The United States has suspected Islamic militant activity in Somalia for over a decade, but it was after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, blamed on the terrorist network al-Qaida, that the State Department placed the East African country on its list of states that sponsor terrorism and began a concerted effort to eliminate al-Qaida operations in the war-torn nation.
recently, on Jan. 8, 2007, the U.S. launched an air strike in
southern Somalia in an attempt to kill al-Qaida operative Fazul
Abdullah Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 1998 attacks
on American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania,
that killed more than 225 people, including 12 Americans.
Based on evidence developed in its investigation of those bombings, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida's military commander, Mohammed Atef, on Nov. 4, 1998, for conspiring to kill Americans. The indictment included references to Somalia, and al-Qaida's training and support of Somali fighters.
The Bush administration also has placed the Somali money transfer outlet Al-Barakaat on a list of banks possibly used by al-Qaida members. Al-Barakaat, which operates everything from banks to mobile phone networks, denies it has helped bin Laden's network.
Abdullah Mohammed and al-Qaida operatives believed to reside at least part time in Somalia are also suspected of planning a pair of near-simultaneous attacks in November 2002: the failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli aircraft at the Mombassa airport in Kenya and a car bombing at a Kenyan resort that killed 13, injuring more than 80 people.
While U.S. officials have not publicly revealed evidence that the government of Somalia knowingly allowed the terrorist network to stay or that the Union of Islamic Courts militia that controlled large areas of the country from June to December 2006 are linked to al-Qaida, they have repeatedly expressed concern that al-Qaida has roots there.
In 2002, Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. military's Central Command and commander of the war in Afghanistan, said he could not rule out the possibility of military intervention in Somalia.
"We have known of links to al-Qaida in and through Somalia for a considerable period of time. Locations and specifics is something that I cannot go into. But we are concerned about the situation in Somalia and we will not take off the table the possibility of action against countries of concern," he told the BBC.
More recently, in December 2006, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said the Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by East Africa al-Qaida cell individuals.
Following the January 2007 airstrikes, White House press secretary Tony Snow said, "We've made it clear that this is a global war on terror. And this is a reiteration of the fact that -- people who think that they're going to try to establish a safe haven for al-Qaida any place need to realize that we're going to fight them."
According to Andre Le Sage of the National Defense University, there were never significant al-Qaida training camps in East Africa, but "you have had some very dangerous individuals in the al-Qaida East Africa cell. We're talking about individuals like Fazul Mohammed ... also, Abu Taha al-Sudani, a Sudanese national, and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan national."
"These individuals, operating on their own and with support from extremist members of the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia, have been able to launch some very deadly attacks against Western interests and African interests," he said in a January 2007 NewsHour discussion.
Indeed, al-Qaida itself has vowed to protect interests in Somalia. In January 2007, al-Qaida No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called for guerrilla resistance against the Somali government in a videotaped message.
In the video titled, "Set Out and Support Your Brothers in Somalia," Zawahiri called on Muslims, especially those in Yemen, the Arab Peninsula, Egypt, North Africa and Sudan, to participate in a holy war against secular government forces in Somalia.
"You have to use ambushes and mines, and raids and suicidal attacks until you rend and eat your prey as the lion does with his prey," he declared.
Somalia, a chaotic, poor, battle-weary Muslim country with little history of an effective central government, offers extremists the opportunity to regroup and train with relative freedom, according to a 2005 Council on Foreign Affairs report.
Somalia's "lack of functioning central government, protracted state of violent instability, long unguarded coastline, porous borders, and proximity to Arabian peninsula" make it a potential site for terrorists seeking refuge, according to a State Department report quoted by the council's Web site.
"Somalia is a perfect haven for terrorists," Ibrahim Mohammed, the leader of the clan-based Rahawen Resistance Army told CNN in 2002. "There's no central government to speak of, we've been at war for more than 10 years and you have all kinds of bandits running around the countryside at free will. There's very little difference between Somalia and Afghanistan, and only the U.S. can help us kick them out."
However, the council's report points out that Somalia differs from Afghanistan in several key respects: First, while Somalia is about as big as Afghanistan, its landscape lacks Afghanistan's many natural hiding places and U.S. surveillance planes can see much more than they can over Afghanistan and Pakistan's mountainous regions. Second, Somalia is a more secular society where Taliban-style fundamentalism has not gained widespread popularity. Third, Somalia's pragmatic, secular local authorities are well aware of the multimillion-dollar U.S. bounty on the heads of al-Qaida leaders.
Islamic fighters deny al-Qaida links
Somalia's chaos has undoubtedly created some opportunities for al-Qaida, but there are fewer ethnic connections between Somalia and Osama bin Laden's leadership circle than there are in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Said Ali, a volunteer fighter for the Shabeia, the feared enforcers of the Islamic Courts Union, said the militia is "a nationalist anti-warlord movement that contains many Muslim moderates and has no international ambitions."
In a January 2007 Time magazine article, Said Ali said that Somali warlords and Ethiopians exaggerated the threat of al-Qaida to incite U.S. opposition to the Islamic Courts.
"People think our group is something else -- al-Qaida. We're not. We fight for the people. We fight for Somalia. If this government understands that its people need security, then that will be OK. But security has to come. And if al-Zawahiri says the people should do this or that, it could be right or wrong."