Wednesday, June 14, 2006

An Islamist group with ties to al Qaeda is quickly solidifying its grip on parts of Somalia and moving toward setting up a Taliban-style Islamist regime in the country, according to U.S. officials familiar with events in the region.

Armed militias of the group known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) defeated a U.S.-backed group of Somali warlords called Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism last week and control large sections of Mogadishu and seized a key town yesterday.

The officials familiar with terrorism and the Horn of Africa, including some who were recently in Somalia, said the Islamists now are seeking to publicly distance themselves from al Qaeda, which also is seeking to play down its ties to the ICU to avoid provoking a military response from the United States or other nations in the region.

“We missed the center of gravity when we engaged with the warlords and did not stand up to the ICU,” one official said.

The ICU is “putting on a good face” after its military gains, the official said, warning that the ICU is engaged in a disinformation campaign that is designed to hide its true goals.

The situation in the East African country, which has not had a central government in over a decade, is fluid. Yesterday, ICU militias took over the town of Jowhar, northeast of Mogadishu, an area that was the last stronghold of the counterterrorism group warlords. The group now may focus attacks on Baidoa, where a non-Islamist Somali-led transitional government is based.

Retired Vice Adm. Scott Redd, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said at a Senate hearing Tuesday that “obviously, there have been some things going on inside Somalia.”

“I would not jump to the conclusion, however, that that means that al Qaeda now owns Somalia, by any stretch of the imagination,” said Adm. Redd, who commanded a task force that evacuated United Nations peacekeepers from Somalia in 1995.

State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Henry Crumpton, appearing with Adm. Redd at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, said last week’s rise to power of the ICU was “not anticipated.”

Mr. Crumpton said the administration is cautious about statements from the ICU that it is not an Islamist regime.

“We still have some concern because, despite their public overtures, we’re not sure what Islamic Courts really want in terms of their strategies and in terms of their relationship with al Qaeda,” he said.

Behind the scenes, the Islamic Courts group is taking steps to institute Shariah, or Islamic law, and to install an Islamist, Taliban-style government, other U.S. officials said.

The ICU’s most significant step has been to take over all schools in areas that it controls and to change the curriculum to Islamist-centered teaching.

The Bush administration decided to help the counterterrorism group of warlords against the ICU, mainly with funding, but rejected providing support for what is known as the Transitional Federal Government, or TFG, currently located in Baidoa. The TFG has some international support and controls some areas of Mogadishu, but lacks forces sufficient to challenge the ICU on its own, the officials said.

That government includes Hussein Mohamed Farrah, a pro-Western former U.S. Marine and son of the late Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who fought U.S. military forces in the early 1990s during the failed U.S. humanitarian operation. Aidid’s forces were behind the deadly 1993 shootout in Mogadishu that led to the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers and up to 1,000 Somalis.

The U.S. Central Command currently has several hundred troops, including special operations commandos, in Djibouti as part of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.

Intelligence reports from the region indicate that the ICU has close ties to a small group of al Qaeda terrorists who are left over from the terrorist cell that launched the 1998 operation to bomb the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The al Qaeda cell is providing advice to the ICU and is helping facilitate support for the group from radical Wahhabi Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere, the officials said.

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