US officials said they were maintaining sanctions against the militia, which controls some of the worst-hit parts of southern Somalia, but would fund reputable groups that take the risk to bring food into Shebab territory.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said US agencies were now “authorised to provide grants and contracts” to such non-governmental groups, which would not face prosecution if relief efforts “accidentally benefit” the Shebab.
The United States imposed sanctions on the Shebab in 2008 that make it a crime to provide any support to the militia, which has emerged as a major force in a country that has lacked a functioning government for two decades.
US officials said the sanctions were never intended to affect aid groups, but that Washington wanted to send a signal that relief workers should not fear legal repercussions for bringing food where it is most needed.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States – which has devoted more than US$450 million (B14 billion) to relief in the Horn of Africa this financial year – was “absolutely committed to assisting the people of Somalia”.