Nine Americans, sporting crew cuts and carrying satellite phones, arrived here a week ago Sunday, piled into three Land Rovers and drove off, accompanied by a dozen Somali opposition figures and a posse of teenage security men with rusty AK-47s.
The US embassy in Nairobi would not comment on their identity or their mission. The local warlords, however, were happy to explain.
Al Ittihad Al Islamiya, a Muslim organization in Somalia reported to have once hosted Osama bin Laden and which had, in the 1990s, militia training camps set up in the country, is now being linked to the Al Qaeda network, and is on America's list of terror organizations. US Assistant Secretary State for Africa Walter Kansteiner has talked of ties between Al Qaeda and people within the ruling authority in Somalia - an interim coalition known as the Transitional National Government (TNG) - and also suggested that Mr. bin Laden might escape Afghanistan and seek shelter in this chaotic, lawless country.
Last month, the US shut down a Somali-owned money-transfer operation, Al Barakaat, for allegedly funneling millions of dollars to bin Laden. A US aircraft carrier and international ships have been patrolling the shores off Somalia for nearly two weeks, and two US reconnaissance flights were reported to have flown over Mogadishu, the capital, on Thursday - all of which has many wondering if Somalia is about to become the next target in the war against terror.
The last time any number of US officials or military men were here was in 1993, when a mission to distribute food during a vicious civil war ended in disaster. Somalia has since been devastated by clan warfare and droughts.
"We have concerns about Somalia," Mr. Kansteiner told journalists in Nairobi recently, "but basically the mood in D.C. is 'we got to get smarter.' "
Kenyan and Western newspaper commentators are speculating that Kenya could agree to serve as a launching pad for possible US or British raids on suspected Al Qaeda camps in Somalia.
"My sense is that a few weeks ago, some branches of the US government, notably the Department of Defense, got all ratcheted up on Somalia, driven mainly by general perceptions and exaggerated Ethiopian intelligence," says Ken Menkhaus, associate professor of political science at North Carolina's Davidson College, and an expert on the Horn of Africa. "The mission to Baidoa was probably a way to suss out local proxies if they're needed."
The men spent most of the day with the Rahanwein Resistance Army (RRA) and other clan-based factions from the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SRRC) - an alliance of warlords united to fight the TNG in Mogadishu. The Americans reportedly grilled the warlords about the presence of terror groups in Somalia and asked about the SRRC's fighting capacity. They visited an old military depot and an abandoned building, looking, say the warlords, for possible headquarters in the region. The Americans left at about 3 p.m., taking off as they had arrived - quietly, sunglasses on.
General Mohammad Said Morgan and Abdullahi Sheikh Ismail, senior members of the SRRC who were present at the meeting, say that Al Ittihad, along with three other lesser known Islamic organizations in the country, are all linked to the TNG and part of the "mother Al Qaeda" network.
SRRC intelligence officers around the country have sent the SRRC warlords a list of 20,480 terrorists, says Mr. Morgan. "We told the Americans that Al Qaeda was taking over Somalia," he says. But he could not say where these terrorists are or what terror acts they have committed. "They have all gone underground," Morgan says. "Since September 11th they have changed their style. They train in small numbers and have small camps all over."
TNG President Abdiqassim Salad Hassan has repeatedly denied any connection between himself or his government and Al Qaeda. He acknowledges that there are "certain known extremist personalities" in the country, but insists they are not a threat in terms of international terrorism.
The European Union's special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Rino Serri, has echoed this, arguing that a stable government is the key to combating the threat of terrorism in the country.
Getting rid of the TNG is in the personal interests of many of the SRRC warlords - who aspire to control parts of the country themselves. "And they are trying to use the international war against terrorism for their own purposes....," says one senior UN security official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Perhaps the Americans don't even realize they are being used."
Robert Rotberg, director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at Harvard's Kennedy School of government does not believe the US would be so naive. "We need to ask for circumstantial evidence somewhat stronger than that which led us to send cruise missiles into the wrong factory in the Sudan," he says, referring to the 1998 bombing of a pharmaceuticals company in Khartoum after terror attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. "Where, for example, are the camps?" Mr. Rotberg says he doubts the US is about to bomb Somalia. "The incentives don't seem to be there - but we are putting pressure on the Somalis to disgorge any Al Qaeda."