December 1, 2008 -- The impoverished, lawless country of Somalia is in danger of becoming the newest safe haven for al Qaeda, say counterterrorism experts.
A group of Islamic militants called al-Shabaab now controls much of southern and central Somalia, and U.S. officials fear that the group, which swears allegiance to Osama bin Laden, is now strong enough to take over the country's capital, Mogadishu, and defeat the weak, American-backed government there.
"U.S. security interests are gravely threatened if a country again becomes what Afghanistan used to be: a safe haven for al Qaeda, a government run by al Qaeda affiliates, and a place where al Qaeda supporters from around the world can come safely and train to get ready to launch terrorist attacks around the world," said former White House counterterrorism advisor and ABC News Consultant Richard Clarke.
There are also concerns that the Somali insurgents have recruited Americans.
U.S. law enforcement officials told Pierre Thomas of ABC News last week that former Minneapolis resident and naturalized U.S. citizen, Shirwa Ahmed, is believed to have blown himself up in a suicide bomb attack in Northern Somalia in last month. U.S. officials say more than a dozen young men from the large Somali community in Minneapolis may have already gone to Somalia to join up with militants.
"We have active al Qaeda cells recruiting these people," said Omar Jamal, a local Somali community activist and executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, in an interview with ABC's Minneapolis affiliate.
Recent al-Shabaab propaganda tapes, originally obtained by the NEFA Foundation, 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.
Another recent recruitment tape features an anonymous young man speaking with what appears to be an American accent and phrasing. "We're not fighting for tribe, or for dunia (earth), we are simply fighting for the sake of Allah and we are defending the religion of Allah," says the masked militant, speaking in English. "We have a global mission, that's why America puts us number 41 in the terrorists' list."
"These latest videos, obtained by NEFA directly from the Somali militants' web postings, represent some of the best available evidence that the Shabaab movement is deliberately aligning itself with Al-Qaida," said David Draper of the NEFA Foundation, a non-profit research organization that monitors Islamic militant groups. "Likewise, they are a disturbing confirmation that Western recruits are successfully reaching Somalia -- receiving instruction in terrorist tactics and indoctrination in violent anti-American ideals."
Former Fighters Say Many Young Somali Men Have No Choice But to Join Extremist Group
Already, the group has employed brutal tactics reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan to gain control of much of the country.
"Recently we saw the stoning and execution of a 13-year-old girl who had been raped in Southern Somalia," said Andre Le Sage, an assistant professor of counterterrorism at the African Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. "She had been prosecuted according to a rather twisted interpretation of Sharia that al Shabaab leaders want to enact."
Another video, originally obtained by a Christian news agency, shows a recent convert to Christianity being beheaded for violating the group's interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.
Former fighters now living in Kenya told ABC News that many young Somali men have no choice but to join al Shabaab.
"They say you are either supporting the Ethiopian[s] or you support us. Or if not, we'll kill you," said one former fighter. "These are the most dangerous people."
There's been no real Somali government since 1992, and only the presence of Ethiopian troops and tanks and U.S. aid has kept the transitional government in Mogadishu from collapse. Counterterrorism experts say that the deteriorating situation will force the incoming Obama administration to pay attention to Somalia.
"But Obama will not have any more options than the current administration has, and they are very few," said Clarke.