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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

This week we're going to take an in-depth look at the region where al-Qaeda first made its mark, the area around the Horn of Africa. That includes Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti, as well as Kenya and Yemen.

NORRIS: We start today in Somalia. Intelligence and military sources believe some of the terrorists involved in the US Embassy bombings in East Africa fled there, as well as some of the men involved in the attack on the USS Cole. Somalia is a nation of 10 million, and it is in turmoil with no workable government and no rule of law. Many fear that instability makes the country a safe haven and a transit point for weapons, cash and foot soldiers used by Islamist extremists. Here's how US Marine Major General Timothy Gormley puts it.

Major General TIMOTHY GORMLEY (US Marine): Somalia is the one who's exporting instability. Somalia is the failed state. "Mad Max in the Thunderdome" is what you've got down there.

NORRIS: Now there's fear of a renewed civil war in Somalia, as rival warlords and a transitional government appear headed for a showdown. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt with the first part of our series.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

For 140,000 refugees, this barren stretch of desert in northeast Kenya near the Somali border has been home for more than a decade. Somalia's long border with Kenya is as porous as any in Africa. Somalis here pass back and forth between their homeland and the camps all the time.

(Soundbite of camp activity)

WESTERVELT: Refugee Fortune Ismara(ph) just arrived here. She fled renewed drought, hunger and bloodshed in southern Somalia. The vibrant colors of her shawl still peak through the fabric's dirt and age. She grabs at the microphone, her eyes a little desperate and haunting.

Ms. FORTUNE ISMARA: (Through Translator) Only warlords and those with guns survive in Somalia, but any weak person or women and children cannot survive there.

WESTERVELT: The conditions here are miserable; the refugees' lives, fragile. These three sprawling refugee camps remain a vivid, if largely forgotten, testament to Somalia's perpetual instability.

(Soundbite of camp activity)

WESTERVELT: In their homeland, the prospects for peace and stability are bleak and getting bleaker. The 14th attempt in 15 years at creating a Somali government is falling apart. Established in Kenya a year ago, the transitional federal government comprised of warlords returned to Somalia earlier this year. In the chaotic and strange world of Somali politics, the fledgling interim government is poised to do battle with itself. The Cabinet ministers who control the capital, Mogadishu, are preparing for a violent showdown with other members of the Cabinet now based in the small city of Juha. Dal Mohammed(ph) is the Somalia food coordinator for the relief group CARE. He recently attended a meeting of the warlords in Mogadishu and says they debated whether to work with the interim government or attack it.

Mr. DAL MOHAMMED (CARE): One or two of them--they tried to see a sort of wise way to, you know, resolve this problem, but the rest of them--they just feel very strongly that they should just go and attack Juha. They know that is not an easy thing ...(unintelligible).

WESTERVELT: In a new report to the Security Council, the UN group monitoring the arms embargo against Somalia says weapons imports are up nearly 400 percent from last year, as all sides prepare for a possible battle. In the language of diplomacy, the UN monitoring group warns of a severely elevated threat of widespread violence; translation: potential renewed civil war. And in the last two months, more than a dozen security officials with the transitional government have been assassinated in Mogadishu among other violence. Perhaps most troubling, in the power vacuum and instability, some intelligence, military and regional experts believe Somalia has become a bigger base for Islamic extremists. Marine Major General Timothy Gormley.

Maj. Gen. GORMLEY: We call them TTNs, transnational terrorists, people that are moving, people that go out and use Somalia as a safe haven.

WESTERVELT: Some of the recent violence in Somalia, including assassinations and kidnappings, has been blamed on a new home-grown Somali jihadist group that has sprung up in the last two years, according to several regional sources. This elusive and brutal group has ideological and loose operational ties to al-Qaeda, says Matt Bryden, the Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group.

Mr. MATT BRYDEN (International Crisis Group): This group may be a problem not just for Somalia, but also for the region. It doesn't take a lot of them to be able to mount a crippling terrorist attack against one of the neighboring countries.

