SANAA, YEMEN — Under cover of darkness, exhausted Somali refugees stagger onto Yemen's southern beaches at the end of a grueling and dangerous journey across the Gulf of Aden.
"We were loaded onto the boats like animals," says Adil Mokhtar Mohammed. "We were forced to squat for three days and we were tightly packed together in rows. The smugglers don't even allow you to open your bag for food and water. If you try to move, they beat you."
Since the outbreak of Somalia's civil war in 1991, each new cycle of turmoil has generated a fresh flow of refugees to neighboring Yemen. But during this past year's rise and fall of Somalia's Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), tiny fishing vessels carried 26,000 men, women, and children – a record number – from Somalia to Yemen.
Among the latest wave of refugees are rank-and-file members of Somalia's defeated Islamists, and now ousted moderate UIC leaders are also seeking refuge in Yemen, sparking concern from Yemeni officials and Western diplomats that Al Qaeda-linked radical Islamists are also using these well-worn human-trafficking routes to escape from Somalia to the Arabian Peninsula.
"We are concerned that terrorist operatives will try to escape Somalia and establish safe haven elsewhere," says one Western diplomat in Yemen's capital, Sanaa. "Governments in the region, including Yemen, share that concern. They are doing what they can to prevent suspected terrorists from setting up a base in their country."
Last month, Yemen's Interior Minister, Rashid al-Alimi, stepped up maritime security against possible infiltration from Somalia by radical Islamists and Al Qaeda fighters. But Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is currently hosting four senior UIC moderates, who, observers say, could hold the key to a future political settlement in Somalia, which could help stem the flow of refugees.
The latest arrival, deputy UIC leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, flew from Nairobi, Kenya, to Sanaa last Thursday, as a guest of the Yemeni government. Sheikh Sharif joins the UIC's foreign affairs spokesman, Ibrahim Adow, and two other UIC moderates who have been living under Yemeni protection in the southern port of Aden for more than a month.
One month after Somali and Ethiopian troops ousted Somalia's Islamists in a two-week offensive, groups tied to the Islamists are stepping up deadly guerrilla attacks across Somalia. And while an insurgency appears to be gathering steam, the US and its regional allies are hoping to co-opt individual leaders from within the ranks of the UIC's diverse and scattered leadership to bolster the weak and faltering transitional government. Washington is targeting popular figures without links to terrorism who still command a strong following among many Somalis – and chief among them is Sheikh Sharif.
"The inclusion of the UIC moderates is the only way to stabilize Somalia," says François Grignon, director of the International Crisis Group's Africa Program.
The quartet of UIC moderates now based in Yemen are viewed as central to creation of a future inclusive government in Somalia with a wide, stable power base. Their endorsement is also seen as crucial to the successful deployment of African Union peacekeepers. But, first, this core group must agree to a strategy among themselves in order to present a united front at multiparty peace talks.
"Sheikh Sharif is here as part of our efforts to encourage the moderate Somali Islamists to participate in dialogue with the transitional government," says Yemen's Foreign Minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi. "We are hoping he will attend Somalia's National Reconciliation Conference, as soon as the parties agree on a date."
Yemen was the first Arab nation to open an embassy in Mogadishu following the UIC's retreat last month and President Saleh boasts a credible track record in hosting talks between the leaders of all Somalia's factions. Diplomats now hope that he can use established links to overcome the reluctance of Somalia's interim president, Abdullahi Yusuf, to cede some power to his former opponents.
In the meantime, the lucrative trade in Somali refugees continues. Yemen's extensive maritime borders and weak coast guard make thorough and effective monitoring impossible.
Trafficking routes have shifted in the last six weeks, after a December gun battle between smugglers and Yemen's coast guard. Four boats capsized close to Yemen's shoreline during the confrontation and 140 people died, 90 of those were later buried in a mass grave. Refugees are now landing hundreds of miles away from the usual drop point in Shabwa Province, making it even harder for the authorities to predict and respond to their needs.
Amina Mohammad is one of Yemen's newest arrivals. She was dropped on al-Azizyia Island in the Red Sea last week and briefly detained by Yemeni police before she was transferred to UN protection. A supporter of the Islamists, she describes how she traveled in a boat with UIC soldiers. "I knew who they were and what they did for the UIC because I recognized them. They were my neighbors in Mogadishu."
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says there are 84,000 registered refugees in Yemen but the government estimates the true figure is nearly four times higher. Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, and its weak economy is struggling to absorb rising numbers of newcomers.
"There's no doubt that the Yemenis are taking this issue very seriously," says one Western diplomat. "The large numbers of Somalis here are already putting Yemen's infrastructure under enormous pressure, and the government is acutely aware of the threat to internal security."
Yemen is a fragile state itself, facing its own terrorist network. The challenge now is to respond to the potential risk from Somali extremists before they reach Yemen's shores and embed themselves in the sizable diaspora community.