NAIROBI, Kenya – The United States is backing a new coalition of Somali militants fighting Islamic extremists for control of the lawless nation’s capital, a U.S. official said, as both sides prepared for a battle that could explode in widespread violence.
Clan leaders have put aside their traditional rivalries to take on the extremists, whom they describe as terrorists. The extremists, though, say they can offer unity and order after decades of chaos in Somalia.
Residents say both sides have recently received an infusion of cash and weapons as they face off for control of the country, which has had no central government since warlords divided it into clan-based fiefdoms in 1991.
The State Department said in March that the U.S. government was concerned about “al-Qaida fugitives responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam (in Tanzania) and the November 2002 bombing of a tourist hotel and attack on a civilian airliner in Kenya, who are believed to be operating in and around Somalia.”
While there have been numerous reports of al-Qaida bombers hiding in the Horn of Africa nation, only recently have they been reportedly involved in fighting alongside Somali extremists.
A U.S. official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said prominent al-Qaida leaders with large cash bounties on their heads are under the protection of the extremist leaders in Mogadishu. He did not name them, but eight men wanted in the embassy bombings are on the FBI most wanted list.
The same official, who monitors the situation in Somalia, also repeated the long-standing U.S. policy of working with anyone who is ready to cooperate in the fight against al-Qaida, adding that U.S. officials had made contact with a wide range of Somalis. He declined to say what kind of support the U.S. was supplying.
Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi told AP that the alliance of clan leaders fighting the Islamic group was not acting on his authority, though he said his government was cooperating with the United States.
“As far as I know the U.S. government is leading the fight against terrorism and we are certainly a part of that process,” he said. He declined to elaborate.
The U.S. has long worried about al-Qaida and other terrorist groups finding a haven in Somalia. For years, though, clan rivalries may have kept outsiders from gaining a foothold. The Islamic extremists appear to be capitalizing on the Somali people’s frustration with disorder and instability.
Hassan Dahir Aweys, a religious leader and retired army officer whom the U.S. government says has connections to al-Qaida, has emerged within the last year as the leader of a new group, the Union of Islamic Courts. The group has recently acquired a large arsenal and a skilled militia.
“Islam is itself a policy which God created for the people to rule each other,” Aweys told the AP. “We will have to liberate our people from these warlords who have been shedding our people’s blood for the past 15 years.”
Aweys does not deny past contacts with Osama bin Laden, but says he has no links now with bin Laden or al-Qaida.
A U.N. report on violations of the Somalia arms embargo said that Aweys has been receiving weapons from a nearby country, but did not identify it or the source of the money to pay for them.
Last month, the Islamic union’s forces beat back militiamen loyal to warlords who have held power for most of the last 15 years and have joined the new government. The Islamic union’s forces captured a small airport and a strategic road to the vital El-Ma’an port, through which almost all trade with Mogadishu passes.
The four days of fighting left more than 80 people dead and 200 injured.
Since then, hundreds of heavily armed Islamic fighters have been building defensive positions in Mogadishu, residents said. They have threatened to kill anyone who cooperates with non-Muslims and several high-profile intellectuals have been slain for their contacts with Westerners, so witnesses agreed to speak with the AP only on condition they were not named.
Residents also said that they were stockpiling food and water in anticipation of a major battle.
Aweys, who went into hiding following the Sept. 11 attacks and only re-emerged in August 2005, has condemned the new United Nations-backed transitional government. The top Cabinet members are a who’s who of former warlords, but the transitional government has taken control only of a small portion of the nation of 7 million.
In an apparent response to the Islamic extremist challenge, several key warlords in the new government have formed the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism.
Hussein Gutaleh Ragheh, the alliance’s spokesman, said the group’s goal is to capture known al-Qaida members who have come to Somalia from Sudan, Yemen and other countries.
“We’re not fighting against any tribe or clan, we’re hunting down a few terrorists who are hiding among our people,” he said.
“We know that these terrorists are using some Somalis after brainwashing them … to kill the innocent, the intellectuals and the former military officials of the country under the pretext that they work for foreigners,” he added.
In a few months, the alliance has gone from a disparate group of clan-based warriors to one of the most powerful militias in Somalia. Residents of alliance-held areas report trucks full of new weapons arriving from neighboring Ethiopia for the anti-extremist alliance. The source of the weapons was not clear.
Ali Garaare, an alliance commander, said hundreds of new fighters have joined the force.
“Our leaders used to pay us $60 dollars (a month), but after the formation of the new anti-terrorism alliance they increased our salary to $160,” Garaare said.
Most Somalis live on less than $1 a day and the country has few natural resources, making it one of the poorest countries on earth.
Somalis with connections to the alliance have said that U.S. officials have frequently visited Mohamed Dhere, a governor in the new administration, and other alliance leaders.
Aweys said he believes they are CIA agents who have financed the alliance’s sudden increase in cash, a rumor widely accepted among Somalis.
The CIA declined to comment on any matter concerning Somalia.
There have also been rumors of U.S. troops from neighboring Djibouti operating in Somalia. The U.S. official said the reports of military personnel in Somalia are untrue, but would not go any further.
The official did say that U.S. officials have met with many community leaders and provided them with information about al-Qaida suspects living in Somalia and have asked them to expel such people from the country.
Dhere, who along with other alliance leaders declined to speak to the AP, told his troops on Monday to prepare for battle.
“You must prepare yourselves for a real war against terrorism,” local journalists quoted him as saying in the central town of Jowhar.
“When you cut a camel’s neck, you know it struggles for its life as it kicks everywhere, and that’s what these terrorists are doing … get ready for your last blow against terrorism, we will have to eradicate them from our Somali soil.”