Is al-Shabaab shipping uranium to Iran?

On August 31st, in a letter to the U.S. Ambassador Somalia’s foreign minister, warned that Al-Shabaab forces have captured areas in the centrally located, Galmudug region of Somalia, where surface-exposed uranium deposits  can be found.

According to the report al-Shabaab is looking to strip mine triuranium octoxide for transport to Iran. Yellowcake uranium used in the preparation of nuclear reactors, is composed of about 70-90% triuranium octoxide. When this uranium is processed it can be enriched into isotope U-235 and processed to yield weapons-grade uranium.

The Somali foreign minister urged intelligence and military assistance to halt shipments of uranium compounds to Iran. The State Department did not dispute the statement, but refused to comment.

The relationship between Iran and al-Shabaab is deserving of close attention. One of Iran’s primary commercial shipping routes runs through the Arabian sea, via the Gulf of Aden, passing directly by Somalia. In 2006, the Iranian government reportedly attempted to supply the insurgent Islamic Courts Union (ICU) militia with weapons in exchange for uranium deposits, in violation of a 1992 UN arms embargo. Iran later denied supplying weapons or receiving uranium from Somalia. The Islamic Courts Union youth wing was al-Shabaab.

Al-Shabaab became an independent organization, split from the ICU, and aligned with al-Qaeda in 2012. Al-Qaeda since 9/11 has continued to receive support from Tehran and after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 many al-Qaeda terrorists fled to Iran. Iran’s defense budget ranges from $14-$30 billion  and funds go to supporting terrorist organizations and insurgent fighters.

In 2016 the United Nations Security Council expressed concern  over an Iranian shipment of arms to Somalia, and denounced Tehran’s efforts to obtain substantial amounts of uranium from Somalia in return for supplying weapons to al-Shabaab.

Trade between the Iranian and Somalian government from 2016 has increased by 38% and Iran exported $30 million dollars in goods to Somalia in the past year.

Under the Iranian nuclear agreement written under the Obama administration, prohibits the enrichment of uranium, which is presumably the purpose of the Iranian pursuit of triuranium oxide. The deal requires that Iran’s uranium stockpile is kept under 300 kg of up to 3.67% enriched uranium hexafluoride, which is what triuranium oxide is converted to. Procuring triuranium oxide illicitly from a designated terrorist group is one way for the Iranians to continue to feed their nuclear program in contravention of the Iran deal.

Al-Shabaab translated means “the youth.” The jihadist terrorist organization seeks to overthrow the Somali government and impose sharia law on the country. It is designated as a U.S. foreign terrorist organization and labeled as Africa’s deadliest terror group in 2016 with over 4,200 accounted deaths in that year.  Al-Shabaab was believed to have between 6,000 and 12,000 fighters in 2016, dominating control over many rural areas in southern Somalia. The group is to have historically financed its operations by extracting valuable resources from territory it holds and there is no reason to believe they would not also attempt to do so with superficial uranium deposits as well.