NAIROBI, Kenya – A surge in the power of Islamic fundamentalist warlords in Somalia is raising fears that the Horn of Africa nation could follow the path of Taliban Afghanistan into the hands of Al Qaeda, despite Western efforts to stop it.
Similarities with pre-9/11 Afghanistan abound: strict Islamic courts, public executions, strong anti-Western sentiment and a failed central government. As in Afghanistan, fundamentalists are winning public support by promising a chaos-weary public that they'll impose order.
Wary of the threat from so-called "failed states," the United States has boosted its presence in the Horn of Africa. The Pentagon placed a military task force in Djibouti, just north of Somalia.
The Bush administration has avoided direct action in Somalia — perhaps because of the failures of the last intervention in the early 1990s, including the deaths of 18 servicemen in a 1993 battle made famous by the book and film "Black Hawk Down."
But U.S. efforts to influence Somalia indirectly through proxies are now stirring debate and angst even among secular-minded Somalis.
"I believe in the idea of fighting the terrorists, because terrorism has no room in Islam, the religion of peace," said Osmail Mo'alin Ahmed, a teacher in Mogadishu, where frequent battles are erupting between secular militias and those allied with Islamic extremism. "But the U.S. should not place such a responsibility with ruthless warlords."
Musse Sudi Yalahow, a secular warlord and commerce minister in Somalia's near-powerless central government, said Somalia is critical ground in the war on terror and that's why he has joined an anti-terror alliance.
"Somalia must not be another Afghanistan or a transit point for terrorist attacks in neighboring countries," he said. Fighting between his Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism and the Islamic fundamentalists, known as the Islamic Court Union, has left more than 220 people dead since March in two major battles for control of Mogadishu.
Yalahow declined to answer when asked if he had received U.S. financial support, but broadly asked for it.
"I call upon the U.S. government and the international community to support our alliance's bid to hand over the foreign terrorists linked to the Al Qaeda terror network who are being sheltered in Mogadishu," Yalahow told The Associated Press. "One of our main aims is to seize one of Usama bin Laden's aides," a man Yalahow said was in Mogadishu.
U.S. officials refuse to confirm or deny financing the alliance, instead only broadly confirming contacts with many groups.
"We certainly have active efforts working with the international community and working across a spectrum of Somalis to make sure that Somalia isn't a safe haven for terrorism," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "We have a real interest in counterterrorism efforts in Somalia."
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said recently that three Al Qaeda leaders indicted in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania are being sheltered by Islamic leaders in Mogadishu. The same Al Qaeda cell is believed responsible for the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya that killed 15 people and a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991, when clan warlords overthrew the government and divided the country into fiefdoms. The ensuing humanitarian crisis led President George H.W. Bush to order troops there in 1992.
The U.N., which left Somalia in 1995, recently helped Somali leaders meet in neighboring Kenya and form a government. Divided and weak, it has begged for political, financial and military support but its influence in Somalia covers just a few towns.
The transitional government includes members of the secular alliance. But other members of the government, which is based in Baidoa, 140 miles northwest of Mogadishu, have close ties to extremists.
Mohamed Omar Habeb, a secular commander better known as Mohamed Dhere, has accused 70 members of Somalia's new 275-seat parliament of being Islamic extremists. He said that was why the alliance was in contact with U.S. officials and was acting against Islamic militants without waiting for the new government's permission.
The Islamic leaders, including Hassan Dahir Aweys, who the U.S. government says has connections to al-Qaida, accuse the secular warlords of taking money from the CIA and creating anarchy.
Ironically, creation of the interim government has fueled the surge in violence. Somalia's clans and warlords are competing for influence as the government slowly gains international recognition.
Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center based in St. Paul, Minn., said the U.S. government needs to fully support the interim government, instead of individual warlords, or risk losing the goodwill most Somalis still have toward the United States.
"The current U.S. policy toward Somalia is creating more instability, more confusion and more backlash," he said. "It creates a sympathy and turns the Somali people into sympathizers for al-Qaida."
Although brutal, the Islamic courts, with their own militias, have been the only judicial authority in the country, he said.
They have meted out traditional justice, including public executions and amputations, much like the Taliban.
In a case last month, the 17-year-old son of a murder victim was ordered to stab the convicted perpetrator to death with a knife in front of hundreds of spectators in Mogadishu.
While similarities to Afghanistan exist, there also are important differences, Jamal said.
For example, public support for Islamic justice is fragile. The government has the chance to supplant the extremists before they become too powerful because most Somalis remain suspicious of strident forms of Islam, which clash with their traditional Sufi Muslim practices, he said.
Leaders of the secular alliance, though, are blamed for keeping the country in anarchy. Among them is Mohamed Hassan Awale, the former spokesman for the militia that shot down the Black Hawk helicopter in 1993.
Continued U.S. backing of the alliance could turn "the whole country into a terrorist base," Jamal warned.
William Rosenau, a terrorism and intelligence expert at the RAND Corp. research firm, said he too saw little chance that the U.S. could successfully influence Somali politics.
Rosenau warned that the United States is playing "a very dangerous game."
"If you get it wrong, and your fingerprints are on it, it can really have bad consequences for U.S. foreign policy," he said.
But while policy makers are concerned about "a new Afghanistan," he said the motive for contact with the warlords would probably be the chance to capture the three Al Qaeda suspects in the 1998 bombings.
"A lot of our approach to counterterrorism is very, very tactical. It's about getting specific individuals," he said. "In some ways, that is a less troubling approach than going in and trying to shape Somali politics because there seems to be a very remote chance of success there for outsiders."