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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Foreign Fighters Influence Increasing in Somalia

Isria: In Somalia, recent terrorist attacks in Baidoa and reports of foreigners training and fighting alongside Islamic court militias have raised serious questions about whether the country's increasingly powerful Islamist leadership poses a threat to regional peace and security. Last month's suicide car bombings, which targeted the president of Somalia's U.N.-backed secular interim government in Baidoa, shook many Somalis, who had never seen such acts committed on their soil before. It is still not clear who carried out the unsuccessful assassination attempt. But interim government leaders blame al-Qaida and its sympathizers inside the Islamic courts. Islamist leaders in Mogadishu deny any involvement in the attack, but they lost much of their credibility, last week, when Islamists acknowledged foreign fighters linked to al-Qaida helped them seize the strategic southern port city, Kismayo. In a rare public appearance, the Islamists' top military chief Aden Hashi Ayro, who is believed to have been trained in terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, reportedly told residents in Kismayo that foreign fighters would now be a part of the Islamist militia in Somalia.

A senior analyst with U.S.-based Power and Interest News Report Michael Weinstein, says, if there were any questions about the existence of radical hardliners in the Islamic courts, these latest incidents have erased all doubt. "The car bombing in Baidoa - and this is not a part of Somali resistance culture - does mean that there has been a change. I am reaching the conclusion that there definitely is what I call an Islamic revolutionary wing," said Weinstein. "I do not like to call them terrorists because terrorism is a tactic. But I call them Islamic revolutionaries because I think that is exactly what they are." Since riding a wave of popular support to oust factional leaders in Mogadishu in June, some senior members of Somalia's Islamic courts have been dogged by allegations that their true aim for the country is not to unite it under Islamic sharia law and bring law and order, but to turn Somalia into a haven for Muslim extremism.

In the 1990s, the Islamist group's supreme leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, headed a militant Somali Islamic organization called al-Itiyaad al-Islamiya, which is believed to have received support from al-Qaida. Aweys is still on a U.S. list of terror suspects. In recent months, young militants in Mogadishu, loyal to Islamist military chief Aden Hashi Ayro, have formed a shadowy extremist group known as "Shaabab." Shaabab's exact role is unclear, but many people in the capital say members were hand-picked by Ayro and are being trained, possibly by foreigners, to carry out terrorist acts. If al-Qaida fighters are operating in Somalia, it would not be the first time. In 1993, 18 U.S. Army Rangers were killed in a battle in Mogadishu, after Somalis shot down two Blackhawk helicopters. Three years later, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden boasted that some of his fighters fought alongside Somali factional militiamen. But Michael Weinstein says al-Qaida's reported involvement in Somalia now poses a much greater threat.

"I think it is more serious of a problem than it was then because you are carrying along a lot of popular support with this [Islamist] movement, which can allow it to provide cover for more international revolutionary elements," he said. Meanwhile, reports of foreign fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Muslim countries streaming into Somalia are causing anxiety for ordinary Somalis, neighboring countries and the West. In a report to the United Nations Security Council last week, a U.N. monitoring team stated that it had received reports of Afghanistan's Taleban fighters being trained in Somalia. In an interview with VOA in May, the then-chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, vehemently denied the presence of any foreign fighters in Somalia and said that none would ever be welcomed by the courts. Italy's special envoy to Somalia, Mario Raffaelli, says it is possible what Ahmed said may have been sincere. He says he believes the Islamic court has never been a unified group - split internally among moderates who follow Ahmed and hardliners allied with Aweys. "We knew this from the beginning," he said. "It was very clear that the Islamist movement in Mogadishu was made up of different components and these people, the Shaabab people, are probably the most radical in the movement." Nairobi-based regional analyst Matt Bryden says he believes the internal battle is intensifying and it is still far from clear which side will emerge as the victor.

"The courts themselves are in a process of transition and reorganization and this process is still playing itself out," said Bryden. "I think we will not have a clear idea of how they are organized and who their leaders are going to be at various levels for several more weeks." Analysts say an important factor that may influence, if not decide, the outcome of the power struggle is the Somali people themselves. Many Somalis have deep roots in the traditionally liberal practices of Sunni Islam. Thousands of Somalis in Kismayo and elsewhere in the country have protested against the harsh, ultra-conservative Wahabi brand of Islam being imposed on them by some leaders in the courts.
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