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A Neglected Somalia Seen as Extremist Haven

A region flooded with weapons and beleaguered by porous borders, endemic poverty and government corruption, the Horn of Africa poses a persistent terrorist threat.
Melody Kokoszka, NPR
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A region flooded with weapons and beleaguered by porous borders, endemic poverty and government corruption, the Horn of Africa poses a persistent terrorist threat.

The volatile Horn of Africa region is where al Qaeda first made its mark, including the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa and the 2000 suicide attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen.

Intelligence and military sources believe some of the terrorists involved in those attacks fled to Somalia. The nation of 10 million remains in turmoil with no workable government and no rule of law. Many fear the continued instability makes Somalia a safe haven and transit point for weapons, cash and foot soldiers used by Islamic extremists.

"Somalia is the one who's exporting instability," says U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Timothy Ghormley, who commands a combined military task force on the Horn of Africa. "Somalia is the failed state."

Eric Westervelt has the first in a five-part series — "The Quiet Front" — looking at the threat of terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

The prospects for peace and stability in Somalia are bleak. The 14th attempt in 15 years at creating a Somali government is falling apart. Established in Kenya a year ago, the "transitional federal government" comprised of warlords returned to Somalia earlier this year.

In the chaotic and strange world of Somali politics, the fledgling interim government is poised to do battle with itself. The "cabinet ministers" who control the capital, Mogadishu, are preparing for a violent showdown with other members of the cabinet, now based in the small city Jowhar.

In the power vacuum and instability, some intelligence, military and regional experts believe, Somalia has become a bigger base for Islamic extremists. Some of the recent violence in Somalia — including assassinations and kidnappings — has been blamed on a small, new homegrown Somali Jihadist group that has sprung up in the last two years, according to several regional sources.

This elusive and brutal group has ideological and loose operational ties to al Qaeda, says Matt Bryden, the Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group. "This group may be a problem not just for Somalia but also for the region," he says. "It doesn't take a lot of them to be able to mount a crippling terrorist attack against one of the neighboring countries."

The United States has remained unwilling to get involved with Somalia since the early 1990s. The estrangement followed the deaths in 1993 of 18 U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu at the hands of a militia loyal to warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid.

Ted Dange, a Horn of Africa expert at the Congressional Research Service, says U.S. policy in Somalia remains one of neglect. "Active U.S. engagement is really critical and that has been absent for a while," he says. "It's going to make it very difficult to establish any kind of entity that would help us effectively fight the threat of terrorism."

The U.S. military is working along Somalia's borders: civil affairs units are drilling wells and building schools for Somalia's neighbors to try to build trust and restrain the exportation of anarchy. It's a policy that echoes the Cold War containment strategy against the Soviet Union.

Teresa Whalen, the Defense Department's top African Affairs official, says this policy is a "temporary fix" for the problem of Somalia.

But there's continued concern in military and intelligence circles that this "temporary fix" is dangerously negligent in a post-Sept. 11 world.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.