Somalis fleeing to Yemen prompt new worries in fight against al-Qaeda

Somalis in a refugee camp in Kharaz, in southern Yemen. Officials fear that such camps could become recruiting grounds for extremists.
Somalis in a refugee camp in Kharaz, in southern Yemen. Officials fear that such camps could become recruiting grounds for extremists. (Sudarsan Raghavan/the Washington Post)
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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

KHARAZ, YEMEN -- Thousands of Somali boys and teenagers fleeing war and chaos at home are sailing to Yemen, where officials who have long welcomed Somali refugees now worry that the new arrivals could become the next generation of al-Qaeda fighters.

As the United States deepens its counterterrorism operations in Yemen, officials are concerned that extremists could find growing Somali refugee camps fertile ground for recruiting. U.S. and Yemeni authorities also fear that Islamist fighters from Somalia could slip into the country among the throngs of refugees, deepening ties between al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen and the particularly hard-line militants of Somalia.

Fleeing a failed state for a failing one, the Somali youths arrive daily in this refugee outpost, which is filled with rickety tents and tales of misery, in the vast desert of southern Yemen. They bring stories of brutality and forced conscription by al-Shabab, an Islamist force battling Somalia's U.S.-backed transitional government.

"They ordered us to fight the nonbelievers," said Abdul Khadr Salot, 19, a burly ex-fighter with a thin scar across his cheek who escaped from a militant training camp. "Even if your father tells you to leave the Shabab, you must kill him."

But this longtime haven is becoming increasingly inhospitable since the United States bolstered its operations here, largely in response to the Yemeni al-Qaeda connections of the Nigerian man who allegedly tried to bomb a U.S. airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day, and to the links of an extremist Yemeni American cleric to the Nov. 5 shootings at Fort Hood, Tex.

Yemen's fragile government fears that Somali fighters from al-Shabab will swell the ranks of Yemen's Islamist militants at a time when links between the Somali group and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are growing, according to Yemeni officials and analysts.

As it quietly wages war against extremists in the Arabian Peninsula and parts of Africa, the Obama administration could find itself confronting a unified, regional al-Qaeda on two continents. This would further stretch U.S. resources as Washington fights major conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It could also push Yemen -- beset by mounting internal strife, poor governance, extreme poverty and dwindling resources -- even deeper into a downward spiral.

"Somalia for Yemen is becoming like what Pakistan is for Afghanistan," said Saeed Obaid, a Yemeni terrorism expert who wrote a book on al-Qaeda's Yemen affiliate.

Leaders of al-Shabab, which the United States has labeled a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda's central body, said last week that they will send fighters to help al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That prompted Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi to issue a stern warning through the state-run Saba news agency that Yemen will not allow "any terrorist elements from any country to operate in its territory."

In recent days, Yemeni security forces have staged raids on Somali refugee communities, detaining suspected loyalists of al-Shabab, which means "The Youth." Overnight, an atmosphere of fear has gripped the community, which numbers more than 1 million.

"The climate has changed, and it is heating up," Mohammed Ali, a top leader of the Somali community in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, lamented over a glass of Somali coffee.

An estimated 74,000 African refugees, mostly from Somalia and Ethiopia, arrived in Yemen last year, 50 percent more than in 2008, according to statistics from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR officials say 309 either drowned in capsized boats or were killed by smugglers.

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