WASHINGTON – The United States is conducting reconnaissance flights over Somalia to help determine whether the Al Qaeda terrorist group is rebuilding in the largely lawless East African country.
"We are working to ensure that Somalia is not a haven for terrorists," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday, acknowledging that the country could be a potential hideout.
Al Qaeda members, probably numbering in the dozens, have arrived in Somalia after fleeing the fighting in Afghanistan, officials said Thursday. Al Qaeda previously had a presence in the country, and also has ties to al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, a native Islamic fundamentalist movement.
Other officials said there was no convincing evidence of a substantial Al Qaeda presence in Somalia.
President Bush has pledged to go after terrorist groups with global reach but, with U.S. operations in Afghanistan still incomplete, he has declined to speculate on future targets.
The only Somalia-related action the administration has taken in its anti-terrorism campaign was a financial crackdown Bush ordered in November against al-Barakaat, a Mogadishu-based telecommunications and money-transfer company.
One official suggested that, to the extent that military force is used in Somalia, the scale would be far more modest than in Afghanistan.
All of the officials commented on the condition of anonymity.
For Al Qaeda, Somalia would seem to be a logical new base of operations. The predominantly Muslim country is essentially lawless due to the absence of a strong central authority.
"These unrecognized, lawless states like Taliban Afghanistan, Chechnya, Sierra Leone and Somalia, are a real opportunity for Islamic terrorism," said Charles Fairbanks, an analyst at Johns Hopkins University. "That's why we have to continue paying a lot of attention to them."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, without specifying Somalia, said Thursday the administration is trying to learn about potential terrorist threats through increased military intelligence gathering. He said terrorist camps have been set up in Somalia over the years, but he was uncertain whether any are operating now.
There has been increasing use of reconaissance flights over Somalia to search for camps and other indications of terrorist activities, said the officials, who declined to be more specific.
In addition, warships - either from the United States or its allies - are cruising the Somali coast, ready to board cargo vessels suspected of containing terrorists heading from Asia to Africa, they said.
Terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden has funded some activities by al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, the Islamic fundamentalist movement, officials said. Some of that group's fighters are also believed to have gone to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban.
One handicap for the administration as it seeks information in Somalia is the lack of a U.S. diplomatic presence in Mogadishu since the early 1990's. Another problem is that tribal leaders, eager for U.S. support, allege that rival factions have links to bin Laden. Sorting out these claims has been difficult.
A former Somali diplomat who lives in Washington said these groups are trying to portray themselves as the Northern Alliance of Somalia, a reference to the Afghan group that helped the United States depose the Taliban.
Last week, an Ethiopian-backed Somali group claimed the transitional government of President Abdiqasim Salad Hassan has links to terrorists who have set up bases in Somalia. It demanded that an international force be formed to destroy the bases.
The United States had a grim experience in Somalia eight years ago.
U.S. troops were sent there in late 1992 to help feed starving Somalis. But 18 were killed in 1993 in a botched mission to abduct aides to a Somali warlord who was hoarding food to gain power. That led President Clinton to order a phased withdrawal. Officials have said they believe bin Laden trained and equipped the faction responsible for the Americans' deaths.