The crisis in Somalia is getting worse as a force of Islamic militants, led by a hardline wing known as al-Shabab, seizes more territory, threatening the fragile transitional government. The Ethiopian troops that are backing the government are likely to leave the country soon, and experts warn this may lead to the government's collapse and the potential of Somalia becoming a safe haven for terrorists.
Jennifer Cooke heads the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"They're expanding their reach," Cooke said. "They've seized a number of key port towns - Merka, Kismayo - and are really driving the chaos that is engulfing Mogadishu at this point."
There has been no real central Somali government since 1991. Only U.S. aid and the presence of Ethiopian troops who invaded in 2006 have kept the current transitional government in Mogadishu from collapse.
Although Ethiopia has announced it would pull out of Somalia by the end of the year, the government has hinted it could delay the move. Still, a withdrawal could prompt African Union peacekeepers to follow suit.
The government of transitional President Abdulahi Yusuf Ahmed controls only the capital and another city.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says Washington is trying to avert a collapse in Somalia. "We're trying to work through the international system, that is trying to find a way that you can have a responsible international force in Somalia to help provide some security and therefore some stability," McCormack said. "And allow some of these weaker institutions to start to take hold in a positive way."
The concern in Washington is that if the militant al-Shabab takes control of Somalia the country could become a launching ground for terrorists.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen spoke about the danger at a news conference Wednesday.
"I am concerned about the potential for a safe haven in Somalia as I am in Yemen. I try to pay a lot of attention to the evolution of potential safe havens, these two in particular and specifically to the one in Somalia," Mullen said. "So, I'm extremely concerned about that."
The United States considers the multi-clan al-Shabab a terrorist group.
It practices a harsh form of Islamic law as seen in this recent video of a beheading released by the militants. Its propaganda videos, and its terror tactics have led some to believe the group may have ties to al-Qaida.
"Whether or not the links are direct, we don't know," Cooke stated. "There have been former al-Qaida operatives within Mogadishu responsible for the bombings in Dar Es Salaam and in Kenya in 1998, but certainly there's a potential there, a very strong potential for increasing support and linkage with al-Qaida."
Cooke and other experts say the prospect of further violence and a deepening humanitarian crisis in Somalia could become a major problem for the incoming Obama administration.