Source AP ©

Islamic insurgency intends to turn Somali into haven for al-Qaida

The government of Somali has declared victory over its rivals, but the most extreme Islamic elements remain intact, with fresh recruits and new funding, and they intend to turn the country into a haven for al-Qaida.

More than 1,400 people have been killed in the last month, 400 of them in the last five days, in violence caused at least in part by the militants. The government, supported by Ethiopian troops, declared victory on Thursday, but the extremists appear to be infiltrating towns across the country.

Mogadishu saw a lull in fighting Friday, but the government has declared victory before, only to have the insurgents reappear weeks later.

At stake is the most strategically located nation in the Horn of Africa; a lawless country that is a crossroads between the Middle East and Africa and dominates important sea lanes. A U.N.-supported government has tried to exert control, but has influence over only a tiny part of the territory.

The government's failure has opened the door for a new takeover by radical Islamic elements who grabbed power for six months last year, filling the country's power vacuum with a strict religious government. Like the Taliban who once ruled Afghanistan and hosted Osama bin Laden, the Somali radicals, known as the radical wing of the Council of Islamic Courts, harbor al-Qaida terrorists, according to U.S. officials.

U.S. Ambassador in Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, who also oversees Somalia issues, said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press that the Islamic Courts is a danger not only to Somalia but surrounding countries. Its military wing, the Shabab, harbors al-Qaida members responsible for terror attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, he said.

"We regard it as a real danger that the Council of Islamic Courts remnants are clearly making very significant efforts to regroup," he said.

Small Shabab units were sent to the towns of Kismayo, Merka and Jowhar last week, a Shabab member said, asking not to be identified for fear of retribution. He described how the group has rebounded after the Western-supported military sweep led by the Ethiopian army.

"We were defeated by the Ethiopians and driven from Mogadishu, we fled to the jungle. And we were bombed there, so now we are back in Mogadishu," the capital, said another, more senior Shabab member, who asked that his name not be used for fear of being targeted. "We cannot leave Somalia, so we must fight to the death, or defeat the government."

He told AP that the Shabab now number about 5,000 and that new recruits join everyday.

The resurgence of the Shabab has driven prices at Mogadishu's main weapons market to an all-time high, dealers said. No one is sure where the money is coming from, but many Somalis assume it is from outside the country. The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, accused Ethiopia's longtime rival, Eritrea, of arming the Shabab.

"Eritrea has not been playing a constructive role in Somalia because they continue to fund, arm, train and advise the insurgents, especially the al-Shabab militia," she said in Washington on Tuesday. Ethiopia and Eritrea are rivals. Ethiopia also is a nation historically led by Christians in the Muslim region, fueling radical Islamic opposition to its Somali intervention.

Meanwhile, it appears the Shabab still has most of an arsenal of 200 shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles that intelligence services reported last year had been shipped from Eritrea. At least 10 have been fired, bringing down a cargo plane and an Ethiopian attack helicopter, according to an AP tally, and one was reported captured by the government on Monday.

The location of the remaining missiles is unknown. They could be used against civilian aircraft throughout the region.

Ten al-Qaida operatives remain in Somalia and are at least partially responsible for the growing violence in the capital, Mogadishu, the U.S. State Department says. Six of them are well-known Somali leaders from the Islamic courts, while four are international al-Qaida members with years of experience in Africa.

In the last month, the government has launched two offensives against the Shabab, who had been conducting regular hit-and-run attacks. In one sign of outside influence, the Shabab introduced suicide bombings to Somalia last year, and last month the group provided al-Jazeera television with a video of a suicide car bombing at an Ethiopian base, along with a videotaped final statement by the bomber, a first in Somalia's long and violent history.

This week the Shabab issued a statement made by a Kenyan suicide car bomber who attacked an Ethiopian base on April 19. Somalia's deputy defense minister, Salad Ali Jelle, said the new use of suicide bombings and final statements by the attackers using the language of holy war proved that the Shabab had joined al-Qaida.

Government and Ethiopian troops have tried to flush the Shabab out of Mogadishu, but when civilians were killed in the crossfire, secular clan militias joined the fight alongside the Shabab.

During the government offensives, residents in Dhusa Mareb, 430 kilometers (270 miles) northeast of Mogadishu, have described large aircraft delivering arms and fighters to the Islamic militants. Regional diplomats and intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are authorized to discuss intelligence information, confirm the reports' validity, but say they cannot be sure of the scale of the shipments.

Key to ending the fighting are the Hawiye clan leaders who control most of Mogadishu and want a greater role in the government.

Hawiye elders, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, told AP that they do not necessarily support the Islamic extremists. But until President Abdullahi Yusuf agrees to share power, they said the international community cannot expect them to exert their authority to stop both the clan and Islamic militias.

Diplomats from around the world are pressing the government to reach a comprehensive power-sharing deal with the Hawiye before the Shabab and al-Qaida can scale up their insurgency, Ranneberger said.

Ranneberger said that clan elders could throw their support behind the al-Qaida-backed extremists if a political accommodation is not reached soon and civilian deaths continue to mount. The Islamic courts controlled Mogadishu for only six months in 2006, but those were the most peaceful months since 1991, when the last strong national government collapsed and clan rivalries fractured the country.

Frazer visited Somalia on April 7 to press the government to pursue peace talks. At a press conference after the meeting, she said Somalia's only hope for peace is a political agreement that includes the country's diverse clans but excludes the extremists.

Outside countries are also promising to boost aid in the pursuit of peace. The U.S. has pledged $80 million.

On April 14, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah used his annual address to his Consultative Council to support Somali peace talks and offered his country as a neutral venue. The Saudis worry that Somalia has become an important training ground for al-Qaida-affiliated Saudis, much as Afghanistan was, said Ranneberger.

Somalia's Islamic radicals and al-Qaida appear to be completely intertwined, even though leaders of the Islamic Courts deny a connection.

Aden Hashi Ayro, a Somali trained in al-Qaida's Afghanistan camps prior to 2001, is on the State Department suspected terrorist list and remains the Islamic militia's overall leader and is organizing attacks in Mogadishu, Jelle and Western diplomats said. Jelle said he has information that Ayro has been named the leader of al-Qaida in Somalia.

Another Shabab commander is a Kenyan wanted by the FBI for a 2002 terror attack near Mombasa, Issa Osman Issa, the State Department says on its Web site.

Before the Ethiopian intervention, residents of north Mogadishu described seeing Ayro attend the same mosque as another suspected international terrorist, Abu Taha al-Sudani. Sudani has lived in Mogadishu since 1993 and has a Somali wife, the State Department says. He is wanted in connection with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Kenya and Tanzania.

A fourth al-Qaida suspect believed to be in Somalia is Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who is from Comoros and widely believed to be the al-Qaida leader for East Africa. FBI and Kenyan police reports and U.S. court documents link him to both the 2002 attacks in Kenya and the 1998 embassy bombings. Somali intelligence officers told the AP privately, because they did not want to lose their jobs, that Fazul runs the Shabab's intelligence section.

None of these men have given interviews to the media and cannot be reached for comment.

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