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Rough Cut: Somalia: A Reporter's Search for Al Qaeda
Special Feature

Read a full account of the reporter's journey from Mogadishu to Ras Kamboni, near the Kenyan border, in search of radical Islamists.

Watching the BBC reports in recent days brought back sad memories for me: Somalia was again in the headlines and under attack. As a war correspondent, I have made two memorable trips to Somalia. The first was in October 1993, just two days after two U.S Black Hawk helicopters were brought down by local warlords. Eighteen American servicemen were killed. The United States had gone into Somalia with a contingent from the United Nations on a humanitarian mission. Operation "Restore Hope" set out to save hundreds of thousands of Somalis from starvation after an unprecedented drought had plagued most of Eastern Africa. Hans Kraus, an AP photographer and friend of mine, was also killed at the time. He was in Mogadishu shooting the reprisal bombings of the base of Mohammed Farah Aidid, the top warlord at the time. An angry mob bludgeoned him to death, along with three of his crew, in an atmosphere that had collapsed into anarchy. I volunteered to replace him.

My second visit was in February 2002, five months after the infamous attacks of 9/11. I was hoping to find out if reports were true that radical Islamists had infiltrated what was left of Somalia and were using it as a safe haven.

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An obscure Islamist charity called al Itihad (meaning "the union" in Arabic) had already made itself known in the 1990s for successfully uniting warring factions in Somalia under the green banner of radical Islam.

I arrived in Mogadishu from Kenya on a cargo plane loaded with khat. The only way in was to bribe the narco-traffickers with $300 and hitch a ride across the country at low altitude.

I arrived in Mogadishu from Kenya on a cargo plane loaded with khat, the local narcotic. The only way in was to bribe the narco-traffickers with $300 and hitch a ride across the country at low altitude. Arriving in Moga, as Mogadishu was called, you could almost breathe the hostility toward foreigners, particularly light-skinned ones like myself.

Since my last visit 10 years ago, the country had further deteriorated, carved into "fifedoms" ruled by countless bandits, warlords, clans, and subclans. The situation would have been laughable but for the twitchy young gatekeepers wielding AK-47s at every single corner of the capital.

During my two-month stay in Somalia, seven bodyguards never left my side. It was an odd way to exercise journalism, but hiring my own little army was the only way I could give myself a reasonable chance to survive. I found my crew at the "mercenary thugs market" next to the city's Bakaraaha gun market. Despite the fact that selling guns is strictly forbidden in Africa, this open-air market is reportedly one of the largest arms bazaars in Africa. I hired six teenagers and their boss, "Barbare." The name suited him well. He told me he had three wives and four Kalashnikovs. For $100 a day, I got the whole gang, guns and ammo included. I added an extra $20 for Hiddick, my interpreter, who also went by the name "Filousou" (the philosopher) because of his glasses. As it turned out, his negotiating skills and instinct for spotting danger saved my life on more than one occasion.

With the exception of Hiddick and Ali, the driver, the rest of my crew spent much of their day chewing khat, a natural amphetamine shaped like a spinach leaf. The drug would induce a bug-eyed euphoria during the day, but as soon as the expensive plant -- $5 for a small bunch (a fortune for Somalis) -- ran out, the men would spiral into an ugly and depressive state. Most of their energy was spent locating the next batch of dope, negotiating the best price and checking the freshness of the product. Once the drug kicked in, the men, strapped with weapons and as high as kites, would raucously parade through the city with their "foreign sponsor" -- me.

As I began my search for the Islamists, it became clear from talking to local hotel clerks, businessmen and workers with non-governmental organizations that everyone had heard about the shadowy al Itihad and its connections to al Qaeda, but no one had seen any members for years -- at least, that was the party line being delivered to this conspicuous foreigner. My research told me that al Itihad was inspired by a Saudi religious sect and that, until recently, it had several thousand recruits and a number of training camps across the country. The group planned to create an Islamic state ruled by Sharia law in Somalia and was sufficiently known in Washington to be placed on the U.S. terrorist list shortly after 9/11.

My research told me that al Itihad was inspired by a Saudi religious sect and that, until recently, it had several thousand recruits and a number of training camps across the country.


The first real inkling of the group's whereabouts came from a Doctor Dassouki. Dassouki was an Italian-trained cardiologist who ran a "free" clinic in the city, using funds from the Gulf States. He wouldn't repeat this in front of a camera, but he told me he had heard about the group and acknowledged that it once had training camps along the peninsula of Ras Kamboni at the Kenyan border.

When Ras Kamboni was targeted last month by an Air Force C-130 gunship, U.S. officials called it a hideout for terrorists, and intelligence reports indicated that senior al Qaeda figures were there.

I left the doctor's office, my gut telling me there was nothing left to do in Moga. I had to head south with my crew. And I should do it fast, if I didn't want to run into trouble with possible Islamist informers. As the only white fellow in town at the time, I was already attracting attention. And filming with a mini-DV cam was no protection against being shot at. Quite the opposite; foreigners have always been easy game in Somalia for anyone who wants to do a good deed for the "jihad." As soon as I had found a reasonably priced four-wheel drive that could handle the rough 500-mile journey ahead, we were off.

Barbare bragged that he knew the road: not surprising, since there was only one road going south, first to Merka and then onto Kismayo, once a major Somali port town. It took us six hours to reach Merka, a charming seaside town that turned out to be less so when Hiddick told me that Verena Kareer, a Swiss nurse, had been hacked to death last year as she was setting up a Christian school. Hiddick was nervous and didn't want to stay. This beautiful medieval enclave built by Arab navigators had gained a reputation as an al Itihad stronghold, until fighting erupted among local warlords, obliging al Itihad to flee the city.

