Informants Hunt Terrorists in Somalia
By CHRIS TOMLINSON, AP
MOGADISHU, Somalia (Nov. 5) - In lawless Mogadishu, where U.S. officials fear al-Qaida members are plotting their next attack, the word is out: catch a terrorist, collect rewards as high as $5 million.
At least four al-Qaida terrorist suspects are in Somalia, Kenyan officials and U.N. experts say, and Americans are trying to capture them in a country without an effective central government for more than a decade, officials and gunmen told The Associated Press.
U.S. agents are working through proxies and have recruited a network of informants who keep an eye out for suspected terrorists, according to a Western security official and several prominent Somalis, all speaking on condition of anonymity.
So far, those efforts are known to have netted at least one al-Qaida suspect - Suleiman Abdalla Salim Hemed, who's accused of playing a role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa - but rumors abound of gunmen kidnapping Arabs and turning them over to U.S. agents.
A Somali warlord, Mohammed Dheere, coordinated the capture of Hemed at the behest of U.S. officials, gunmen familiar with the Hemed operation told AP, speaking privately for fear of reprisals. Most Somalis believe Dheere was generously rewarded.
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Kenya's national security minister, Chris Murungaru, claimed credit for Hemed's capture and said he was turned over to U.S. authorities, who have refused to comment.
But the gunmen said U.S. agents regularly visit Dheere at his Mogadishu home and an AP reporter saw two of the alleged agents, dressed in regular clothing, moving through Mogadishu using a team of bodyguards belonging to Bashir Rageh, a wealthy businessman closely associated with Dheere.
After Hemed's capture, Dheere questioned Hemed's friends for hours, asking about other suspected terrorists. When shown photos from the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists Web site, Hemed's friends said Dheere used the same photos when he questioned them. They said they didn't recognize any of the men in the photos.
One of the most-wanted al-Qaida suspects, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, is thought to be hiding in Somalia, a senior Kenyan security official told AP on Wednesday.
Mohammed, a native of Comoros, has been indicted by a U.S. court in the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 231 people. The United States is offering $5 million for information leading to his capture.
Mohammed also is accused of planning a 2002 attack in Kenya, where a car bomb exploded outside the Paradise Hotel on Nov. 28, killing 12 Kenyans and three Israeli tourists. Minutes before, two missiles fired by terrorists missed an Israeli chartered jet taking off from Mombasa, Kenya.
A draft U.N. report obtained by AP on Tuesday detailed - without naming names - how the al-Qaida cell hiding in Somalia planned those Kenya attacks, bought anti-aircraft missiles in Mogadishu and returned to this neighboring Horn of Africa country after staging the strikes.
A Kenyan police report indicates the same cell - which reportedly includes two unidentified Somalis and an unidentified Arab - planned to ram a car bomb and fly a small plane into the new U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in June.
The senior Kenyan security official said Mohammed and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan suspect in the hotel bombing, fled to Somalia after the plot to attack the new embassy fell apart.
Somalia, a semiarid country, offers an attractive location for covert operations, but the country is nothing like Afghanistan, where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's Islamic militants were welcomed and worked unhindered, establishing large training camps.
Somalia's clan-based society is deeply Islamic, but the vast majority of Somalis follow Sufism, which is vehemently opposed to al-Qaida's militant, politically infused interpretation of Islam.
As a result, the warlords who run the country, drawing support and gunmen from their clans, are decidedly secular in their politics.
While German reconnaissance planes and German and U.S. warships patrol the coastline, U.S. officials have tried to get a presence on the ground by capitalizing on the warlords' lack of religious zeal and need for cash. After the slaying of 18 U.S. service members by Somali gunmen in 1993, U.S. officials appear to be in no hurry to send troops back into Somalia.
All of the American efforts, however, cannot overcome the basic problems created by the lack of a government. Somalia has hundreds of unmonitored airports and seaports where weapons and people can pass easily if enough financial incentive is applied.
Extensive monitoring, from bases like the one recently established in Djibouti, can detect hundreds of terrorists training together, but it is impossible to detect groups using small compounds or private homes.
And while most Somalis reject Islamic extremism, there are militants in Somalia. Al-Ittihad al-Islami, listed by the United States as a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida, does openly operate as a religious organization, though its members publicly renounce violence.
Abdiqasim Hassan Salad, who led a failed transitional government and is attempting to form a new one, said small numbers of terrorists may be in Somalia.
"That doesn't mean that Somalia can't become a terrorist playground," he said. "We need the help of the United States of America."
11/05/03 15:29 EST