U.S. Sees Growing Threats In Somalia

A young girl walks past a car that was used in a suicide bomb attack last month in Baidoa, Somalia, seat of the country's weak transitional government.
A young girl walks past a car that was used in a suicide bomb attack last month in Baidoa, Somalia, seat of the country's weak transitional government. (By Jerome Delay -- Associated Press)
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 18, 2006

Six months ago, the Bush administration launched a new policy in war-torn Somalia, putting the State Department in charge after secret CIA efforts failed to prevent Islamic fundamentalists from seizing power in Mogadishu. It hoped that diplomacy would draw the Islamists into partnership with more palatable, U.S.-backed Somali leaders.

Today, that goal seems more distant than ever. Since coming to power in June, the Islamists have expanded their hold on the south. A largely powerless, U.S.-backed rump government remains divided and isolated in the southern town of Baidoa. U.S.-sponsored talks, and a separate Arab League effort, seem to be going nowhere.

Al-Qaeda, long hovering in the shadows, has established itself as a presence in the Somali capital, say U.S. officials, who see a growing risk that Somalia will become a new haven for terrorists to launch attacks beyond its borders.

Meanwhile, a major war -- promoted and greeted approvingly by Osama bin Laden -- looms between Somalia and Ethiopia, threatening a regional conflagration likely to draw more foreign extremists into the Horn of Africa.

Among administration officials, Congress, U.S. allies and other interested and fearful parties, there is a rising sense that Somalia is spinning rapidly out of control. But even as events there have focused Washington's attention, they have led to a wave of finger-pointing and a feeling that there are few good ideas and little time for turning the situation around.

A wide range of interviews and commentary last week provided assessments that differed only in their degree of bleakness and apportionment of blame.

"The Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by . . . East Africa al-Qaeda cell individuals," Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer said of Mogadishu's new rulers.

Early hopes of a power-sharing deal with secular politicians have dissipated as Courts Chairman Hassan Dahir Aweys -- put on the U.S. terrorist list in 2001 as the head of a militant group accused of having links to al-Qaeda in the 1990s -- and Aden Ayrow, who heads the Courts' military arm, have increased their power.

Moderates remain within the Courts, a coalition of local Islamist groups and militias that drove CIA-supported warlords out of Mogadishu, Frazer said. But "they are not emerging as they could get their heads taken off, literally."

The Islamists have ignored U.S. insistence that they turn over three al-Qaeda operatives -- the core of what is called the East African cell -- who the administration says took refuge in Somalia after terrorist attacks in Africa, including the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

In a taped statement released in July, bin Laden called on Somalis to begin preparing for regional war. He recalled the 1994 withdrawal of U.S. military forces after a warlord attack killed 18 U.S. troops, saying, "This time, victory will be far easier."

U.S. intelligence officials described the statement at the time as part of bin Laden's failing claim to the leadership of a worldwide Islamic movement, despite the dispersion of the al-Qaeda network by the U.S. terrorism fight. Now they are not so certain.

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