- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

NAIROBI, KENYA (AP) - Osama bin Laden urged Somalis on Thursday to overthrow their new president, issuing a statement that clearly outlines al-Qaida’s ambitions in a nation long feared to be a haven for the terrorist network.

Bin Laden’s 11 1/2-minute audiotape was entirely focused on Somalia, an impoverished country in the Horn of Africa that has been in chaos for nearly two decades, torn apart by warlords and Islamic militant groups. In January, parliament elected President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a moderate Islamist, in hopes that he would unify the country’s factions.

“I think people who were skeptical that al-Qaida has ambition in Somalia will now have to think twice,” Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank in Nairobi told The Associated Press.

U.S. counterterrorism officials have warned of al-Qaida’s growing ties with the powerful al-Shabab group, which frequently battles government troops and militia allies and attacks African Union peacekeepers in the country. Last year, the U.S. State Department added al-Shabab, which means “the Youth,” to its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

“These are people who believe in the idea of permanent jihad and permanent war with the West,” Abdi said of al-Shabab. “Any engagement with the West is tantamount to renunciation of the faith.”

Ahmed’s election as president has been welcomed by the United Nations and Washington. His predecessor, Abdullahi Yusuf, resigned in December over his failure to stop the Islamic insurgency, and he went into exile.

In the audiotape, bin Laden told Somalia’s militants that “you are the first line of defense for the Islamic world in its southwestern part; and your patience and resolve supports your brothers in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Islamic Maghreb, Pakistan and the rest of the fields of Jihad.”

For years, Islamic militant groups have battled Somalia’s feeble U.N.-backed central government, which controls only a small part of the seaside capital, Mogadishu. All public institutions have crumbled and the once-beautiful city is now a gun-blasted shantytown. The lawlessness gripping the nation of 9.5 million people also has allowed piracy to flourish offshore in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Ahmed is a moderate from the Islamic opposition and has succeeded in drawing several other groups out of the insurgency. The aim is to isolate hard-line militants, particularly al-Shabab, which controls much of the country and has been blamed for imposing a harsh brand of Islam on the regions it controls. Rights groups say a 13-year-old girl who said she had been raped was stoned to death last year after Islamic militants accused her of adultery.

In the audiotape, bin Laden lashed out at Ahmed as a turncoat and tool of the United States, saying his election was “induced by the American envoy in Kenya,” a reference to the U.S. ambassador in Nairobi.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger had no immediate comment on the audiotape, which was the third from bin Laden this year. The last one was released on March 14.

Ahmed “turned … to partner up with the infidel” in a national unity government, bin Laden said. He accused Ahmed of abandoning his religion by entering the government.

Ahmed “must be dethroned and fought,” bin Laden said, adding that militants are obliged to “continue fighting the apostate government.”

Spokesmen for Ahmed and other Somali government officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The recording, titled “Fight on, Champions of Somalia,” was posted on an Islamic militant Web forum where al-Qaida often releases messages from bin Laden and other top leaders.

Ahmed emerges from a coalition of Islamic militants known as the Council of Islamic Courts, which brought a semblance of peace to Somalia for six months in 2006. But two years ago, troops from U.S. ally Ethiopia invaded Somalia and removed the union because of feared links to al-Qaida. Militants launched a bloody insurgency against the Ethiopians and their ally, the weak U.N.-backed central government.

Ethiopian troops withdrew in January as part of an elaborate U.N.-brokered deal to bring onboard Islamic moderates and dissident lawmakers.

Somalia is nearly 100 percent Muslim, but most of its people are moderates and chafe against rules prohibiting music, sports and even chewing qat, a narcotic leaf popular in the country.

Mogadishu resident Abdulqafar Ismail Ali said bin Laden should withdraw his call for more fighting.

“Osama should not lecture us on Islam. We are Muslims,” said Ali, 28. “We are tired of wars and hostility in Somalia. It is not the time to topple the government.”

___

Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo, Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, and Malkhadir M. Muhumed and Tom Maliti in Nairobi contributed to this report.

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