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Somali Extremists Who Raided U.N. Offices Not Considered a Terror Group

The extremist group al-Shabaab raided three U.N. offices in Somalia last week in a campaign to rid the volatile African nation of all "enemies of Islam," and the world body can't do a thing about it — yet.

Though the U.S. State Department designated al-Shabaab a foreign terrorist organization in March 2008, the U.N. has yet to add the Islamic militia to its list of terrorist groups whose members face international sanctions and travel bans.

While the U.S. has been cracking down on the Al Qaeda-linked group's recruitment efforts at home, the lack of an international standard has allowed al-Shabaab to channel its funds — much of which come from piracy along Somalia's lengthy coast — through banks in the Arabian Gulf.

"There are millions and millions and millions of dollars coming into this organization. It's being funneled in banks in Qatar and other places — that's pretty well documented — yet nobody's really doing anything about it," said Jeffrey Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas.

Somalia expert J. Peter Pham said that it was difficult to gather consensus within the U.N., which lacks a formal definition of terrorism and whose full-fledged members include countries such as Syria and Iran, which the U.S. has accused of sponsoring terrorism.

"In recent years, the U.N. terror list has not functioned as well or as updated as it did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11," said Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Virginia.

Al-Shabaab controls large swathes of Somalia, imposing its hardline vision of Islam on the country's south and center, rigidly segregating men and women and enforcing laws with cruel and oppressive punishments — something like a Taliban in the Horn of Africa.

And its menace is growing. Al-Shabaab has turned the country into a safe haven and training ground for terrorist groups including Al Qaeda, seizing the country's capital of Mogadishu in a hail of gunfire and terror in May. In early July, the group beheaded seven southerners for being Christians and government "spies."

The group is now targeting U.N. offices charged with propping up Somalia's weak transitional government, the country's 14th since 1991, and one of few forces still opposing the militia.

On July 20, al-Shabaab stole into U.N. compounds in the country's south, the same day it banned the U.N. Development Fund, the Department of Safety and Security and the U.N. Political Office. Non-governmental organizations are being allowed to operate for the time being.

A U.N. spokeswoman said the world body was optimistic that order would be restored in southern Somalia, allowing "critical humanitarian work to resume." But the U.N. has not taken a decisive step to target the group by using what may be the best weapon in its arsenal: purse-strings.

"The biggest hurt [the U.N.] could do would be the financial squeeze" they can exert by adding al-Shabaab to their terrorist sanctions list, Addicott, the terrorism law expert, said. That would obligate member states to freeze assets and issue a travel ban to members and associates of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

In an op-ed published the same day as the attacks on the U.N. offices, the U.N. special representative for Somalia signaled the beginning of a crackdown on what he called Somalia's "externally funded" coup attempt.

"A list is being compiled for the U.N. sanctions committee of those who may find their assets frozen and face a travel ban," Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah wrote in the Washington Post.

"Those who support the extremists, whether out of conviction or in pursuit of profit, may be hit in their wallets."

A U.N. official said they were especially concerned with terrorist organizations, but stressed that a member state would have to issue a recommendation that al-Shabaab be listed.

No member state has actually stepped forward and formally sought that designation for al-Shabaab — not even the U.S., which has done so independently.

U.S. officials say that negotiations are ongoing and that while no formal proposal has come forth, the U.S. is looking at the issue closely as the sanctions committee continues to review its list or terrorist groups.

Some Somalia watchers do not expect rapid movement within the U.N. even following the raids on their Somali offices.

"The U.N. generally has fallen victim to a combination of suspicion (and) politics," that have allowed large voting blocs to prevent progress in the prosecution of terror, said Pham, adding that the U.N. is so unpopular in Somalia that listing al-Shabaab may benefit the group, allowing its leaders to "wrap themselves up in the mantle of nationalism."

And even if al-Shabaab does come into the U.N.'s crosshairs, terrorism experts are not convinced that U.N. attention will bring much pressure to bear.

"Even if they were designated it would be symbolic," said Addicott, who told FOXNews.com that international sanctions are hard to put in place, as Shabaab controls much of Somalia but is not a fully-fledged country.

"They're not a nation-state," he said. "Somalia is the Wild, Wild West."