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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

U.S. counterterrorism work stumbles in Somalia

NAIROBI, Sept 14 (Reuters) - These days, no one in Mogadishu seems to see the planes and drones suspected of flying U.S. surveillance runs over the Somali city.

Once reported regularly in a city synonymous with anarchy, residents say the flights peaked earlier this year as warlords who ruled through extortion, murder and muscle fought against Islamist militias.

"I think they used to take pictures, especially of mosques and places where they used to suspect al Qaeda were hiding, as the warlords used to tell them," said Mohamed Ibrahim, 24, who works in an Islamic bookstore in Somalia's capital.

The flights by unmarked aircraft have hardly been seen since June 5, when the Islamists routed U.S.-backed secular warlords who said they were fighting their own "war on terror."

"Maybe they fear they might be shot down because American hatred has doubled here with the Islamists' victory, mainly due to their support for the warlords," Ibrahim said.

The United States has never confirmed or denied its backing for the warlords or whether it was behind the flights, but security experts say both were part of Washington's push against terrorists in the east and Horn of Africa.

Somalia has long worried Washington because of fears its coastline could be exploited by militants posing a threat to U.S. interests and looking for a gateway into east Africa.

But instead of helping to clamp down on the terrorists it believes are in Somalia, recent U.S. actions have produced the opposite effect.

"America is totally wrong on its policy in Somalia. We are Muslims who want to govern ourselves using our own sharia law," said Abdi Nur, who sells watches and lenses in Mogadishu's sprawling Bakara market.

"It funded the warlords to massacre us here. Thank God to the (Islamists) for ejecting the American associates who wanted to sell their motherland at a throwaway price."


Anti-Americanism has deep and bloody roots in Somalia, where the United States tasted humiliation during 1993's "Black Hawk Down" incident in which 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis were killed.

But even in U.S. ally Kenya, hit by al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. embassy in 1998 and at a coastal resort hotel four years later, the U.S. counterterrorism drive has hit snags. A 2003 counterterrorism law has been held up because of opposition from Muslim groups, a key voting bloc for 2007 polls.

Kenya and the United States have a common security interest in Somalia, as there is evidence the perpetrators of the 2002 attack found sanctuary in the lawless vacuum that has existed since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

Intervening on the losing side in an arena used by regional powers to fight larger battles dropped Washington into a volatile mix, analysts say.

By silently backing top counterterrorism ally Ethiopia, Washington by proxy is now up against a coalition including Sudan, Egypt and Djibouti, all trying to counter Addis Ababa's influence by backing its rival Eritrea.

Eritrea in turn supports Somalia's Islamists, according to a U.N. Security Council report that Asmara has rejected.

"It looks like the U.S. is there with Ethiopia and no one else, so the strategy based on cooperation with all the countries in the Horn is in shambles," said Michael Weinstein, a political science professor at Purdue University and analyst with the Power and Influence News Report.

That, Weinstein said, has made the work of the U.S. military's Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, set up in Djibouti in 2002 to fight terrorism, that much harder.

The 1,500-strong force is supposed to foster a common security policy through military training and cooperation, as well as civilian work like building schools and digging wells in poor areas where terrorists could find sympathy.

But all that may be for naught, Weinstein said. "The Horn of Africa is so divided that nothing the U.S. can do would work to bring them together."


Washington and Addis Ababa are deeply suspicious of the Islamists who now rule a swathe of south-central Somalia through strict sharia, or Islamic law, because its leadership includes Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys.

A hardline cleric who led the military arm of the Somali extremist al-Itihaad al-Islaami group against Ethiopia in the 1990s, the United States and United Nations have put him on lists of terrorism associates. Aweys denies any al Qaeda links.

One regional analyst who declined to be named said Washington is out of options in Somalia, because attacking Aweys and his allies would make the nation of 10 million a destination for foreign jihadis.

"And since there is nothing to blow up in Somalia, they will attack Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Djibouti and elsewhere," the analyst said.

Already, Washington says it has evidence that a Somali al-Itihaad leader, trained in Afghanistan, performed surveillance in preparation for an attack on the Horn of Africa Task Force base at Camp LeMonier in Djibouti.

Little noticed among the list of 14 key suspects the United States said earlier this month it had transferred from secret prisons to Cuba's Guantanamo Bay, was Gouled Hassan Dourad, 32.

He is accused of helping al Qaeda operatives find safe houses, move money and buy weapons in Somalia.
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