WESTERVELT: This new extremist Somali group, Bryden says, doesn't even really have a name yet. Most intelligence officials simply call it the Ayro group, after Somali jihadist Aden Hashi Ayro, the group's military commander. Bryden says his research shows that the Ayro group is likely harboring some senior al-Qaeda figures from the 2002 Kenya terrorist attacks and the most wanted al-Qaeda figure from the 1998 US Embassy bombing, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed.

Mr. BRYDEN: And they have been behind the assassinations of a number of high-profile former military and security officers in Mogadishu, people who are believed to have been cooperating with counterterrorism efforts.

WESTERVELT: Bryden and some US officials believe this new cell is cooperating with the remnants of al-Ittihad al-Islami, a group of Somali Wahhabi Islamists active in the 1990s. Concern that extremists cells are ascendant in Somalia was underlined in September in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, a small, breakaway region in the north. Police in the regional capital of Hargeisa battled five suspected al-Qaeda members who were armed with assault rifles and hand grenades.

(Soundbite of camp activity)

WESTERVELT: At the refugee camps on the Somali border, school director Abdul Abdul Gadi Sahab(ph) asks the question many Somali refugees here often pose: Where is America? Americans aren't moving to support the latest transitional government, Sahab says, and the US continues to shy away from even stepping foot on Somali soil.

Mr. ABDUL ABDUL GADI SAHAB: (Through Translator) America is not playing a significant role in actually assisting Somalia to stand up on its own feet. If America is serious about Somalia, that government can be assisted so that we can all go back. But it looks like America is not interested in that.

WESTERVELT: The US has remained deeply unwilling to get involved with Somalia for more than a decade.

(Soundbite of early '90s news broadcast)

Unidentified Newscaster: Another round of violence in Somalia with US casualties growing by the day. Two Army helicopters brought down...

WESTERVELT: In the early '90s, rival warlords toppled military ruler Mohamed Siad Barre. The country descended into the anarchy that persists today. For the US, what started out as a humanitarian relief mission ended in disaster. Eighteen US soldiers were killed in Mogadishu in October of 1993 at the hands of militia loyal to warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid.

(Soundbite of presidential speech)

President BILL CLINTON: I deeply regret the loss of their lives. The United States has long had plans to withdraw from Somalia and...

WESTERVELT: The US pulled out by early 1995. One American official in the Horn region who asked to remain anonymous said, `When it comes to Somalia, we don't seem to be able to count higher than 18,' referring to the slain US soldiers. Ted Dagne, a Horn of Africa expert at the Congressional Research Service, says US policy in Somalia remains one of neglect.

Mr. TED DAGNE (Congressional Research Service): What we have is one individual out of Nairobi watching events in Somalia. Active US engagement is really critical, and that has been absent for a while. It's going to make it very difficult to establish any kind of entity that would help us effectively fight the threat of terrorism.

WESTERVELT: The US military is working along Somalia's borders. Civil affairs units are drilling wells and building schools for Somalia's neighbors to try to build trust and restrain the exportation of anarchy. It's a policy that echoes the US Cold War containment strategy against the Soviet Union. But is containment really enough in an era of global jihad? Is it a long-term solution for a failed state at the strategic crossroads where East Africa meets the Middle East?

Ms. TERESA WHELAN (US Defense Department): Containment from a security standpoint is what we can do and probably what we should be doing.

WESTERVELT: Teresa Whelan is the Defense Department's top African Affairs official.

Ms. WHELAN: Whether or not that is the ultimate solution for the problem of Somalia, I think the answer probably is, no, that's not a solution; it is a temporary fix.

WESTERVELT: There is continued concern in military and intelligence circles that this temporary fix that passes for Somalia policy is dangerous negligent in a post-9/11 world. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

NORRIS: You can see photos from a Somali refugee camp in Kenya and maps of the region at our Web site, npr.org.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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