Al-Qaida at Work in Turbulent Somalia
SCOTT SIMON, host:
The London bombings unmistakably brought home both how near and far flung the threat of terror has become. We've had gruesome evidence that cells with links to al-Qaeda have hidden in plain sight in cities in the US and Great Britain. The groups have also been imbedded in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Somalia is seen by some as a natural haven for terrorists. It's one of the world's most lawless places. The country's so dangerous, its elected leaders fear entering the capital. The International Crisis Group put out a report this week on terrorist activity in Somalia and the impact of counterterrorist operations. John Prendergast is a special adviser to the president of the International Crisis Group, and he joins us in our studios.
Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. JOHN PRENDERGAST (International Crisis Group): Thanks for having me, Scott.
SIMON: Is there a concern that Somalia could become as Afghanistan became, a place where training grounds for terrorists could proliferate?
Mr. PRENDERGAST: The huge difference is that Afghanistan had a government, and that government was willing and able and desirous of supporting al-Qaeda's proliferation, incubation. Somalia has no government and hasn't had one since 1991, the only country in the world without a functioning state. And there is a small cell there of al-Qaeda operatives. And they've now formed an alliance with a new group of jihadis of Somalis inside Mogadishu and along the Indian Ocean coast down through Kenya.
SIMON: Tell us about a man named Aidin Hashi Iro(ph).
Mr. PRENDERGAST: Iro is the--appears to be the leader of this growing cell of extremists who are Somali, who are affiliated with al-Qaeda but appear to have their own agenda. They often, in broad daylight, jump out of cars, gun people down and drive off. He's also been linked to the assassination of four relief workers and a BBC producer. Although the militia that he heads does not have a name, it's clear that they are against any kind of reconstitution to the state. They favor the kind of anarchy that exists today in Somalia, and their targets are principally either Western or Western-affiliated personnel.
SIMON: Is he beginning to get any kind of a following?
Mr. PRENDERGAST: I think Somalis in general are very, very opposed to this kind of extremism. But the longer Somalia festers without a government, the longer the economic opportunities continue to diminish in the context of a stateless country, the more people will flock to individuals and organizations that have some money, 'cause this guy has sources of supply from the Middle East, and provides a little bit of fertile ground for recruitment that is worrying to counterterrorism experts.
SIMON: But let me ask a blunt question. If US Special Operations were just to pluck him, what would the reaction be, do you think, in Somalia?
Mr. PRENDERGAST: What is very instructive is to go back to the dark days of October 1993 when some of these warlords in Mogadishu were hated by the broad majority of the Somali public. But as soon as the United States singled out one of the warlords at that time, Mohammed Farah Aidid, it was the old rally round your compatriot, and everyone was allied by that time with Aidid and when our--the 19 guys were killed when those Black Hawks were shot down, a very, very strong lesson was learned by the American military, at least, that you cannot single out individual culprits because that simply leads to a circle-the-wagons phenomenon.
SIMON: What about Somali warlords? Have they chosen to support any terrorist activities or al-Qaeda?
Mr. PRENDERGAST: The warlords lost a lot of their authority throughout the late '90s and early part of this decade, but they have been re-empowered in some ways by the CIA-backed counterterrorism efforts in Somalia.
SIMON: Describe for us as completely as you can some of the counterterrorism effort?
Mr. PRENDERGAST: Generally speaking, we have allies which are given information which we get mostly from signal intelligence--from intercepts from phone calls and other kinds of things. When we think somebody is in a particular place or we think they've used e-mail or telephone somewhere, we give that--we turn that information over to one of the warlords and they start following these people. They will attack a particular house. They'll try to capture the person and drag that person out and then that person is usually taken out of the country by agency personnel and taken to our military base in Djibouti. We have--the only military base of the United States government in Africa is in Djibouti and it's largely focused on counterterrorism objectives.
SIMON: What would you and the International Crisis Group recommend for, as you see, a more effective counterterrorism strategy?
Mr. PRENDERGAST: Well, I think moving away from this policy of re-empowering warlords and looking at the mutual benefits of an investment in state building.
SIMON: How do you make the case to the American public that they ought to expend any more time, effort, even perhaps the risk of lives of young men and women in Somalia?
Mr. PRENDERGAST: Well, I think the national security imperative is probably the most important thing. The incubation of this al-Qaeda cell and the expansion of a local partner network is something that we have to be concerned about. And I think it's not very expensive. I mean, having a high-profile diplomat who engages in conflict resolution costs the salary of one person and perhaps a little bit of transport. Talking in a society that's as oral as Somalia, sitting down with sheiks and community leaders and politicians goes a long, long way, and we're just not doing that now. And people perceive the US to be totally disinterested in Somalia and only interested in going after Islam. And that's a very dangerous cocktail.
SIMON: John Prendergast, special adviser of the International Crisis Group. thank you.
Mr. PRENDERGAST: Thanks for having me.