barely four kilometres from the military's roadblock on the road to Afgooye.

The roadblock in Siinka Dheer is manned by the military, whose garrison is located in this suburb of Mogadishu. The white vehicles standing across the road to force cars to stop are easy to spot. The roadblock is on the border between the capital district of Benadir, which is under full government control, and the Lower Shabelle region, large parts of which are controlled by Al-Shabaab.

The Somali soldiers who protect the government’s territory also demand their own “tax”. They are actually supposed to confiscate the trucks. After all, the production and trade of charcoal is prohibited by law. Instead, according to our informants, they hold out their hands for money. And if the army is making a profit this way, it is only logical for them to not make much of an effort to hinder the Islamists. After all, no one wants to saw off the branch they are sitting on. “Al-Shabaab charges 75 US dollars per load, the government charges 85,” complains Gurey, a driver. “I’d say Al-Shabaab is the greatest challenge, but the government is also a challenge, wanting to profit from our small transport operations as well,” confirms Taifa, a charcoal merchant in Waydow. And Shermake, who sells his charcoal not far from the international airport, says, “We pay Al-Shabaab and the government the same amount.” We asked the Somali government’s Ministry of Information for comment on these statements. But the Ministry refused to comment – nor did it comment on the huge charcoal production facilities, which, according to our findings, are located in government controlled areas.

Somalia and Al-Shabaab Somalia has had barely any government structures since the fall of the then President Siad Barre in 1991. Elected by an electoral commission in May, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud rules mainly over urban areas in the south of the country in the Horn of Africa. The Islamist terrorist militia Al-Shabaab, on the other hand, controls large parts of the rural regions. Partly because of the drought that has been going on for years and the growing food shortage, regional militias are now supporting the fight against the terrorist group, which sees itself as part of Al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab collects taxes and receives its funding through illegal businesses such as the charcoal trade.

Satellitenbild zeigt Industriegebiet mit Holzkohlemeilern Wärmebild eines Sentinel-Satelliten zeigt Industriegebiet in Mogadischu

According to our analysis of the satellite images, the industrial zone where wood from the Al-Shabaab areas is turned into charcoal is huge: there are at least 50 charcoal kilns spread out on a single plot of land with enough space to comfortably fit 200 houses. Each one is a mound of clay and sand several metres high. Underneath, the charcoal chars without oxygen supply in the sweltering heat. In just one kiln, two to three truckloads of wood can be turned into one load of charcoal within a few days.

Another similarly large zone full of kilns is located barely more than 100 metres away on the same road. More than 20 trucks are parked on the road in front of it. Images taken by a Sentinel satellite at an altitude of just over four kilometres provide further indications that the structures are charcoal kilns. The satellite's special camera measures the humidity on Earth. If the image glows as red as it does for this plot of land, it means that the soil is extremely dry. And that, explains satellite image expert Niklas Jordan, is very rare even in dry regions like Somalia – the more so as the neighbouring plot of land glows much less. Evidently, charcoal is being produced in these factories – on a large scale.

The size of the charcoal factories as well as their location on the main road from Afgooye to the centre of Mogadishu make it almost impossible to believe that state law enforcers are not aware of the situation. A storage yard visible on satellite images provides further evidence of the scale of the operation. Trucks unload logs and pile them up in clearly visible stacks before they are transported to the nearby super kilns. If CORRECTIV's calculations are correct, this complex alone produces between 25 and 50 truckloads of charcoal every day. The megakiln must be impossible to miss, and not just from the air. Yet, nothing is being done about this business that is illegal as well as profitable. It stands to reason that state law enforcers are also making a profit. The key factor is that there is charcoal.

This same applies to Mogadishu’s markets. With mass production despite all the prohibitions, charcoal prices on the markets in Somalia’s capital should be at a historic low. But the opposite is the case, as traders and consumers report. “We used to buy a kilo of charcoal for 5000 shillings,” states Aamina. She says that the price has more than doubled to 12,000 shillings now. Cooking three meals a day for her family uses up a substantial part of the family’s income. Other customers make similar statements. One reason is apparently that the demand for charcoal is higher than before. Ahmed, a trader from the Wadajir district, says, “The price of gas has gone up, so people have switched to charcoal – this has led to a tighter supply in the markets.” More often, however, traders cite the fact that they have to pay so much money to the authorities in the city and to Al-Shabaab as the reason. This is how Cumar, who sells charcoal in the Waaberi district, explains it. And Abdi, who has his market stall in the centre of the capital, complains, “God knows, the government keeps collecting new taxes from us.” Geedi, a trader in the north of Mogadishu, pays money directly to the authorities and then also to officials who come to find him at his stall. He cannot do anything about it. “The charcoal trade is prohibited after all.”

