By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has been funneling
more than $100,000 a month to warlords battling Islamist
militia in Somalia, according to a Somalia expert who has
conferred with the groups in the country.
The U.S. operation, which former intelligence officials say
is aimed at preventing emergence of rulers who could provide al
Qaeda with a safe haven akin to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan,
appeared to be seriously set back on Monday when an Islamic
coalition claimed control of Mogadishu.
U.S. government officials refused to discuss any possible
secret U.S. involvement in the strategically placed Horn of
Africa state, which has been wrecked by years of fighting.
But former U.S. intelligence officials, speaking on
condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the
subject, said an operation to support the warlords’ alliance
appeared to involve both the CIA and U.S. military.
John Prendergast, who monitors Somalia for the think-tank
International Crisis Group, said he learned during meetings
with alliance members in Somalia that the CIA was financing the
warlords with cash payments.
Prendergast estimated that CIA-operated flights into
Somalia have been bringing in $100,000 to $150,000 per month
for the warlords. The flights remain in Somalia for the day, he
said, so that U.S. agents can confer with their allies.
The Bush administration has maintained a silence over
allegations in recent months of a U.S. proxy war against
Islamist radicalism in the country.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Lt. Commander Joe Carpenter
reiterated the administration’s position that the United States
stands ready to “disrupt the efforts of terrorists wherever
they may be active.”
Claims of clandestine U.S. support for secular warlords who
call themselves the “Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and
Counter-Terrorism” have been aired by Somali President
Abdullahi Yusuf and independent analysts.
A United Nations team charged with monitoring a U.N. arms
embargo against Somalia has also said it is investigating an
unnamed country’s clandestine support for the warlords alliance
as a possible violation of the weapons ban.
The former intelligence officials said the operation was
controlled by the Pentagon through U.S. Central Command’s
Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa, a
counterterrorism mission based in neighboring Djibouti
established after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
On Monday, after months of fighting that has killed around
350 people, the Islamic militia claimed control of Mogadishu
and a warlord militiaman said his coalition’s leaders were
fleeing the capital.
U.S. intelligence has produced no conclusive evidence of an
active al Qaeda presence in Somalia, experts said. But there
have been reports of al Qaeda members in the country, including
suspects in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa.
“The Pentagon, and now the U.S. government as a whole, is
convinced these are elements for establishing a religious-based
government like the Taliban, that could be exploited by al
Qaeda,” said a former intelligence official knowledgeable about
U.S. courterterrorism activities.
The CIA has given its warlord allies surveillance equipment
for tracking al Qaeda suspects and appeared to view the
warlords as a counter to the influence of Afghanistan-trained
Islamist militia leader Aden Hashi Aryo, Prendergast said.
“By circumventing the new government and going straight to
individual warlords, the U.S. is perpetuating and even
deepening Somalia’s fundamental problems, and compromising
long-term efforts to combat extremism,” Prendergast said.
Somalia, a country of 10 million people, has had no
effective central authority since 1991 when warlords overthrew
military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. The central government is
based temporarily in the town of Baidoa and has been unable to
control events in Mogadishu.
Americans have bad memories of U.S. involvement in Somalia
in 1993, when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed and 79 injured in a
battle with guerrillas loyal to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid
after entering the country to support a relief effort.