KHASAB, Oman (AP) — Charcoal from Somalia is prized in Gulf nations: Made from acacia trees, it's slow burning and gives a sweet aroma to the region's beloved grilled meats and to tobacco burned in waterpipes. It is also banned by the United Nations, because its shipments rake in millions of dollars a year for al-Qaida-linked militants.
Yet on a recent day, thousands of bags of charcoal believed to be from Somalia were videotaped by an Associated Press journalist being loaded off a cargo ship in this isolated Omani port and piled into trucks to be shipped through the mountains into the neighboring United Arab Emirates.
Khasab port, a longtime smuggling hub, has become a major transit point into Gulf nations for Somali charcoal, frustrating international efforts to cut off the cheap-to-make product that is a major moneymaker for al-Shabab, the militant group behind September's deadly attack on a Kenyan mall. The U.N. is pressing Gulf countries to do more to shut off the trade.
Despite the Security Council ban imposed in February 2012 , total exports of Somali charcoal have risen to 24 million sacks a year valued at up to $384 million, according to a July report by a U.N. monitoring group. Much of it is headed to the Gulf, with al-Shabab and others in the supply chain sharing the benefits, the monitors say.
"The reality is if there is a market in the Gulf, then charcoal will find a way out of Somalia," Matt Bryden, a former U.N. monitor who is now director of Sahan Research, a think tank focused on Horn of Africa.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia are the main markets and "until they act, it is going to be very difficult in Somalia — which is relatively lawless, where a government is weak, where ports are uncontrolled — to block the flow of charcoal at its source," he said.
Charcoal may be a modest product, but it's a lucrative trade for al-Shabab, the al-Qaida branch in Somalia that has fueled turmoil in the East African nation. Much of the production happens in al-Shabab-controlled parts of southern Somalia, according to U.N. monitors.
Al-Shabab takes a $2 "tax" on each of the estimated 600,000-1 million bags of charcoal loaded every month onto ships at the southern Somali port of Barawe, which the group controls, according to the monitors report.
The United Nations Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group, which is tasked with enforcing the ban, has sent letters in recent weeks to the governments of Oman and the United Arab Emirates raising concerns about continued shipments of suspected Somali charcoal.
They notified Omani authorities on Nov. 20 that at least four ships last seen taking on charcoal at Barawe were observed moored or docked in Khasab, according to one of the letters obtained by The Associated Press.
Emirati and Omani officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The United Arab Emirates, home to the port city of Dubai, has taken steps to clamp down on the trade. The country is a major transportation and logistics hub for the wider Middle East and has well-established charcoal distribution centers.
It told U.N. inspectors in September 2012 it impounded a shipment of 100,000 sacks of Somali charcoal, though the loaded ship later left port and sailed to Saudi Arabia, according to the U.N. Emirati agents stopped another ship, the Energy 3, and seized its cargo of charcoal in August, according to traders.
The heightened vigilance at Emirati ports is pushing the sea trade to neighboring Oman, the monitors and charcoal dealers say.
"Now they take the Somali charcoal to Oman. Inside the Emirates not a single bag can be imported (via ship) because the UAE government is very strong and well informed," said Baba Mansoor Ghayedi, a UAE-based trader who goes by the name Haji Baba and is known as the "King of Charcoal."
He told AP that the charcoal is then trucked from Oman to the Emirates and Saudi Arabia by an Emirates-based network.
Ghayedi was named in previous reports as a chief violator of the U.N. ban. He now insists he has stopped dealing in Somali charcoal for fear it would jeopardize the future of his business.
Oman's Khasab port has long been a notorious smugglers nest. It is located on a small exclave of the sultanate on a mountainous peninsula at the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, separated by land from the rest of Oman by Emirati territory. Towering mountain ranges screen it from the rest of peninsula.
Much of the port's illicit traffic in recent years has been dominated by Iran-bound electronics and other consumer goods made tough to get because of Western sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.
The trade in suspected Somali charcoal was clear in Khasab late last month.
A merchant ship named El Castaro was seen by an AP journalist at the port on Nov. 26 unloading thousands of sacks of charcoal onto idling trucks.
In the U.N. correspondence obtained by the AP, monitors recommended that Omani authorities stop the El Castaro from unloading what they described as its cargo of Somali charcoal at Khasab. The U.N. officials said they had "comprehensive evidence" that the ship picked up the cargo in Barawe. The vessel was previously called the Fadhil Rabi and had been previously identified by the U.N. as involved in the Somali charcoal trade — but it changed its name before heading for Khasab, the officials said.
From Khasab, the trucks loaded with the El Castaro's cargo, the trucks then laboriously climbed the twisting coastal road that leads to the northern tip of the UAE.
Back in the Emirates, charcoal touted as Somali continues to openly be sold. As recently as late October, one trader based in the emirate of Sharjah posted on a popular online classified website advertising Somali charcoal for 3 dirhams (about 82 cents) a kilogram (2.2 pounds).
Contacted over the phone, the trader spoke of an unlimited amount of Somali charcoal available but when confronted in person at his warehouse in a dusty industrial district, he denied selling the commodity. An employee who spoke anonymously in fear of retaliation confirmed to the Associated Press that most of the company's charcoal does come from Somalia.
Associated Press writers Adam Schreck in the United Arab Emirates and Andrew Njuguna in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.