Is U.S. Government Looking For Next Threat?
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Afghanistan is near the top of the list when it comes to priorities in the Bush administration's war on terror. But some intelligence insiders worried that the concentration of resources on front-burner places such as Afghanistan has left other dangerous spots uncovered. Take Somalia. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports there's mounting concern that Somalia's vast, unpatrolled coastline, unsecured borders and lack of central government add up to a perfect storm.
MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:
On a brisk morning this past February, the leaders of the CIA, the FBI and other intelligence agencies assembled in a Senate hearing room. They were there to deliver their annual assessment of global threats facing the US. Their testimony ranged over familiar territory from Iraq to North Korea to Iran, but Senator Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, used his round of questions to focus on a place largely off the intelligence radar, Africa.
Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): The whole prospect of the concept that this is the next great threat, that being something called a failed continent--a failed continent because we are consumed by challenges in Iraq necessarily, Afghanistan and other world hot spots.
KELLY: CIA Director Porter Goss sat listening, then pronounced the senator's assessment of Africa right on the mark.
Mr. PORTER GOSS (Director, CIA): I think it is a rich seedbed for people who have mission on their mind to go and try and recruit people. We have found that, and we are making efforts there.
KELLY: Among the most troubled spots on a troubled continent is Somalia on the tip of the Horn of Africa, a country of some eight million people with no central government since 1991. Anarchy has been more or less the rule since, and the result is a safe haven for terrorists. That's the recent assessment of Major General Samuel Helland, who spent the last year in neighboring Djibouti as head of a US counterterrorism task force. Other US officials who have spent time in Somalia describe it as an intelligence black hole.
Ms. GAYLE SMITH (Former National Security Council Official): It's a place where if you were a member of a terrorist network and wanted to take a break or go undercover for six weeks to work on some plans, train a couple people, it's a good place to go.
KELLY: Gayle Smith ran the Africa desk at the National Security Council from '98 to 2000. She says US intelligence on Africa as a whole is, quote, "woefully weak and limited," and she says Somalia poses specific problems.
Ms. SMITH: It's more challenging because language skills are limited. I mean, we all know that we have far too few Arabic speakers. Let me tell you, the number of Somali speakers is not very significant.
KELLY: Garrett Jones has firsthand experience of the intelligence challenges posed by Somalia. He was the CIA station chief in Mogadishu in 1993, when 18 US soldiers died in the fiasco described in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down." Jones left the CIA in '97, and says he has no direct knowledge of current intelligence operations in Africa, but he believes there's no question the agency is suffering from having to monitor Somalia through second- and third-hand sources. The CIA shut down its Somalia office in the mid-'90s.
Mr. GARRETT JONES (Former CIA Chief, Mogadishu, Somalia): We don't have a station there; it's too dangerous. And when you have a situation where you have to essentially operate from another country, it's always harder. It's simply a matter of if you're not there, you're not as well plugged in and you're not as knowledgeable.
KELLY: Even so Jones believes it's unlikely that swarms foreign al-Qaeda-linked terrorists are currently roaming around Somalia. In part, Jones says, that's because a collapsed state such as Somalia is actually less terrorist-friendly than a merely weak state. In Somalia, there are too many warlords to bribe as opposed to one central, if corrupt, government. Garrett Jones says another factor is Somalis are more focused on fighting each other than joining a global anti-American jihad.
Mr. JONES: The Somalis are kind of inward-looking people right now in this time in their history. They're feuding with each other, and the world is sort of not the first thing on their agenda. Now it could really become a problem, but right now if you want me to guess, I think it's too chaotic for even al-Qaeda to operate in.
KELLY: In a recent interview in his office, Senator Rockefeller conceded that even in a post-9/11 world, intelligence resources are finite and already stretched thin covering targets like Iraq and Iran. And he admits that stepping up counterterrorism efforts in Somalia is a particularly hard sell given lingering US queasiness over the "Black Hawk Down" incident. But Rockefeller urges people to look at the big picture.
Sen. ROCKEFELLER: Americans just at this point are now turning a little bit away from the war on terrorism towards their own needs at home. And yet when you think about Africa, if there are chances of terrorists emanating from there whose life pursuit it becomes to kill us, then you have to look at trade-offs.
KELLY: Gayle Smith, the National Security Council veteran, agrees. She argues that if the US doesn't start paying attention now to looming threats in Somalia and the rest of Africa, quote, "We're, at best, going to miss opportunities and, at worst, we're going to face a direct threat." Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.