U.S. officials will likely be paying very close attention to the latest audio tape released by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden called "Fight On Champions of Somalia". Counterterrorism experts have long worried that the impoverished lawless African nation could become a safe haven for Al Qaeda terrorists. Somali insurgents have successfully recruited Americans to join in the battle there.
U.S. officials believe that a former Minneapolis resident and naturalized U.S. citizen, Shirwa Ahmed, blew himself up in a suicide bomb attack in Northern Somalia in November.
According to law enforcement and U.S. intelligence officials, as many as 20 young Somali men have traveled from the U.S. to Somalia, causing concern both among security officials and members of Somali communities.
A group of Islamic militants called al-Shabab recently gained control of much of southern and central Somalia, and U.S. officials fear that the group, which swears allegiance to bin Laden is gaining in strength. The group claims to have killed 16 government troops Wednesday in fighting in the southwestern part of the country.
Recruiting and propaganda videos that have emerged from Somalia show scenes reminiscent of the al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Recruits are seen learning guerilla warfare tactics, firing rocket propelled grenades, and building explosives. In today's tape bin Laden urged the Islamic militants to continue the fight in Somalia.
"I also encourage the sons of the Muslim Somali people to rally around and help their brothers the honest Mujahideen," said bin Laden, "and I send my appeal to the Muslim Ummah everywhere, and ask them to extend a helping hand to our family in Somalia, to meet the needs of those afflicted by famine, and to also expend their energies and wealth to back the Jihad [in it] until it is liberated from the invaders and hypocrites and the state of Islam is set up in it, Allah permitting."
Somalia has been racked by years of violence between al-Shabab Islamic insurgents and transitional governments, resulting in thousands of deaths. U.S. officials say some extremists are drawn to the lawless area to establish Sharia, or Islamic law.
There's been no real Somali government since 1992. The presence of Ethiopian troops and tanks and U.S. aid kept the transitional government in Mogadishu from collapse, but Ethiopia pulled its troops out in January as part of a peace deal with one of the insurgent factions, but the violence in Somalia has only continued.
Bin Laden made reference to the Ethiopian withdrawal in his new tape saying the country was "exhausted by your blessed Jihad."
Intelligence officials believe the tape is authentic and while bin Laden makes no direct threat to a terror act in the U.S. some worry that bin Laden would like nothing better than to pull off an attack while the economy is in crisis.