U.S.-funded Somalia intelligence agency may be using children as spies

A new report reveals that the East African nation of Somalia, which has been fighting with the support of the U.S. an insurgency by the radical al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab, may be using children as informants. A Washington Post exclusive reports that it could be a flagrant violation of international law. The newspaper’s Deputy Foreign Editor Mary Beth Sheridan in D.C. joins Megan Thompson to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript


    The East African nation of Somalia has been plagued by civil war for the past 25 years, and, for the past decade, the fledgling government has been fighting an insurgency by the radical Islamic al-Qaida affiliate Al-Shabaab.

    Now a new report reveals Somalia may be using children as young as 10 years old to spy on Al-Shabaab operatives. Today's Washington Post says using child informants is not only dangerous, but could be a violation of international law.

    The Post's deputy foreign editor, Mary Beth Sheridan, joins me now from Washington, D.C.

    Thank you so much for joining us.

  • MARY BETH SHERIDAN, Deputy Foreign Editor, The Washington Post:



    So, first, just starting out, can you just explain, how does something like this happen? How are children forced to be informants for the government?


    Well, it's an amazing story, I have to say.

    In many cases in recent years, the government has either managed to capture Al-Shabaab troops that included a lot of these kids who were in many cases forced by Al-Shabaab to fight, or children actually gave themselves up, tried to escape.

    And what is supposed to happen is, the government is supposed to turn these kids over to U.N. authorities or other humanitarian groups to be rehabilitated.

    But, instead, as our reporter Kevin Sieff found, they have detained a lot of them and forced them to go out on very dangerous missions and point out their former colleagues, and otherwise identify Al-Shabaab installations or members.


    Your story describes how the kids were forced to walk publicly in the streets and identify these members of Al-Shabaab. I mean, what kind of danger does that put them in?


    Well, a huge amount of danger, because the kids told you — Kevin interviewed eight of them and talked to a lot of relief workers and so on — that the kids' faces were not covered.

    And they're going into neighborhoods, oftentimes their home neighborhoods. So, people know who they are. And these kids are now very frightened. And both they and other people told us they may have to be relocated. They really face a grave risk to — of being killed.


    And why use children at all for this? I mean, are they more easily manipulated, or does this say something greater about the state of Somali intelligence?


    We talked to Somali intelligence officials who said, well, these kids were part of Al-Shabaab. Some of them had access to the leaders. And they had been combatants. So, they justified their behavior.

    But others — the kids told us, "Well, maybe they thought we were more malleable."

    But either way, it is a violation of international law, and, in some cases, it's a war crime.


    The U.S. government supports Somalia's fight against Al-Shabaab. So, I mean, what kind of questions does this all raise about what the U.S. government knows about the situation? Or did it condone this?


    We were told that the CIA provides substantial funding and training for the Somali intelligence agency.

    The CIA wouldn't respond to our questions about their involvement. But Somali officials told us, "The CIA knows everything we're doing."

    Now, the U.S. government knows that Somalia has used child soldiers, which is a slightly different thing. And that's been a huge issue. There's a law against providing military aid to countries that use child soldiers, although there's a waiver some time for national security reasons.

    So, I think there is a real question of how much the CIA has observed or is aware of what is this real human rights abuse.


    And what happens now for these kids? Is anything being done to end this practice? And, also, has the Somali government said anything about this?


    So, for a number of years, these kids were kept in a center where there was little or no access to outsiders. Outsiders would try to see what was going on with these kids, and had a very tough time getting in.

    Now, as of a couple of months ago, a lot of the kids were transferred to a center where they are getting rehabilitation. They're no longer being used as informants. But what we were told is that we think the practice — or aid workers and others think the practice actually continues and there's other children still being used as informants.


    All right, troubling story.

    Thank you so much, Mary Beth Sheridan from The Washington Post.


    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment