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Africa: Reports Say Somalia Next Target In U.S. War On Terrorism

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Washington analysts are busy trying to guess the U.S.-led war on terrorism's next target. The latest reports suggests that the administration of President George W. Bush will put off attacking Iraq in favor of concentrating on the Horn of Africa.

Washington, 4 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Washington guessing game as to where the war on terrorism goes next now points not to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but Somalia.

A report on 3 January in the daily newspaper "The Washington Times," which is known for its good military and intelligence sources, says the United States and its allies have stepped up surveillance flights over the East African country ahead of a likely attack on Al-Qaeda terrorist cells there.

The article, which cited anonymous U.S. intelligence officials and gave no further details, was published the day after Germany sent six navy ships to patrol the seas off the Horn of Africa and Somalia, where it is believed Al-Qaeda fighters may seek shelter after fleeing Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Besides Iraq, Sudan, and Yemen, Somalia has long been cited as a possible target in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. U.S. officials say the country harbors fighters belonging to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network. A U.S. delegation visited Somalia in December on a trip analysts said may have been designed to prepare strikes against terrorist targets there.

But analysts caution against rash U.S. moves in Somalia, which has been prey to rival warlords since the U.S. withdrew from peacekeeping there in 1993 following the killing of 18 American soldiers.

A new Hollywood movie, named "Black Hawk Down" after the U.S. helicopter that was shot down there, purports to tell the story of those killed soldiers, one of whose corpses was dragged through the dusty streets of Somalia's capital Mogadishu by killers believed to have been trained by Al-Qaeda.

S. Stephen Morrison, a former senior American diplomat in Africa, is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. Morrison, who warned of a host of dangers in the region in the event of U.S. action in Somalia, had this to say: "I think the hope is that U.S. forces will in fact not have to intervene. The memory of Somalia, and the debacle of '93, is still very fresh."

Morrison says a Somali Islamic charity and terrorist group, Al Ittihad, has had strong ties to Al-Qaeda that continue to this day. But he says Al Ittihad, which has been implicated in the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa that killed more than 250 people, has been hit hard in recent years by attacks from Ethiopia prompted by bombings it carried out in the neighboring country.

Still, Morrison says there are several areas of alleged Al-Qaeda operations in Somalia which, if verified, would likely result in U.S. military action. One such place, he said, is the island of Ros Kamboni off southern Somalia: "It's thought that Ros Kamboni was used as a transit point for movement of personnel by Al-Qaeda and Al Ittihad. It's also been alleged, and these are credible allegations, that Al-Qaeda has been given transit rights and haven in the north -- in the northeast in Puntland."

At a news briefing on 3 January, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeated that the war on terrorism is still at an early stage and would extend beyond Afghanistan. Though he did not elaborate on the latest press reports about U.S. intentions in Somalia, Rumsfeld did make this observation: "We know there have been training camps there [in Somalia] and that they have been active over the years and, like most of them, go inactive when people get attentive to them."

Rumsfeld said the next phase of the war would involve Washington seeking more help from governments around the world to crack down on terrorists and their financing.

But when asked about Somalia, he suggested that countries that refused such assistance and helped terrorists would not be looked upon kindly: "To the extent countries are harboring terrorists and not being helpful, obviously then they're not being cooperative and we'll have to find other ways of dealing with them."

Curiously, a group of Somali warlords made an appeal in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa in late December for international military intervention in Somalia, accusing its one-year-old transitional government of harboring Islamic extremists.

But one of Africa's best-known writers, Somali exile Nuruddin Farah, told Reuters in an interview on 3 January that those warlords were simply seeking to stir up trouble on behalf of Ethiopia, which he said had a keen interest in keeping Somalia weak.

Morrison agreed that Ethiopia had strong interests in Somalia and that the U.S. should seek to avoid appearing too close to Addis Ababa. He said the risk was that the U.S. could inflame Islamist extremist passion in neighboring Kenya and Sudan.

Ironically, Morrison said, the success in Somalia of groups like Al Ittihad is due partly to the social and educational functions they have served in conditions of crushing poverty and virtual anarchy.

Still, he said Washington isn't prepared for a long-term rebuilding effort in Somalia: "I don't think this is a place where this administration wants to get very deeply invested in both political and military terms over the long haul. I think they're going to be fairly careful to try and avoid that. However, if they see clear evidence of infiltration of Al-Qaeda elements into Somalia, I don't think there's going to be a long way before they begin to take direct and focused military action."

But Morrison also said that diplomatic efforts among European countries, the United Nations, the United States, and Kenya have been stepped up recently to seek a solution to Somalia's internal crisis. An international meeting of diplomats is due to discuss the matter next week in Khartoum, Sudan.

A column in the newspaper "The New York Times" joked recently that bombing Somalia might help the country out in the long run, since it would also focus financial and humanitarian attention on a country largely forgotten by the West since 1993.