As the United States prepares the next phase of its war against terrorism, U.S. officials are paying close attention to Somalia to prevent that country from being used as a sanctuary for the al-Qaida terrorist network. U.S. officials are concerned that Somalia may become a haven for terrorists.
The latest indications that Somalia remains a focus of the war on terrorism came from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Secretary Powell told The Washington Times that the United States has warned several countries, including Somalia, that they must deny safe heaven to terrorists if they want to avoid being targeted in the next phase of the war on terrorism.
Earlier, Mr. Wolfowitz told The New York Times that conditions in Somalia, where clan-based factions control portions of the country, and central government is absent, would be attractive to fleeing members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
Publicly, the United States has given no specifics of evidence it has of continuing al-Qaida activity in Somalia. However, The Washington Times reported earlier this month that the United States and its allies had stepped up aerial reconnaissance flights over the country.
In a recent VOA interview, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs, Walter Kansteiner, said Somalia is viewed by the United States as a "semi-hospitable" environment for terrorist organizations. He said, "We obviously are worried that the institutions of government are fragile, if existent at all - air traffic control, coastal control - it's very limited. Does this kind of no-man's land offer itself up as an environment where terrorists can hide, run, operate, move money, move people? That is what we're learning about and interested in and make sure it is not an environment for that."
A key focus of concern is the Islamic group Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiya (Islamic Unity), which emerged as a military force in Somalia following the collapse of the Mohamed Siad Barre regime in 1991. U.S. intelligence sources have been quoted by The Washington Times as saying 100 al-Qaida terrorists were identified among its members.
Ken Menkhaus is a specialist on Somalia. He said Al-Ittihad is now a fundamentally political movement supporting eventual Islamic rule and has integrated itself deeply into Somali society. But Mr. Menkhaus does not believe Somalis who support the group have global terrorist aims,
"Of those committed to Al-Ittihad, most are concerned with a domestic, not an international agenda," he said. "And even among those Somalis who want to harness Al-Ittihad for violent acts abroad, most of those are primarily focused on waging jihad against Ethiopia. The number of Somalis who actively support Al-Ittihad as part of a global struggle are by all accounts very small in number."
Former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, notes that neighboring Ethiopia has accused Al-Ittihad of having links with al-Qaida, and of conducting terrorist attacks in Ethiopia. He describes the group as a "very troubling organization [that should have] steps taken against it," but said these steps should be discreet.
"This is not the kind of thing that calls for a sledge hammer approach. We're going to get in trouble if we try that inside Somalia," he said. "We need to be very sure of our information, or if it is Ethiopia making the action, they need to be very sure of their information and to be very careful how we respond such that we don't create an even bigger problem than already exists there."
In recent days, leaders of Somalia's transitional government have said Somalia should not be a target of U.S. military action because it no longer serves as a refuge for al-Qaida terrorists.
Speculation about possible U.S.-led military action has heightened concern among governments in the region. Leaders of seven African countries (Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda) are meeting in Khartoum to discuss the fight against terrorism and regional conflicts.
Reports from the region said Somali factional leaders opposed to the transitional government in Mogadishu, as well as the president of the transitional government, would be attending. Italy's chief African affairs official told reporters in Khartoum that Somalia has, what he called, a historic chance for peace against the background of the global fight against terrorism.
U.S. officials, worried about the countries potential as a safe haven for terrorists, said they will continue to watch events there closely.