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Some Somalis Try to Clear Country's Reputation as 'Terrorist Haven' - 2003-05-29


Although Somalia is considered a lawless, "ungoverned" country, it may not be as hospitable an environment for terrorists as widely suspected.

The U.S. State Department's assessment of Somalia as a terrorist haven is clear. It says Somalia's lack of a functioning central government, its history of instability and violence and its long coastline, porous borders and proximity to the Arabian peninsula make it a potentially prime location for terrorists.

Other U.S. officials have said Somalia is more than a mere "potential" base. They have called it a "hotbed" of terrorist activity.

This much is clear: earlier this year an alleged al-Qaida terrorist operative named Suleiman Abdalla was seized in Mogadishu and whisked away to Nairobi by Kenyan officials.

Kenyan authorities now acknowledge they had help from unidentified, friendly Somalis.

"He was captured through the efforts of friendly Somali leaders, who [don't] want to see Somalia being used as a terrorist haven, and Kenyan security agencies," said Douglas Kaunda, a spokesman for Kenya's Ministry of Internal Security. "It was cooperation between the two."

U.S. defense officials confirm there are some cooperative Somalis who have been helpful in the war against terrorism.

They offer no details. But one defense official knowledgeable about the Horn of Africa region says Somalia is not a particularly friendly environment for terrorists, especially high-profile terrorists, because of its poor security.

This official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says a senior al-Qaida leader would for example need an alliance with a Somali warlord and heavily-armed bodyguards, in part to protect himself against kidnapping by a rival Somali militia.

Even so, this official suggests this might not guarantee a top terrorist's protection. As the official puts it, "The environment is so opportunistic [...] that any presence there is liable to being sold out."

One Somali source has said in the case of Suleiman Abdalla, the suspected terrorist was kidnapped by gangs and wounded in an exchange of gunfire before being flown out of Mogadishu.

Still, it is apparent by his presence that terrorists do at least transit through Somalia, even if they do not stay there. U.S. defense officials also note that since Abdalla's detention in March, Kenyan authorities have announced they are on the look out for yet another al-Qaida suspect, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. Like Suleiman Abdalla, he is alleged to have been involved in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

And like Abdalla, Mohammed is believed to have been operating out of Somalia and was perhaps plotting another bloody attack somewhere in the region.

The U.S. government does not have official relations with any entity in Somalia. The U.S. military's special Horn of Africa anti-terrorism task force says it has no ties in the country.

A military spokesman for the task force says its troops have not been, nor are they now, in Somalia. He also says the force does not have any direct line of communication established with indigenous personnel in Somalia.

However the spokesman admits "information comes out of Somalia, and finds its way to us via the information-sharing network we have with U.S. embassies and host nation governments [and] militaries."

Reporter Katy Salmon in Nairobi contributed to this report.

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