Al-Shabaab set up a humanitarian co-ordination office to demand payments of up to $10,000 to allow access into areas of Somalia devastated by famine. Humanitarian co-ordination officers were locally appointed to control access, collect "taxes" and monitor aid agency activities.
Al-Shabaab asked agencies to disclose project details, including specific activities, budgets and staff member names. In some cases, additional taxes were demanded based on project type or size. At the same time, relief groups were hamstrung by counter-terrorism legislation in the US that had a chilling effect on their aid efforts, according to the report by the humanitarian policy group of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (Hips), Somalia's first independent thinktank.
Relief agencies were put in a difficult position. While they received money to deal with the famine, legislation threatened aid workers with imprisonment if they dealt with al-Shabaab.
"Strict counter-terrorism legislation creates a culture of fear that drives negotiations with militant groups underground, prohibiting honest and open discussions among the aid community about how to best negotiate access in dangerous countries like Somalia," said Abdi Aynte, director of Hips and co-author of the report.
Ashley Jackson, ODI research fellow and report co-author, said the legislation was heavy-handed as there is little evidence that aid supplies were a major source of funding for al-Shabaab. However, the legislation imposed onerous reporting requirements and forced relief groups to strike individual deals with al-Shabaab instead of sharing information with each other and presenting a united front with the Islamist group.
The political pressure to isolate al-Shabaab meant that relief agencies had to improvise discreetly with little co-ordination among themselves on how to deal with the militants.
"Greater information sharing and collaboration among aid agencies in addressing the factors that limited access, including counterterrorism restrictions, would have been more effective than the often disconnected and ad hoc efforts that were ultimately made," said the report.
The ad hoc efforts had the result of pushing responsibility down from senior aid officials usually based in Nairobi on to local Somalis.
"Life and death decisions were delegated to the front line, raising ethical questions," said Jackson. "There was a transfer of risk on to people who deserved more support."
The authors also criticised leaders in the humanitarian community for failing to take a principled stand on engagement with al-Shabaab and also in pushing back on harmful counter-terror restrictions. Individual agencies that pursued bilateral engagement with the al-Shabaab leadership were able to secure greater guarantees of access than those that did not.
"Comprehensive dialogue with al-Shabaab at all levels appeared to be the single most important action aid agencies could take to reduce the risk of diversion and improve the prospects for long-term access to areas under its control," said the report.
While it is unclear whether the humanitarian leadership within the UN or collectively on behalf of NGOs could have achieved similar guarantees had it attempted dialogue with the al-Shabaab leadership, the authors say attempts do not appear to have been made systematically. Conditions in Somalia remain difficult for aid agencies, despite setbacks experienced by al-Shabaab.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) pulled out of Somalia in August after 22 years because of attacks on its staff, cutting off hundreds of thousands of people from vital treatment. The aid group, which has 1,500 people working in the Horn of Africa country, described it as "one of the hardest decisions MSF has had to make in its history".
Rob Bailey, of Chatham House, has argued that antagonism between the west and al-Shabaab contributed to the group's catastrophic decision to expel the UN's World Food Programme in 2010, and a further 16 UN agencies and international NGOs for "illicit activities and misconduct" the following year.