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Is Somalia Harboring Some al-Qaida Operatives? - 2002-03-13

U.S. officials say Somalia remains a "hotbed" of terrorist activity where some al-Qaida operatives may now be hiding out, possibly masquerading as aid workers with Islamic charity organizations.

The officials say the number of al-Qaida terrorists who have moved into Somalia is not large. They also say there is no evidence any senior al-Qaida leaders are hiding out in the Horn of Africa country.

But these officials tell VOA those al-Qaida operatives who have arrived could be hiding out with Islamic charitable groups working in Somalia, where the presence of foreigners would not draw suspicion.

The officials provide no further details. But the disclosure coincides with the latest move by the Bush administration to cut off terrorists from their funding by moving to block the assets of an Islamic charity's branch in Somalia.

U.S. officials say the action against the al-Haramain foundation, taken jointly with the government of Saudi Arabia, was based on unspecified evidence that some money from its Somali office has been diverted to support terrorist activities.

It joins a number of other Islamic charity groups with operations in Somalia whose assets have been frozen by the United States because of their alleged links with terrorists.

The United States and its coalition partners in the global war on terrorism have been keeping Somalia under close surveillance since late last year following the start of military operations against al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials have long regarded Somalia as a potential haven for al-Qaida because of its lack of any effective government and its long, porous borders. They also say the group has links to a radical Somali Muslim group [AIAI] suspected of terrorist involvement.

But some experts are skeptical about the U.S. charges, noting divided opinions within the government over the extent and seriousness of the terrorist threat in Somalia.

Ken Menkhaus is a specialist on the Horn of Africa who has served as a consultant to the United Nations and the U.S. government. He does not believe officials have good information about what is happening inside Somalia.

"Some people are taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach, perhaps at the risk of inflating the risk of radical movements in Somalia," he said. "Others are saying, no, in fact what evidence we have suggests it's not so significant."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is among those who have warned of al-Qaida interest in Somalia. Mr. Rumsfeld has also said the more attention focused on terrorist facilities in Somalia, the more likely terrorists like al-Qaida will abandon them.

But Mr. Menkhaus disputes the notion that this may reflect a calculated government strategy. "To suggest that we are talking up a storm in Somalia in order to preempt use of the country by groups like al-Qaida is giving more credit to a strategy on the part of the government than I think the government actually has right now," he said.

In the meantime, there are fresh warnings of possible terrorist threats in another Horn of Africa country, Djibouti.

In recent testimony to Congress, General Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said there was credible reporting that al-Qaida and Somali terrorist allies are targeting western interests in Djibouti.

U.S. officials have provided no elaboration.