- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 21, 2001

MOGADISHU, Somalia Cash-strapped, lawless and growing in reputation as a safe haven for terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden, Somalia is struggling to reunify a fractured nation devastated by a decade of clan-based violence.
The latest crisis developed after the September 11 terrorist attacks with reports that Somali organizations had been funneling cash to bin Laden news that was expected to increase the country's financial woes.
"We had all kinds of terrorism by warlords and … some very small groups of religious fanatics … because of the absence of law in the country," President Abdiqassim Salad Hassan said in a recent interview. "But that was history … right now I don't think there are local or international terrorists in Somalia."
Mr. Hassan's 15-month-old government Somalia's first since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre has not had "any clue from the American side" as to why the Al-Barakaat financial services network, a Somali Internet company, and Al-Itihaad a secretive Islamic group that controlled pockets of Somalia in the 1990s have been tied to bin Laden.
All three appeared on U.S. lists of organizations and individuals suspected of funneling funds for bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.
What Mr. Hassan can be sure of is that closing Al-Barakaat's money networks will affect a major part of Somalia's economy, complicating chances for a successful return to stability. The company management has vehemently denied the accusations and Mr. Hassan said Al-Barakaat should be considered innocent until proven otherwise.
The business, an informal system that allows Somalis abroad to send money to their impoverished relatives back home, rakes in an estimated $500 million each year.
Mogadishu's dusty streets are ringed by bullet-ridden buildings. Heavily armed young men zoom around on the backs of pickup trucks and the rusting remains of a U.S. helicopter lie in a cactus bush a stark reminder of the fate of 18 U.S. soldiers on a peacekeeping mission there in 1993.
Mr. Hassan says his young government has little control beyond the city limits of Mogadishu, but he insists officials know what is going on in the countryside.
He denied persistent rumors that bin Laden visited the country during the 1990s, and he called for an international investigation into claims that the country harbored terrorists.
"There were very strong rumors that bin Laden was here for a very short time and he fought with the Americans," said Mohamed Qanyareh Afrah, a powerful faction leader who joined Mr. Hassan's government. "You hear rumors, but Somalis are very good rumor mongers."
Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a former bin Laden soldier, testified this year during the U.S. Embassy bombings trial that bin Laden had sent fighters to Somalia to battle U.S. troops who were part of Operation Restore Hope.
Coupled with Somalia's lawlessness and a recent U.S. crackdown on the country's private financial networks, the testimony makes the Horn of Africa nation one of the few places where bin Laden may try to seek refuge.
"Somalia is viewed, along with Yemen, as the most likely destination for bin Laden should he escape Afghanistan," said Jonathan Stevenson, an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"He thought about basing himself there in 1999," but could not trust Somalis who would put clan loyalties before any foreign organization.


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