by Mark Townsend, home affairs editor
Sunday, May 02, 2010
A growing number of Britons are answering the call to jihad in Somalia and joining the ranks of militants linked to al-Qaida ahead of an American-backed drive next month to strengthen the country's army.
Sources say that the influx, which includes Britons of Pakistani origin, is heading to the Horn of Africa as the US tries to shore up Somalia's government in the face of a broadening Islamist insurgency.
Warnings have been sounded about British-based groups offering funding and expertise to individuals seeking to travel to Somalia to fight alongside al-Shabab, the militia aligned with al-Qaida's global campaign.
US State Department sources said yesterday that it had noted an influx of "foreign fighters" arriving in Somalia to swell the ranks of al-Shabab. Popular routes from Britain to Somalia involve Kenya or Djibouti, the small republic that borders Somalia on its north west. One western official said some flights to the republic had, at one stage, been dubbed the "Djibouti express" because on occasion so many young Britons were on board. The precise scale of the exodus is unclear, but "scores" of British fighters are known to have travelled to Somalia.
Concern is growing over the drip-feed of British men attending Somali training camps. Officials are keen to limit the country's potential to evolve into an alternative hideout for al-Qaida extremists from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Somalia's ungoverned spaces raise the risk, say analysts, of the country replicating Afghanistan's role as an al-Qaida safe haven when under Taliban control.
There is fresh concern over Somalia's proximity to Yemen, the Arabian peninsula base for al-Qaida. Last week the British ambassador to Yemen survived a suicide bomb attack as his convoy travelled through the capital, Sanaa. A Pentagon source said recent events meant the US was developing "significant concerns about the growing threat" in the area.
America has brought US special forces into Yemen to work with the army to try to counter the al-Qaida threat. It has also spent $6.8m in Somalia supporting training for nearly 2,000 soldiers, touted as the biggest effort to rebuild the Somalian army in 20 years.
The issue of Somalia has been repeatedly raised by Jonathan Evans, director- general of MI5. "There is no doubt that there is training activity and terrorist planning in east Africa – particularly in Somalia – which is focused on the UK," he has said.
British security sources cite the case last month of an Australian man of Somali origin who was suspected of working with al-Shabab, but who escaped from police custody in Kenya, as an example of the new wave of foreign fighters entering the country.
The movement between Somalia and the UK has led to increased efforts to detect potential terror networks linked to Islamic militants basedin east Africa. The Somali community in Britain numbers about 250,000, the largest in Europe, with the bulk of those coming to the country as refugees within the past 20 years.
Two Somali asylum-seekers were among the four men convicted of the failed attempts to bomb the London transport system on 21 July 2005.