Somalia has been without a real government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohammed Said Barre. Since then, the nation has been divided by inter-clan fighting. A weak transitional government in the city of Baidoa has been unable to move into the capital, Mogadishu, which was seized last week by an Islamic militia. U.S. officials are concerned that an unstable Somalia could become a safe haven for international terrorists.
Calm has returned to Mogadishu a few days after the Somali capital was taken by an Islamist militia known as the Islamic Courts Union following a bloody four-month battle. But overall instability in the country concerns President Bush.
"The first concern, of course, would be to make sure that Somalia does not become an al-Qaida safe haven,” said the president. “It doesn't become a place from which terrorists can plot and plan. And so we're watching very carefully the developments there."
While Mogadishu is controlled by the Courts Union, competing warlords have divided up the rest of Somalia.
Security expert Karin von Hippel, who worked in that country for the United Nations and the European Union, says those divisions could work against potential terrorists. "It's a very diffuse society, very decentralized. And that's why it's so difficult for someone like bin Laden to find refuge in Somalia, because it's so divided,” she says. “One group will always out another group. And so one group will always tell you somebody's there, even if that person isn't there. But you'll start to hear rumors that those individuals are there"
Nonetheless, von Hippel says there is a long-term possibility of linkage with extremist elements if the hard-line Islamic Courts consolidate control over southern Somalia. At the same time, von Hippel says most Somalis are moderate Muslims, who yearn, above all, for security.
"The Islamic Courts may be able to provide that security. So, in that sense, if they do feel that they can walk the streets at night, safely, then they will support the Courts. On the other hand, they won't want a strict Sharia law imposed on them, and they will want to resist that," says von Hippel.
The U.S. State Department last week acknowledged receipt of a letter from the leader of the Islamic Courts Union, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, which accused the United States of backing rival warlords and promoting instability in Somalia. The letter also denied that the Courts helped any terrorists.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says the United States does not dismiss the possibility of dealing with the Islamic Courts Union. "Our basic approach is to, on one hand, look to work with those individuals or groups who want to fight the presence or combat the presence of foreign terrorists on Somali soil, and also on the other hand, who are interested in a more peaceful Somalia, a Somalia where institutions matter, where institutions serve to benefit all of the Somali people."
The United States convenes an international meeting this week in New York aimed at assisting Somalia's transitional government, which has been struggling to consolidate authority from its base in the city of Baidoa.