Somalia in the vise

Last night I had the pleasure of meeting once again with Darko Trifunović, deputy director of the Center for Security and Investigation of Terrorism at the Belgrade Institute for Political Studies. He shared some of his current intelligence research on Islamist groups in Africa. I also had the pleasure of meeting Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie, President of the Crown Coucil of Ethiopia, who joined us. We chatted over drinks and appetizers. Somalia and Ethiopia were our discussion topics.

Darko reminded me that Osama bin Laden previously said if al Qaeda can conquer Ethiopia, they can conquer all of Africa. A reminder of its pivotal place in current affairs.

Months before an assasination attempt on Somalia's president, bin Laden told followers: "There must be no dialogue with Abdullahi Yusuf and his collaborators except with the sword. Don't waste your time. Fight them immediately."

Back at the end of January I met with Dahir Jibreel, with the foreign ministry of the transitional government of Somalia. The situation was critical. No aid funds at that time had reached government officials or troops in Somalia, both were operating without salary. Meanwhile, al Qaeda is offering $300 for five months to those who join them. And Islamist money is apparently pouring into the country at an even higher rate than before. Often the pivot point in recruitment or at least inspiration of loyalty is offering the locals money for social services.

Jibreel recounted how life began to change under the Islamic Courts Union:

"They started confining women to their homes. They began public flogging of individuals. They started amputating people’s hands, started public executions. They banned football games to be watched or played, banned cinemas, banned adult entertainments, like private Internet, all those things. They were very dangerous."

Indeed, he likened them to a poisonous beast, a beast many in the Western world now want the Somalis to embrace, in the name of "inclusive" government, and the West is willing to pay to entice the Somalis to do so. (Just call it Fear Factor Somalia). The Somalis said "No thanks" to the Europeans, who offered them half a billion dollars if they would only embrace the Islamic Courts Union jihadists they just spilled their blood to rout. "And the message should have been, 'Keep your $500 million, you're going to need it to build your own coffins," said Lt. Col. (ret) Frederick Peterson III, who organized my meeting with Jibreel.

"That's a good one," quipped Jibreel.

Somalia's battles have forged an odd alliance between 4 distinct groups, one of which was the Eritreans, who are only interested in opening up a southern front against Ethiopia. Jibreel recounted how they were training Somalis, Oromo, and others, and airlifting them into Somalia to fight: "They cared nothing for Somalia. They had no plan for Somalia," said Jibreel. "They didn’t care about Somalia’s stability. All they wanted was to take over the regime of Ethiopia by force, by guerilla war. I want to mention is how sinister it is that certain governments or entities can easily incorporate with al-Qaeda-led forces. This was a classic example."

Jibreel, answering my question about foreign jihadists in Somalia, pointed to the presence of Americans and Europeans as well, and stated that authorities had obtained copies of their passports.

Weeks after my meeting with Jibreel a UN report claimed the involvement of Al Qaeda in the region, and the airlifting of militants. Saudi money was also reported to be behind many of the developments. According to an article in the Sunday Times:

"MIDDLE Eastern countries secretly armed and supported suspected al-Qa'ida recruits in the failed state of Somalia in a direct challenge to Western interests in east Africa, a UN report has revealed. Hundreds of Islamist fighters were flown, with Eritrean assistance, from Somalia to Syria and Libya for military training. Others were taken to Lebanon to fight with Hezbollah, the report to the UN security council says. UN investigators detail the military aid given to the Islamists by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Arab states purportedly friendly to the West. Iran supplied 125 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, 80 of which arrived by sea in dhows and the rest by air. "

The article added:

"A clandestine operation to smuggle the fighters out of Somalia began in July last year. Evgueny Zakharov, the owner of Aerolift, an airline with a fleet of ageing Antonov and Ilyushin transport aircraft based in Johannesburg but registered in the British Virgin Islands, said in an interview: "We transported lots of men in uniform -- Arab men with masks.

"They were disciplined men and although none of them had rank badges there were obviously people in charge. They got on the aircraft as if they had done it many times before." Mr Zakharov said his involvement began after he was approached by a General Tambi of the Eritrean People's Defence Forces. Eritrea, a neighbour of Somalia in the volatile Horn of Africa, was a major supporter of the Islamists. General Tambi offered to buy Mr Zakharov's Ilyushin 76 transport aircraft carrying the Kazakhstan registration number UN76496 for $US1.5million ($1.9million), even though the normal price for an aircraft of that vintage and condition is just $US1million.

Mr Zakharov went ahead, despite unusual contract conditions that stipulated secrecy. He insisted the contract should specify that the new owners were not to use the aircraft to make arms flights. However, he said last week that the Ilyushin made three sanctions-busting arms flights to Somalia from the Eritrean port of Massawa, bringing out the masked men on the return legs.

Mr Zakharov's revelations came as Western security services continued their investigation into foreigners suspected of fighting on behalf of Islamic forces in Somalia and of joining al-Qa'ida last year. Among them are British, US and French Muslims. Significant numbers of foreigners went to Somalia, Western intelligence officials have found, after the radical Islamic Courts Council movement seized power from a weak UN-backed government, established links with al-Qa'ida and allowed Somalia to be used as an al-Qa'ida terrorist training ground, like Afghanistan under Taliban rule."

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