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|Rebuilding Somalia Could Aid War On Terror, Say Residents|
MOGADISHU, Feb 23, 2004 (VOA News) – U.S. officials have been concerned that some members of the al-Qaida terrorist network, seeking a new refuge after being chased out of Afghanistan, are hiding in Somalia and planning new attacks from there. Many Somalis want the U.S. focus on capturing terrorists to go hand-in-hand with efforts to rebuild Somalia's collapsed economy and society.
In 1991, warring militias in Somalia overthrew dictator Mohammed Siad Barre's government, ushering in nearly 13 years of conflict and anarchy.
After terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, U.S. officials identified the Muslim country in the Horn of Africa as a potential refuge for members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network and other Islamic extremist groups.
A leading Somali educator and civic leader, Abdurahman Abdullahi, in Mogadishu, recalls how quickly the September 11 attacks put the Somali capital back in the international spotlight.
"A lot of traffic of Americans here, media people," he said. "At times, we were joking with them, 'OK, you come to look for terrorists in the classes at Mogadishu University.' So, they were looking everywhere."
While U.S. officials have not found active terrorist training camps in Somalia, they say the potential for the lawless country to be a haven for terrorists is still high.
An al-Qaida operative, who has been indicted by a U.S. court for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, is still at large, and is believed to be hiding in Somalia. The United States has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture of the operative, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed.
In addition, a recent U.N. report identified Somalia as a key arms smuggling country for terrorists. The report says terrorists, who tried to shoot down a chartered Israeli plane in the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa in November 2002, shipped surface-to-air missiles from Yemen to Kenya through Somalia.
Another focus of U.S. concern in Somalia is the alleged link between al-Qaida and a shadowy Somali group called al-Ittiyad al-Islamiya (Islamic Unity). The group was set up in the late 1980s from Islamic groups opposed to the regime of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre, which fell in 1991.
In Mogadishu, Abdi Ahmed Hussein says he was a member of al-Ittiyad for more than five years in the 1990s. He says al-Qaida operatives have successfully recruited some members of al-Ittiyad to fight against Americans.
"Right after the United States began the war on terror against Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Qaida asked many al-Ittiyad members to join and help in the fight," he said. Most al-Ittiyad men said no. But some eventually went to Afghanistan."
Somalis in Mogadishu tell Western journalists that, for the past several years, U.S. agents have been quietly establishing a network of informants, including Somali warlords, to watch for suspected terrorists.
They say that effort is believed to have netted at least one al-Qaida suspect, Suleiman Abdalla Salim Hemed, who is accused of planning the 1998 embassy bombings with Fazul Abdullah Mohammed.
Somalis say there is evidence that a local warlord in Mogadishu coordinated the capture and was financially rewarded by the United States. U.S. officials will not confirm that.
A U.S.-educated teacher at Mogadishu University, Hussein Iman, says, while he does not blame the United States for wanting to prevent Somalia from becoming another Afghanistan, he believes the United States may be taking the wrong approach.
"I do not know if [it is] the CIA or other people, but they are engaged in cooperating with warlords," he said. "And this cooperating with the warlords and using them, this siphons a lot of money into the pockets of the warlords. And this further empowers the warlords who destroyed Somalia."
At the Mogadishu-based Center for Research and Dialogue, co-director Jabril Ibrahim Abdulla says if the warlords are profiting from the U.S.-led war on terror, he fears it could have serious consequences for the people here.
"Unfortunately, the warlords have no principles at all. You can buy them any time you want," he said. "These warlords are actually using their resources to get back at Somalis. What we are afraid of now is that sooner or later, Americans will say to these warlords, bye, bye. And God knows what they will leave behind."
Mr. Abdulla says he believes a far better way to prevent terrorists from gaining a foothold in Somalia is for the United States and other western countries to invest in Somalia's crippled education system.
According to the State Department, Somalia receives about $25 million a year in aid from the United States. Of that amount, $20 million is food aid, distributed through non-governmental organizations.
Last year, the United States also gave Somalia $1.25 million to help cover some basic education costs. But Somali educators say that far more is needed.
Somalis say their school system was nearly wiped out after the outbreak of civil war in 1991. Most teachers fled the country. Subsequently, international relief organizations also withdrew from Somalia in 1995.
The people here say the only organizations which remained behind to help them were Islamic charity groups. The charities still fund most of the primary and secondary schools in Somalia. Mr. Abdulla, at the Center for Research and Dialogue, says because there is no authority in Somalia no one knows for certain who is running the charities or if they have links to extremist groups, who could see the tens of thousands of students who attend the schools as potential terrorist recruits.
"We do not have any evidence to suggest that there is potential recruiting, but the potential is there," he said. "There might be individual groups using funds sent to them by fanatical groups, religious groups. No one knows. But they might be. And the results will be devastating, a disaster, to Somalis as well as to the world. The Somali problem is very serious, very serious. And you cannot underestimate. If the Americans underestimate the Somali problem, they will pay a heavy price."
Somalis like Mr. Abdulla say the United States and the rest of the world must extend massive help to Somali people soon, so that they can rebuild their country and create a more stable society.
Only then, they say, could the West say it has won the war against terrorism in Somalia.