Under the shade of the tropical school garden, I found "Mr. Smith." He was a good-natured political officer from the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, the same embassy that was destroyed by al Qaeda in 1998.

If there were any sympathizers left, I wanted to draw them out. I also wanted to test my crew's ability to handle a potentially dicey situation. I decided to play the tourist in "charming" Merka. Far from attracting danger, my sightseeing was pleasurably benign. I was even accosted by a kindly Italian-speaking Merkan, who insisted on showing me all the architectural glories of the city.

During my distractions, Barbare heard that something else was under way across town. An American was meeting the town elders in a schoolyard. Intrigued by the idea of meeting someone who could brief me on the area, I went to find him. It was the first time I had met a Westerner since arriving in Somalia, and although he didn't provide any new information, he did confirm several previous assumptions.

In the gentle breeze of the Indian Ocean, under the shade of the tropical school garden, I found "Mr. Smith," as I shall call him. He was a good-natured political officer from the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, the same embassy that was destroyed by al Qaeda in 1998.

He couldn't speak on camera but was eager to find out "what the heck I was doing in Merka." He admitted that the United States knew little about what was going on in the region, but he did say that the Islamist group had been flushed out of the country by rival warlords. He also confirmed that the group's sympathizers and their networks were just about everywhere -- infiltrating effortlessly through different Islamic charitable organizations.

[Smith] was dismayed that the Western world was so poorly informed about the intricacies of Somalia's clan culture. Without this understanding, he said, it was virtually impossible to penetrate these radical Islamist networks.

When I told him I was heading south to Ras Kamboni -- a place where he had not been -- he gave me his card and suggested I drop by on my return to Nairobi. He was dismayed that the Western world was so poorly informed, even ignorant, about the intricacies of Somalia's clan culture. Without this understanding, he said, it was virtually impossible to penetrate these radical Islamist networks.

He also thought it was highly likely that Osama bin Laden had been able to build a safe haven for al Qaeda operatives through the help of this group. For a country in shambles, with thousands of miles of unguarded coast and countless small airstrips hidden in the bush, it was easy for the world's most notorious terrorist organization to operate freely here.

Back on the road, we traveled for another five days. After being held up several times by "Sherhaans," or highway robbers, we beefed up our armed escort to 15. During one rest stop, we met a mysterious self-proclaimed former al Itihad operative. He took me aside and warned against going any further south, using the pretext that the route was flooded and we wouldn't be able to get through.
This fellow popped up out of nowhere, appearing at dusk as we pulled into a village to make camp for the night. He was keen to talk. He told me that he regretted the excesses of the radicals and their violent tactics but said he was still proud to have belonged to such a rigorous and prestigious group.

Despite his warning, we pushed on. Exhausted and leery, we finally made it to Ras Kamboni.

Pentagon officials acknowledged that shortly after last month's air strikes, a small team of American Special Operation troops had been to Ras Kamboni to collect forensic evidence in an effort to identify the victims of the bombings. The targets were prominent al Qaeda operatives suspected of hiding out there.

From the moment I arrived on the 30-mile-long peninsula, I was systematically discouraged from sticking around. The reasons were absurd -- from lack of time to poor roads to my crew's craving for fresh khat.

From the moment I arrived on the 30-mile-long peninsula, I was systematically discouraged from sticking around. The reasons were absurd -- from lack of time to poor roads to my crew's craving for fresh khat. Without it, they lay around, indifferent to my curiosity. The local authorities, meanwhile, kept me occupied with countless spurious activities -- a visit to the local post office, a tea ceremony with the mayor, and a visit to the radio station, where they told me they had known a week ago of my impending visit.

I met with Ras Kamboni's police chief, who went to great lengths to explain why another Western woman, Deena Umbrager, from New Jersey, had been murdered "by accident" at the hands of her bodyguard shortly after she arrived in town.

Before the day was over, Barbare insisted he would not spend one night in this "primitive village" of shacks and huts, even though they were lined up along a spectacular coastline. It was up to me, he said, if I wanted to stay, but I would have to find another car to get me out of here; he and the crew would wait for me in Kismayo.

It was the first time I'd seen [Barbare] spooked and not playing the "macho" guy, bragging about his countless fights with rival gangs.

It was the first time I'd seen him spooked and not playing the "macho" guy, bragging about his countless fights with rival gangs.

Speaking in broken English or French, scores of locals approached me to affirm that none of the bad guys I was searching for had ever existed. My local guide, another doctor (named Abdullah), confessed off-camera that he had once belonged to al Itihad, but it was so long ago, he barely remembered it.

I was getting nowhere. These people knew perfectly well what I was looking for but had decided to play cat and mouse; and I was the lonely mouse.

I argued with Barbare to get him to stay, but Hiddick urged me to listen to Barbare's cryptic warnings and get out before nightfall. The village had no electricity, and security would be very difficult after dark.

Their reactions were starting to chill me. We'd come so far, but I knew there was little hope of matching my suspicions with anything concrete without inviting a tragic end to my vain search. So we fled Ras Kamboni, horns blaring, just in case anyone was in any doubt about our hasty departure.

Two days later, I was back in Kismayo, where I waited for an empty khat plane to fly me back to Nairobi. I had to pay an extra price for my stubbornness. Barbare and his men stripped me of all my belongings, insisting that I pay them extra for the "additional risks" they had taken. When I refused, I spent five days in a shack, guarded by Barbare and his men, who had now added kidnapping to their list of specialties. On the fourth day, as my ration of spaghetti and water began to dry up, I agreed to pay an extra $5OO.

With that, I was driven in grand style onto the tarmac all the way to the waiting plane and warmly waved goodbye. To this day, my interpreter and I regularly exchange friendly emails.

Somalis have a unique sense of hospitality.