Men claiming to be al Qaeda operatives are moving into the humanitarian vacuum in Somalia, distributing aid and cash to drought victims in an attempt to win hearts and minds, a Guardian investigation can reveal.
On a visit to the sprawling Ala-Yasir camp in the south of the country, the Guardian saw an al Qaeda unit handing out rice, flour, oil, dates and milk as well as Islamic books and clothes to some of the more than 4,000 people made destitute by this year's drought.
This was the first time the group has spoken publicly in Somalia, and the first time it has distributed aid. The unit's leader was introduced to the Guardian as al Qaeda's official envoy to Somalia.
Representatives of al-Shabaab, the militant Islamist group trying to seize power in the country, called him Abu Abdullah Muhajir, and said he was a white American. It was impossible to verify his identity or nationality.
Reading from a prepared statement, in American-accented English, Abu Abdullah Muhajir told the crowd: "To our beloved brothers and sisters in Somalia: we are following your situation on a daily basis. And, though we are separated by thousands of kilometres, you are consistently in our thoughts and prayers."
He then handed out the contents of bags full of Somali shillings to the equivalent of $17,000. The al Qaeda unit also brought along a fully staffed ambulance.
Osman Hassan, 16, clutched dates, milk and the Qur'an, gifts from al Qaeda. He said: "I pray for them to win over their enemies."Muhammad Barre, nine, said: "I ask God to make al Qaeda victorious over their enemies."