NAIROBI, Kenya – A new and ruthless cell with links to Al Qaeda (search) has grabbed a foothold in Somalia's capital, according to a report released Monday that dovetails with other analyses showing the lawless country could become a haven for international terrorists.
In its report, the International Crisis Group (search) said the Mogadishu cell was led by a young Somali militant trained in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda was once based. The report said the group "announced its existence by murdering four foreign aid workers in the relatively secure territory of Somaliland between October 2003 and April 2004."
The Brussels-based group that tracks world conflicts said the threat of terrorism inspired by an extremist interpretation of Islam "in and from Somalia is real." It added that Al Qaeda contributed to attacks on U.S. and U.N. peacekeepers in Somalia in the early 1990s and used the country as a transit zone for attacks in neighboring Kenya and as a hiding place for some of its leading members today.
Somalia has been without a central government since clan-based warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre (search) in 1991. Warlords then turned on each other, plunging the Horn of Africa nation of 7 million into anarchy.
A new transitional government was formed last year during peace talks in neighboring Kenya, but the administration has failed to relocate to Mogadishu (search) because the city is considered unsafe.
The government is also opposed by Islamic extremists and some of the dozens of warlords who control some of the 53,000 militias in the country.
In March, United Nations experts monitoring an arms embargo on Somalia reported that Islamic hard-liners, including a group with alleged ties to Al Qaeda, was importing high explosives, mines, hand and rifle-fired grenades, anti-tank weapons and ammunition and anti-aircraft guns and ammunition.
The U.N. monitors said they had pictures and information that about 17 mobile military training camps have been established by the Islamic Somali group, Al-Ittihad al-Islami, which wants to use its military power against the new government to impose Islamic law on Somali society.
Al-Ittihad, listed by the United States as a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda, operates openly as a religious organization and is a powerful economic force in southern Somalia.
In the latest assessment, the International Crisis Group did not identify the Mogadishu cell, but said it is led by led by Aden Hashi Ayro. Its members had "little or no religious authority ... [and] seem to be organized exclusively to conduct urban insurgency and terrorism operations without a clear political aim," the group said.
The International Crisis Group said Western governments, led by the U.S., were building up counterterrorist networks headed by Somali faction leaders and former military or police and by working with the security services in breakaway Somaliland and semiautonomous Puntland.
The strategy has netted at least one key Al Qaeda figure, and as many as a dozen members of the new group are either dead or behind bars, according to the group.
In May, the then-commander of a U.S. counterterrorism task force for the Horn of Africa said Somalia has become a haven for terrorists in East Africa. Marine Maj. Gen. Samuel Helland said U.S. troops were working with Somalia's neighbors to improve their border security since pressure on the Al Qaeda terror group in Pakistan and Afghanistan may force some members to seek refuge in East Africa.