In village after village in southwest Somalia, everyone points a finger in the same direction. Terrorists, they say, are in El Wak.
With its 100 tin shacks, a few dozen mud huts, two mosques, one goat market, and one well, El Wak is not an inviting place. The sun beats down as swirls of dust whip into the eyes, coating body and hair. Water is scarce, employment is almost nonexistent. There are no telephones or electricity, no roads, no shade trees, no schools, no health clinics. The ground is littered with broken flip flops, old batteries, plastic bags, animal carcasses. Marabou storks rummage through the garbage. Old men cluster around tape recorders and listen to cassettes of religious instruction, following along in tattered Korans. The few taxes collected last year will help build a third mosque.
But are there terrorists here? The locals protest, but the US-led coalition is building up military forces off the coast and increasing surveillance activities.
The US is looking at several areas in Somalia where it suspects there are terrorist training camps with links to Al Qaeda, according to intelligence sources. Some are around the capital, Mogadishu, one is near Laascaanood in the north, one is on the island of Ras Kamboni, and one is here.
British, French, and US military reconnaissance flights have become more frequent in recent days, with US Navy P-3 planes doubling their missions over the country to four or five a week.
The Pentagon will soon have three Marine Expeditionary Units (with 1,200 troops each) patrolling the Somali coastline, ensuring Al Qaeda members escaping Afghanistan cannot find shelter on these lawless shores. Germany sent a fleet of six ships to the Horn of Africa Wednesday.
The US is continuing discussions with the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SRRC), a loose grouping of warlords backed by Ethiopia who oppose the government in Mogadishu and have pledged to fight terrorism. Ethiopia reportedly sent 70 officers to Baidoa last week to train members of SRRC for fighting, though Addis Ababa denies it.
Here in El Wak, the locals spend hours every day huddled around transistor radios, listening to crackling newscasts from afar, and wondering if they are next on the US list. "We used to be very fond of America," says Adam Gedo, chairman of the El Wak elders council. "But now we are fearful.... We don't know what we have done," he says. "If we hear a plane, we cover our eyes and pray, because we think it is the US coming to bomb us."
In the early 1990s, Al Ittihad Al Islamiya - a fundamentalist group calling for unity through religion and the institution of Islamic law - was a growing force in Somalia, and particularly strong here in the Gedo region. After being expelled from the town of Luuq in northeast Gedo, it made El Wak into its regional headquarters, throwing out the elected town council and moving into the dilapidated police post.
According to Hussein Mohammad Dires, the police chief in Bula Hawa, a small village north of here, Al Ittihad also set up military training camps around El Wak, where the faithful were taken through their paces by "Arab foreigners" in preparation for a global Islamic jihad. Dires and other regional leaders say Al Qaeda supported Al Ittihad's activities, supplying weapons and cash, and that Osama bin Laden himself once visited.
"After Sept. 11th, all those terrorists have gone into hiding," says Dires. "They are pretending to be regular civilians. They are hiding their guns at home. But they are still there in El Wak, just waiting for their opportunity to regroup and start trouble."
El Wak leaders protest that Al Ittihad was expelled from their village more than two years ago by a coalition of local tribes and the Ethiopians. The organization has disbanded, the locals say. "Those days are gone" says District Commissioner Yussuf Haji Osman. "We did not welcome them then, we would not do so now."
El Wak would not harbor Al Qaeda members, says Mr. Osman. "If they came here from Afghanistan, we would know. They are not Africans, so we would notice. We have security men here. We would arrest them and hand them right over to the FBI."
"When we heard what happened with the twin towers on the radio, we were very, very sorry," emphasizes the local imam, Sheikh Ali Abdi Mohammad, an elderly gentleman with a red-tinted beard and a staff in his hand. "We like America very much, and we invite you to like us too. Anyway, Islam cannot allow for any killing. That is not what I preach."
The US is aware that it needs to be cautious about intelligence reports from the Ethiopians and warlords, says one US offical, especially given the complex regional politics. Yet, there are still reasons for concern, including the lack of security patrols or reliable law enforcement.
"We know there have been [Al Qaeda] training camps there, and that they have been active over the years, and that they ... go inactive when people get attentive to them," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at a news conference last week. "They go in and out," he said.
Another Defense Department official told the Associated Press that Al Qaeda members, probably dozens, have in fact fled from Afghanistan to Somalia.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the department is satisfied the preventative measures in Somalia are sufficient for now, but the Defense Department is eager to take more proactive action against the suspected camps "very soon."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stressed Thursday that the administration has not decided what action, if any, it might take in Somalia. For the time being, he said, the US is simply "working to ensure that Somalia doesn't become a haven for terrorists."
"It is good to check before bombing," advises District Commissioner Osman. "Those who point at us as terrorists just want to harm us. We have done nothing. Please tell America there are good people in El Wak. We welcome you. We want you to uplift us. We do not want to be hurt."