Focus turns to Somalia in search for terrorists

US officials suspect Somalia is harboring the radical Islamic group Al Ittihad.

In the sprawling Bakara market here, a few posters of Osama bin Laden can be spotted on shop walls, but they don't come close to matching the posters of soccer stars.

While Mr. bin Laden may not command much attention among Somali citizens, Somalia is coming under increasing scrutiny. As the Taliban's hold on Afghan territory dwindles,the US is looking to this West African country as a place where the leader of the Al Qaeda network may try to flee.

US officials have indicated that Somalia may be a target for future military attacks, because Al Qaeda has used it as a training base, and because bin Laden has traveled here in the past.

This anarchic nation in the Horn of Africa might seem the ideal hideout for bin Laden and his cohorts. Ten years of civil war have left its lengthy coastline unprotected, its interior virtually lawless, and its economy in shambles.

The question is: Would Somalia provide a haven for bin Laden today? Diplomats and analysts say probably not.

The US has placed a $25 million reward on his head. In a country where secrets are not easily kept and people can barely afford to eat, the lure of a bounty would make the alleged terrorist mastermind vulnerable, says one Western diplomat.

"The only reason he'd go [to Somalia] is if he had absolutely nowhere else to go. He'd be sold out in five minutes."

Nevertheless, Somalia keeps coming up when US officials talk about terrorism. Earlier this month, the US shut down a Somali-owned money-transfer operation, Al Barakaat, for allegedly funneling millions of dollars to bin Laden. Just days after the attacks on New York and Washington, a Somali group called Al Ittihad Al Islamiya (Islamic Unity) was declared a terrorist organization. The US says Al Ittihad is linked to Al Qaeda, mainly through mutual use of training camps on Somali soil - a claim dismissed by the president of the transitional government here.

"The Somali people are surprised to see the Western media give such attention to the unfounded allegation that there are Al Qaeda bases here," says Abdiqassim Salad Hassan. "Since 1995, there has been no donor or Western power in this country. That's why they know nothing about what's going on."

Indeed, much of what is known about Al Ittihad stems from the early 1990s, and the narrative given by outside intelligence sources matches what Somalis say. Al Ittihad organized itself amid the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, with the goal of setting up an Islamic state. It established militia training camps on Ras Kamboni Island near the Kenyan border and near the port of Bosaaso in the northeast.

At various times, it controlled port facilities along the Somali coastline and the administration of Gedo region in the southwest, providing it with revenue.

The most serious accusations of terrorism came in 1996, when Al Ittihad was blamed for bombing hotels and restaurants in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Ethiopian troops crossed the border later that year, and together with allied militia, reportedly routed Al Ittihad forces.

It's unclear whether Al Ittihad remains a terrorist group of any significance today. Regional diplomats will go no further than to say it has "influence" within the justice system in Mogadishu and within the government of Puntland, the breakaway northeastern region of Somalia, and that Al Qaeda gave it money when it ran into rough times in recent years.

"They've integrated themselves into Somali society," says another Western diplomat, explaining that the groups' members run businesses and provide social services. "They're trying to attract followers so they can eventually achieve an Islamic state." The US has overstated Al Ittihad's strength as a terrorist group, says President Abdiqassim.

"We know of Al Ittihad individuals who are present in Mogadishu," he says, adding that they preach in mosques and run a few Koranic schools. "Those are all their activities. We will not allow them to engage in terrorist acts."

If there's one person in Mogadishu who should take Al Ittihad seriously, it's Ibrahim Sheikh Mohamed. The doctor and peace activist has had bodyguards for the past three years since members of the group issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for his execution after he told worshippers at a local mosque that many Islamic scholars believe women and men are equal.

But Dr. Ibrahim says Al Ittihad no longer exists as a functioning group. "They don't have any organized presence," he says. "I don't think they now constitute any terrorist threat to America or to any other nation."

The allegations of a Somalia connection to bin Laden have been around for years, stemming as far back as the ill-fated US peacekeeping operation in the country, launched by then-President George Bush Sr. Federal investigators say some of the Somali militia who shot down two Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 American commandos in an October 1993 raid in Mogadishu had received training from Al Qaeda.

Ironically, one of the major opponents who says the Somali government harbors terrorists is faction leader Hussein Aideed, whose warlord father was the target of that raid.

"If [Aideed] had the chance to be president tomorrow, he would say Somalia has never had Al Qaeda or terrorists," says Abdi Hassan Awaale, Mogadishu's police chief and a member of the president's counterterrorism task force.

Somalia's fragile transitional government - established last year after a three-month conference in neighboring Djibouti - is trying to strike a delicate balance in its response to the allegations that it harbors terrorists. It denies the presence of Al Qaeda, but it also says terrorists will come to Somalia unless the government gets money.

"We are waiting for the Americans to help give support to Somalia so that no terrorists will take root in this country," says Abdiqassim.

"Without a stable society, what you will be doing is creating the very breeding ground for terrorism that none of us wants," adds Randolph Kent, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Somalia.

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