- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 6, 2001

MOGADISHU, Somalia In the sprawling Bakara market here, a few posters of Osama bin Laden can be spotted on shop walls, but they don't come close to matching the many posters of soccer stars.
While bin Laden may not command much attention among Somali citizens, Somalia is coming under increasing scrutiny. As the Taliban's hold on Afghan territory dwindles, the United States is looking to this east African country as a place where the leader of the al Qaeda network might try to flee.
Bush administration officials have indicated that Somalia may be a target for future military attacks, because al Qaeda has used it as a training base and because bin Laden has traveled here in the past.
This anarchic nation in the Horn of Africa might seem the ideal hideout for bin Laden and his cohorts. Ten years of civil war have left its lengthy coastline unprotected, its interior virtually lawless and its economy in shambles.
The question is: Would Somalia provide a haven for bin Laden today? Diplomats and analysts say probably not.
The United States has posted a $25 million reward on his head. In a country where secrets are not kept easily and people barely can afford to eat, the lure of a bounty would make the suspected terrorist mastermind vulnerable, says one Western diplomat.
"The only reason he'd go [to Somalia] is if he had absolutely nowhere else to go. He'd be sold out in five minutes."
Nevertheless, Somalia keeps coming up when American officials talk about terrorism.
[Agence France Presse reports that Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino suggested in Rome on Tuesday that U.S.-led military strikes on Somalia were likely if it were determined that Italy's former African colony was harboring terrorists.
["If nests of terrorists are uncovered in Somalia, one can suppose that there will be military activity," Mr. Martino told the ANSA news agency. "But Italy does not know at the moment if it will be called on to make a contribution."
[He said he did not expect requests for military assistance in any Somalia operation beyond providing intelligence. Italy already has committed nearly 3,000 troops in addition to ships and warplanes to the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.
[Yesterday in Nairobi, a Washington official told the Kenyan government the United States is investigating possible links between bin Laden and groups in Somalia.
[According to a statement by Kenya's Foreign Ministry, visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Walter Kansteiner made the remark to Kenya's Foreign Minister Marsden Madoka.
[Mr. Kansteiner reportedly said the Bush administration was waiting for reports from "some lobby groups" that had agreed to provide information about extremist groups in Somalia and would then decide on what action to take.
[Reuters news agency quoted U.S. Embassy officials in Nairobi as saying they know of no evidence that bin Laden's al Qaeda network is linked to any militant groups in Somalia.
[Independent Somali experts in Nairobi doubt the Americans could find military targets in Somalia if they wanted to undertake some kind of strike. Washington put the Somali group al Itihaad al Islamiya (Islamic Unity) on its list of terrorist groups after the September 11 attacks, but the Nairobi analysts say the group largely ceased military activities after a series of reverses in the 1990s, and its training camps are thought to have been largely dismantled.]
"The Somali people are surprised to see the Western media give such attention to the unfounded allegation that there are al Qaeda bases here," said Abdiqassim Salad Hassan, president of Somalia's interim government. "Since 1995, there has been no donor or Western power in this country. That's why they know nothing about what's going on."
Indeed, much of what is known about al Ittihad stems from the early 1990s, and the narrative given by outside intelligence sources matches what Somalis say. The group organized itself amid the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, with the goal of setting up an Islamic state. It established militia training camps on Ras Kamboni island near the Kenyan border and near the port of Bosaaso in the northeast.
At various times, it controlled port facilities along the Somali coast and the administration of Gedo, a region in the southwest, providing it with revenue.
The most serious accusations of terrorism came in 1996, when al Ittihad was blamed for bombing hotels and restaurants in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Ethiopian troops crossed the border later that year, and with allied militia, reportedly routed al Ittihad forces.
It is not clear whether al Ittihad remains a terrorist group of any significance today.
Regional diplomats will go no further than to say it has "influence" within the justice system in Mogadishu and within the government of Puntland, the breakaway northeastern region of Somalia. They also say al Qaeda gave the group money when it ran into rough times in recent years.
"They've integrated themselves into Somali society," said another Western diplomat, explaining that the group's members run businesses and provide social services. "They're trying to attract followers so they can eventually achieve an Islamic state." The United States has overstated al Ittihad's strength as a terrorist group, said Mr. Abdiqassim.
"We know of al Ittihad individuals who are present in Mogadishu," he said, adding that they preach in mosques and run a few Koranic schools. "Those are all their activities. We will not allow them to engage in terrorist acts."
If there's one person in Mogadishu who should take al Ittihad seriously, it is Ibrahim Sheikh Mohammed. The doctor and peace activist has had bodyguards for the past three years since members of the group issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for his execution after he told worshippers at a mosque that many Islamic scholars believe women and men are equal.
But Mr. Ibrahim says al Ittihad no longer exists as a functioning group. "They don't have any organized presence," he said. "I don't think they now constitute any terrorist threat to America or to any other nation."
Accusations of a Somalia connection to bin Laden have been around for years, stemming as far back as the ill-fated U.S. peacekeeping operation in the country initiated by then-President George Bush. U.S. investigators say that some members of the Somali militia that shot down two Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 American commandos in an October 1993 raid in Mogadishu had received training from al Qaeda.
One of the present interim government's major opponents, who says the Somali government harbors terrorists, is faction leader Hussein Aideed, whose warlord father was the target of that raid.
"If [Hussein Aideed] had the chance to be president tomorrow, he would say Somalia has never had al Qaeda or terrorists," said Abdi Hassan Awaale, Mogadishu's police chief and a member of Mr. Abdiqassim's counterterrorism task force.

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