But that alone is not enough to explain the price explosion in the markets. Perhaps the more important factor is low availability. The charcoal is exported to countries where there is far more money to be made. This, like its production and trade, is also prohibited. As early as 2012, the UN Security Council imposed an embargo. But it remains ineffective. For 2013, experts estimate the value of the export trade to be over 360 million US dollars. And as recently as 10 October 2022 UN inspectors reported to the Security Council the detection of a large quantity of Somali charcoal being smuggled to the United Arab Emirates. 4,425 tonnes of charcoal were being smuggled. All traders, except for one who did not wish to comment, and all the drivers we interviewed assumed that the charcoal would be exported, or at least had heard rumours to that effect. Because of its distinctive aroma, Somali charcoal made from acacia wood is especially popular with shisha smokers and commands a correspondingly high price. According to a 2014 study by the non-profit organisation GRID Arendal, which specialises in environmental issues, exports go to the Arab Emirates of Dubai, Sharjah and Khasab, among others, as well as to Kuwait, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Lebanon. Anyone searching the internet for Somali charcoal will quickly find what they are looking for. A company based in Egypt, for example, advertises that it can supply excellent Somali charcoal for shisha and cooking “in any quantity”, “fastest delivery and best quality” guaranteed. Exports are made by intermediaries or directly from Somalia.

Satellitenbild eines Förderbands in Mogadischu Satellitenbild eines Förderbands in Mogadisch Karte Somalia Holzkohleablagerungen in Barawe Holzkohleablagerungen in Barawe

And satellite images of by far Somalia's most important port in Mogadishu do indeed seem to confirm that charcoal is being shipped. In the north-west part of the port area, extremely heavy black deposits can be seen on two piers at two different loading locations. Photos taken on the ground in 2012 after the port city of Kismayo had been liberated from Al-Shabaab show just how badly stored charcoal blackens the soil. At that time, Al-Shabaab had been storing mountains of charcoal there. A black gold mine turned into money by soldiers and supporting rebels. At the time, a non-governmental organisation accused Kenyan troops operating under an African Union mandate of driving the trade and generating revenues of up to 400 million US dollars a year.

The latest satellite images from Mogadishu show soil similar to that in Kismayo. Even compared to the asphalt, the soil is so dark that aerial image expert Jordan virtually rules out any other origin. Numerous trucks are parked on the site, it's very busy. One of the images shows at least one conveyor belt.

It seems that charcoal is not only shipped from the port in Mogadishu. A good 200 kilometres to the south is the port city of Barawe, which, like a government-controlled oasis, is surrounded by Al-Shabaab territory.

Government and allies
Various groups / unclear

Charcoal deposits are also clearly visible in Barawe, covering an area of more than three hectares.

The piles within the black area appear to be the green plastic charcoal sacks seen in photos. The area is open to the sea, presumably to facilitate loading onto boats.

The export of Somali charcoal seems to be in full swing. Al-Shabaab is using the revenues from this illegal business to fund its war of terror against the Somali government, which does not seem to be taking any action against the trade. This is also obvious when we look at exports that violate international law. The fact that the government remains silent instead of defending itself against the accusations is a bad sign. The fact is that both ports, the one in Mogadishu and the one in Barawe, are located in the zone controlled by the Somali government. As long as the government does not use its institutions to stop this important source of income for Al-Shabaab, Somalia’s last forests will also continue to be cut down, and the attacks on the population will continue.

This is how we investigated

Journalistic investigation in Somalia is life-threatening for media workers and their sources. Through CORRECTIV’s digital CrowdNewsroom platform, Somalis were able to anonymously and safely comment on the charcoal trade using their smartphones, even if they are involved in the illegal business or live in areas controlled by Al-Shabaab. They substantiated their statements with uploaded photos, and other claims were verified through the analysis of satellite images by an expert. Somali journalists verified the statements and conducted in-depth individual interviews with those who were willing to do so. A satellite image expert cross-referenced the locations mentioned in the statements and interpreted the images.

The fate of our Somali colleague who was involved in this research shows how dangerous life in Somalia is for journalists. During another investigation on 11 October 2022, Abdalle Ahmed Mumin was arrested on spurious grounds by the Somali intelligence agency and held for 12 days.

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