London 02 March, 06 ( Sh.M.Network)
Somalia could become the next "war on terror" battleground as the United States zeroes in on al-Qaeda and Islamist groups reportedly trying to exploit a power vacuum in the world's most anarchic state.
Looking on helplessly are two million Somalis facing drought and famine, and aid agencies hampered by warlords, kidnappings and piracy.
The World Food Programme says a dire humanitarian situation in southern Somalia has been worsened by hijackings of relief vessels -- but alternative land routes had raised "similar logistical and security challenges". An American employee of Unicef was kidnapped in the south on Wednesday.
United Nations envoys say about 11-million people are threatened by starvation in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Tanzania due to conflicts and the region's worst drought in years. Oxfam has warned that only a third of the requested international food aid has materialised.
But isolated, lawless Somalia's predicament is particularly acute, the UN reported this week. One consequence is a growing wave of asylum seekers, who are preyed upon by violent people-smugglers. Attempts to establish order in Somalia, a former British protectorate and Italian colony, have failed since President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Somaliland in the north and Puntland on the tip of the Horn of Africa have effectively seceded. The south "is pure bandit country", a western official said.
After a 1992-94 US military intervention failed and a UN mission withdrew in 1995, Somalia ceased to exist as a functioning unitary state. Control of the capital, Mogadishu, is disputed by thousands of gunmen. A dozen or so transitional governments have come and gone. Western countries, with no diplomatic presence, have largely turned their backs.
But that is changing. Officials now say they have "clear evidence" that al-Qaeda is trying to re-establish a presence in Somalia, the ****** region of eastern Ethiopia, and possibly Sudan, in alliance with local Islamists.
General Mark Kimmitt of US central command says al-Qaeda sees Somalia as a potential safe haven. Western and UN officials point to suspected al-Qaeda links to Islamist groups in Mogadishu seeking to impose sharia law and Islamic rule, and to al-Qaeda-affiliated training camps in the south-east.
"We're all getting much more interested in Somalia," an informed source said. "Terrorism, instability, and growing numbers of asylum-seekers are among the reasons.
"Somalia is traditionally not strongly Islamic but there is a growing body of people in favour of political Islam and they are clearly getting help from outside...we don't want to see the establishment of a fundamentalist state."
US regional efforts are directed from Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, a former French Foreign Legion base that is home to 1 500 troops of the 'Combined Joint Task Force -- Horn of Africa'. Its commander, Marine Major-General Timothy Ghormley, told the American Forces Press Service that its work was aimed at winning "hearts and minds" via aid projects but terrorism pre-emption was also vital. "We go into the ungoverned spaces. We go where there is a threat ... if we weren't there they [al-Qaeda] would be."
The US says it does not operate on the ground in Somalia, though it runs anti-piracy naval patrols, controls its airspace, and has contacts with Somaliland's authorities. Britain says it presently has no troops in Somalia or Djibouti, although speculation persists about special forces involvement. Western governments say the first step to defeating terrorism and drought is improved security achieved through political reconciliation. Last week the latest transitional government held its first parliamentary session on Somali soil, raising hopes of an end to anarchy. Britain says it will provide political support and cash if the factions get serious about peace.
But while Somalia needs help, critics say the new focus on al-Qaeda is a distraction from more pressing problems. "Islamist activists are a diverse community ... making a broad-based conspiracy implausible," the International Crisis Group said. "Islamist extremism has failed to take hold in Somalia because of Somali resistance -- not foreign counter-terrorism." Author Alex de Waal said jihad in the Horn of Africa was tried and failed in the 1990s. The Pentagon was "chasing ghosts". -