Foreign fighters are moving in, U.S. says. Lawless lands are ripe for al-Qaida, general warns.
By Lolita C. Baldor
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
WASHINGTON (AP) —- Growing evidence indicates battle-hardened extremists are filtering out of safe havens along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and into eastern Africa, bringing sophisticated terrorist tactics that include suicide attacks.
The alarming shift, according to U.S. military and counterterrorism officials, is fueling concern that Somalia is increasingly on a path to become the next Afghanistan —- a sanctuary where al-Qaida-linked groups could train and plan attacks against the West.
So far, officials say the number of foreign fighters who have moved from southwest Asia to the Horn of Africa is small, perhaps two to three dozen.
But a similarly small cell of militant plotters was responsible for the devastating 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. And the cluster of militants now believed to be operating in the region could pass on sophisticated attack techniques gleaned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
"There is a level of activity that is troubling, disturbing," Gen. William "Kip" Ward, head of U.S. Africa Command, said. "When you have these vast spaces that are just not governed, it provides a haven … for training to occur."
Ward said U.S. officials already are seeing extremist factions in eastern Africa sharing information and techniques.
Military and counterterrorism officials cautioned that the movements of the al-Qaida militants do not suggest they are abandoning the ungoverned Pakistan border region as a safe haven. Instead, the shift is viewed as an expansion of al-Qaida's influence in a region already rife with home-grown militants.
Last month, Osama bin Laden made it clear in a newly released audiotape that al-Qaida has set its sights on Somalia, urging Somalis to overthrow their new moderate Islamist president and to support their jihadist "brothers" in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestinian territories and Iraq.
In the past, officials said, suicide attacks tended to be frowned on by African Muslims, creating something of an impediment to al-Qaida's efforts to sell that aspect of its terrorism tactics.
But on Oct. 29, 2008, suicide bombers killed more than 20 people in five attacks in Somalia, targeting a U.N. compound, the Ethiopian Consulate, the presidential palace in the autonomous Somaliland region and two intelligence facilities in Puntland.
The coordinated assaults, officials said, were a watershed moment, suggesting a new level of sophistication and training.
Ward said U.S. Africa Command is working to improve security in eastern Africa. But meanwhile, he said, the ties between the terror groups are continuing to grow.
"I think they're all a threat," Ward said of both the foreign and African militants. "Right now it's clearly a threat that the Africans have, but in today's global society that threat can be exported anywhere with relative ease."