July 31, 2005
British terror trail leads back to Africa's Horn of Anarchy
Muslim extremism has built a power base in a little-known but highly
volatile region, write Tom Walker and Dipesh Gadher
The Horn of Africa is the greatest intelligence void on the global
terrorist map, according to analysts.
Since America's disastrous Black Hawk Down intervention in Mogadishu,
the Somali capital, in 1993 - the biggest firefight since Vietnam, in
which more than 1,000 people died - western presence in parts of the
anarchic region has all but disappeared.
However, the London bombings have again cast a spotlight on the area.
While the suicide attacks of July 7 involved three British-born
Muslims of Pakistani origin, taking the terrorist trail to the Indian
subcontinent, the roots of the July 21 bombers can be traced back to
At least one member of the gang, Yasin Hassan Omar, was born in
Somalia, while another, Hussain Osman, originally came from Somalia
or Ethiopia. A third member, Muktar Said-Ibrahim, came to Britain
from Eritrea. Osman, 27, is now a naturalised Briton, while Omar, 24,
who arrived in the UK with his elder sister at the age of 11, was
granted indefinite leave to remain in May 2000.
Between 1993 and 2004, almost 46,000 Somalis - excluding dependents -
sought to escape famine and conflict in their homeland by claiming
asylum in Britain, according to Home Office figures. Of these, more
than 30,000 were given asylum or allowed to stay on humanitarian
Today, Somalia remains a significant source of refugees, providing
the third biggest number of asylum applicants in the first quarter of
this year. Many Somalis have settled in inner London and other
cities, such as Birmingham.
Ibrahim's family were granted exceptional leave to remain in 1992
after fleeing Eritrea, which was then fighting a bloody war of
independence with Ethiopia. Ibrahim, 27, gained British citizenship
Although the July 21 bombers were probably radicalised in Britain,
experts remain concerned about Al-Qaeda's influence in east Africa -
the area all the would-be bombers may have looked back to for
identity in their formative years.
It was in this region that Osama Bin Laden was based in the early
1990s and his violent brand of Islam is still widespread there. In
Sudan he sponsored a network of terrorist training camps, including
bases at Lamu and Ras Kiamboni, along the Kenya-Somalia border, and
helped to finance attacks against American servicemen based there.
In 1998 Al-Qaeda launched synchronised bomb attacks on the US
embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, claiming more than 220 lives. Four
years later Islamists attacked a hotel in Mombasa, killing 15 people,
and tried to shoot down an Israeli passenger jet with a surface-to-
In March a team of United Nations investigators obtained photographic
evidence of 17 training centres in Kenya. It is believed that they
were set up by groups linked to Al-Qaeda with experience of terror
camps in Afghanistan.
The few diplomats familiar with Somalia warn that Al-Qaeda, through
its local affiliate Al-Itihadd Al-Islamiya, is gaining a stranglehold
on Mogadishu. They say that the jihadi group has a new leader,
Commander Aden Hashi Ayro, who has organised a Mogadishu Islamist
corps of about 100 extremist fighters.
Up until mid-April - the last time any reliable intelligence emerged -
they had killed at least 50 supporters of Abdullahi Yusuf, who was
chosen by warlords last year to be the country's president.
Ayro is the protégé of Sheikh Hassan Aweys, spiritual leader of Al-
Itihadd, who has established a network of Islamic courts around the
country to fill the power vacuum. Ayro's group is said to be backed
by a wealthy businessman with a compound in Mogadishu bristling with
arms, including armoured personnel carriers and an anti-aircraft
"It's not a large army but it's organised," said a diplomat watching
developments from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. "Their
objective is to keep any foreign intervention out of Mogadishu."
The nearest American troops to Somalia are based in Djibouti. Having
learnt their lesson from the Black Hawk Down fiasco, the only raids
made into Somalia in the past year have been by proxy. Warlords have
been paid on four occasions to try to snatch Al-Qaeda suspects wanted
The operations are run by the Joint Task Force for the Horn of
Africa, whose command is based on the USS Mount Whitney, anchored in
the Red Sea. In May the unit warned that Somalia was a safe haven for
The International Crisis Group recently echoed this report. The think
tank said: "If Somalia's protracted crisis is allowed to persist, its
stateless territory will continue to attract criminal and extremist
Some of the best intelligence on Al-Itihadd comes from Ethiopia,
which tried to eradicate the group in 1996 in a battle around the
province of Luk in northwest Somalia.
The Ethiopian army destroyed several Al-Itihadd bases and the bodies
of several foreign fighters, including Pakistanis, were subsequently
Although Somalis in Britain have described themselves as
the "invisible community", it is inevitable that people will start
asking how many others, like Omar, have turned to extremism.
If the experience of radicalised immigrants from north Africa is
anything to go by, the omens do not bode well.
Events such as the train bombings in Madrid last year demonstrate
that Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in Morocco and Algeria are
now bent on exporting violence to Europe. More often than not it is
the younger generations - either born or brought up in the West - who
are at the vanguard.
Last week Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-born Muslim of Moroccan descent,
was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Theo van Gogh. Bouyeri,
27, shot the film maker seven times and tried to decapitate him after
van Gogh portrayed Islam as a religion which condoned violence
Bouyeri showed no remorse for the killing and had earlier told the
court: "I should cut everyone's head off who insults Allah or his