Evidence is growing that battle-hardened extremists are filtering out of havens along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and into East Africa, bringing sophisticated terror tactics that include suicide attacks.
The alarming shift, say US military and counterterror officials, fuels worries that Somalia increasingly is on a path to become the next Afghanistan, a sanctuary where al-Qaeda-linked groups can train and plan their threatened attacks against the West.
So far, officials say the number of foreign fighters who have moved from southwest Asia and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region to the Horn of Africa is small, perhaps two to three dozen.
A similarly small cell of militant plotters was responsible for the devastating 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. And the cluster of militants now believed to be operating inside east Africa could pass on sophisticated training and attack techniques gleaned after seven years at war against the US and allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, US officials said.
“There is a level of activity that is troubling, disturbing,” said US General William “Kip” Ward, head of US Africa Command. “When you have these vast spaces, that are just not governed, it provides a haven for support activities, for training to occur.” Ward added that US officials are already seeing extremist factions in East Africa sharing information and techniques.
Several military and counterterror officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters, cautioned that the movements of the al-Qaeda militants does not suggest an abandonment of the ungoverned Pakistan border region as a haven.
Instead, the shift is viewed by the officials more as an expansion of al-Qaeda’s influence and a campaign to gather and train more recruits in a region already rife with militants.
Last month, Osama bin Laden made it clear in a newly released audiotape that al-Qaeda has set its sights on Somalia, an impoverished and largely lawless country in the Horn of Africa. In the 11-minute tape released to Internet sites, bin Laden is heard urging Somalis to overthrow their new moderate Islamist president and to support their jihadist “brothers” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine and Iraq.
Officials said that in recent years they have seen occasional signs that sophisticated al-Qaeda terror techniques are gaining ground in East Africa. Those harbingers include a coordinated series of suicide bombings in Somalia last October.
In the past, officials said, suicide attacks tended to be frowned on by African Muslims, creating something of an impediment to al-Qaeda’s efforts to sell that aspect of its terror tactics.
But on Oct. 29 last year suicide bombers killed more than 20 people in five attacks targeting a UN compound, the Ethiopian consulate, the presidential palace in Somaliland’s capital and two intelligence facilities in Puntland.
The coordinated assaults, officials said, amounted to a watershed moment, suggesting a new level of sophistication and training. The incident also marked the first time that a US citizen, a young Somali man from Minneapolis, Minnesota, became a suicide bomber.
The foreign fighters moving into East Africa complicate an already rising crescendo of terror threats in the region. Those threats have come from the Somalia-based al-Shabab extremist Islamic faction and from al-Qaeda in East Africa, a small, hard-core group also known by the acronym EEAQ.