US takes hunt for Al Qaeda to Somalia
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A European diplomat based in Nairobi, and who watches Somalia closely, says that "there is no doubt that people linked to Al Qaeda – not the high command – but sympathizers, were in Somalia, running training camps, recruiting fighters, arming those fighters."Skip to next paragraph
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Some of those fighters were recent arrivals from the wide Somali diaspora, it appears.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in an interview with the French daily Le Monde published Monday that "Many international terrorists are dead in Somalia." He said passports from different countries have been collected. "The Kenyans are holding Eritrean and Canadian passport holders. We have injured people coming from Yemen, Pakistan, Sudan, the United Kingdom."
There was no immediate verification of Mr. Meles's claims, but if they are true, he and Washington have the vindication they need to justify their attacks inside Somalia, the European diplomat says.
"That was the crux of it all, that Somalia under the [Union of Islamic] Courts would bring in bad guys from all over the world and train them up into a mercenary force fighting for Islam," he says.
The US airstrikes were likely launched from the former French base, Camp Lemonier, in Djibouti. Starting with about 1,800 troops in 2002, Djibouti has become the main regional base of the US military's counterterrorism task force. It also serves as a major desert warfare training center, an intelligence gathering center, and logistics base for US military forces. Its position right next to Somalia puts American forces within easy striking distance at short notice.
In recent months, the US military has conducted joint exercises with Kenya, the African country that has borne the brunt of terrorist attacks, since the 1998 embassy bombings. US forces have also reportedly been involved in training Ethiopian forces in counterterrorism techniques, ahead of their recent operations against the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia.
The Pentagon is expected to announce soon the formation of a new Africa Command to focus on the troubled continent. Currently, responsibility for Africa is divided among three of the Pentagon's five regional "unified commands," each headed by a four-star general or admiral who reports to the president.
Observers in Africa say the United States' single-minded focus on terrorism in Africa could backfire.
"The potential for transnational terror-related activity emerging from Somalia underscores both the international risk posed by state collapse and the international community's failed and inconsistent response to that collapse," says Kurt Shillinger, a terrorism expert at the South African Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg. "Establishing an African Command will only be effective if the primary policy thrust is support for internally driven governance-building processes."
Some observers are concerned that Islamic militants will melt away now, but will eventually form an insurgency as they have in Afghanistan and Iraq. The target will be not only Somalia, but Ethiopia.
"Ethiopia is central to the ideology of the Islamists," says Medhane Tadesse, an Ethiopian historian in Addis Ababa and expert on the Islamist movement Al Ittihad.
"One of the issues that divide moderate Muslims from extremists is the position they take on whether Ethiopia should be Islamicized. The prophet Muhammad exempted Ethiopia from jihad, and now the extremists say that Muhammad was wrong.
"By making Ethiopia the enemy, they know they will attract Islamic NGOs (non-governmental organizations) from Saudi Arabia and Iran," Mr. Tadesse says.