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Somali Instability Poses Challenge for Anti-Terror Efforts

August 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Secretary of State Clinton spent the second day of her African tour expressing support for the fragile transitional government in Somalia. Margaret Warner reports on the visit, and the risks posed by the Somali government's struggles to combat extremist groups linked to al-Qaida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And still to come on the NewsHour tonight: trading in gas guzzlers; and testing for old ivory.

That follows our look at the Islamic insurgency in Africa. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drew attention to that in Kenya today on the third day of her 11-day tour of the continent.

Margaret Warner reports.

MARGARET WARNER: The secretary of state began her day with a solemn visit to Nairobi’s Memorial Park. She placed a wreath at the site of one of the deadliest pre-9/11 al-Qaida strikes against the United States, the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

The attacks, which happened 11 years ago tomorrow, killed more than 220 people, mostly Africans, and wounded thousands more. Today, Secretary Clinton spoke of the ongoing struggle of the U.S. and its allies against the threat of terror around the globe.

HILLARY CLINTON, secretary of state: I appreciate greatly the commitment of the Kenyan government to partner with us and other nations and peoples around the world against the continuing threat of terrorism which respects no boundaries, no race, ethnicity, religion.

MARGARET WARNER: Then Secretary Clinton turned her focus to Somalia, the place the U.S. believes now poses the greatest terror threat in all of sub- Saharan Africa. She met with the country’s interim president, Sheik Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, in Nairobi and pledged more U.S. support and military aid for his government’s battle against militants.

HILLARY CLINTON: We believe that his government is the best hope we’ve had in quite some time for a return to stability and the possibility of progress in Somalia.

MARGARET WARNER: Somalia has been wracked by violence among warring factions for more than two decades. But in recent years, the trouble’s been fueled by an indigenous group of Islamic militants known as Al-Shabaab. It’s believed to be loosely linked to al-Qaida.

Its fighters have been battling block to block in the capital of Mogadishu to oust the president, who took office in January. Clinton said today the threat posed by Al-Shabaab extends beyond Somalia’s borders.

Threats to the United States

HILLARY CLINTON: Al-Shabaab wants to obtain control over Somalia, to use it as a base from which to influence and even infiltrate surrounding countries and launch attacks against countries far and near. If Al-Shabaab were to obtain a haven in Somalia, which could then attract al-Qaida and other terrorist actors, it would be a threat to the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: In fact, the group was linked to a foiled terror plot in Australia earlier this week.

In Somalia itself, the general lawlessness has also spawned another threat against U.S. interests: piracy in the waters off the East African coast.

The secretary flew to South Africa tonight, the second stop in her seven-country African tour.

For more on the instability in Somalia and the implications for the United States, we turn to Tristan McConnell, a correspondent for the international Internet news site Global Post.

Tristan, welcome. Secretary Clinton had some very stark warnings today about the danger posed by this group, Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Now, there are a lot of militant Islamic groups in the world. What is it about Somalia that makes it of such concern?

TRISTAN MCCONNELL, Global Post: I think the thing that's so concerning about Al-Shabaab in Somalia is that Somalia is the world's pre-eminent failed state. There's been no functioning government there for 18 years now. It is the perfect example of the ungoverned space, the kind of place where al-Qaida and other groups like to develop themselves.

Al-Shabaab itself is an Islamist extremist organization that's fighting the United Nations and Western-backed government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed in Mogadishu.

But they themselves have on occasion professed allegiance to al-Qaida, and al-Qaida lieutenants have claimed Al-Shabaab for themselves. So Washington is very concerned about the links there and particularly concerned that this might become a kind of haven for worldwide jihadists.

Danger of an ungoverned nation

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, they are really most concerned about the prospect of an Afghanistan scenario, a pre-9/11 Afghanistan scenario?

TRISTAN MCCONNELL: I think that's exactly what they're concerned about. If you look at the national defense strategy from 2008, one of the key things that they were talking about there was ungoverned spaces. And Somalia is really the perfect example of this.

There is no functioning government there. There is a transitional federal government in Mogadishu, but it controls very small pockets. The force, if you like, that has control in Somalia is these Al-Shabaab extremists.

And, you know, they have professed an ideology of jihad, of Islamism. And, you know, we've seen with these arrests in Australia this week of people allegedly trained in Somalia, planning a terrorist attack in Australia, that they're spreading this jihadist ideology from Somalia outwards.

MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying that the government has so little control over the space inside Somalia that, in fact, Al-Shabaab and other groups can already set up terrorist training camps in the country?

TRISTAN MCCONNELL: Certainly, intelligence sources I've spoken to are concerned about this. You know, we've seen in some of the Al-Shabaab propaganda material that's online and elsewhere that they have been using foreign fighters from Pakistan, from the Swat Valley, guys coming in from America, from Britain, from elsewhere to train and, indeed, to bring training capabilities with them.

So the fear is that Somalia -- as I said, an ungoverned space -- is becoming a location for these jihadi trainers.

Clinton Reaffirms Commitment

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what does the U.S. support really consist of?

TRISTAN MCCONNELL: Well, what we heard from Hillary Clinton today was a reaffirmation of U.S. commitment to support the transitional federal government of President Sharif. Now, what that means, it means -- it basically means arms and it means aid.

Now, in June, the State Department admitted that it had sent in around 40 tons of arms and ammunition to the transitional federal government, and Hillary Clinton said they will continue to provide arms and ammunition, they will also help with training, but also there will be a humanitarian aid aspect.

Around 40 percent of Somalia's 10 million people are now in need of humanitarian aid. There's a drought which is affecting food production. Plus, of course, the ongoing civil war, which is causing terrible strife for people. Thousands have died. Hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes. This is a real humanitarian crisis.

I mean, here in Kenya, where I am, there are around 300,000 Somali refugees living in squalid conditions in refugee camps in the north of the country. So this is a big humanitarian problem. It's also a big security problem. And what Hillary Clinton was saying was that the U.S. will do its best to support the transitional federal government in both these areas.

MARGARET WARNER: And I know you're not in Somalia -- you're in Nairobi -- but from what you understand, who has the momentum in at least the military conflict part of this struggle going on in Mogadishu and elsewhere in Somalia?

Peacekeepers become more forceful

TRISTAN MCCONNELL: Well, since early May, Al-Shabaab has looked like it's had the upper hand, although, in the last few weeks, the African Union peacekeepers have been rather more forceful in their defense of the transitional federal government.

This is 4,300-odd-strong contingent of Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers who are there to supposedly keep the peace, but to defend the transitional federal government.

Now, what we've seen in the last few weeks is -- it's like pushing back on Al-Shabaab. And now we have a real stalemate situation in Mogadishu.

But if we look at the kind of control that President Sharif's government actually has, it's very limited, indeed. At the moment, they do have control of a town called Beledweyne near the Ethiopian border, but that wasn't the case a couple of weeks ago.

And in Mogadishu, they have a presidential palace. They have control of the airport, control of the seaport, and a handful of roads in between. But everything else in Mogadishu is really a fluctuating situation from day to day. And the transitional federal government really has very little control over its own territory.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Tristan McConnell of Global Post, thank you so much.

TRISTAN MCCONNELL: No problem at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Again to our Web site,, you can watch a slide show of photographs from Somalia and read more about the country's economic and political struggles.