On the night of Sept. 21 last year, U.S. diplomatic staff in South Africa were telephoned at home and told not to go to work the next day. A State Department official refused to explain the warning, but a Western intelligence officer in Africa told TIME the alarm was raised after a phone call from an al-Qaeda operative to a number in Cape Town was intercepted a call in which an attack on U.S. government buildings in South Africa was discussed. No attack took place, and after three days, the embassy in Pretoria and three consulates reopened. But with South Africa expecting half a million fans for the soccer World Cup this June and July, security officials are understandably jittery. Especially because of the origin of the phone call. It came, TIME was told, from Somalia.
Somalia is much on the minds of those fighting terrorism these days. On Feb. 1, Sheik Fuad Mohamed Shangole, a leader of an Islamist group known as al-Shabab (the Youth), which is fighting for control of the nation on the Horn of Africa, made a public declaration of allegiance to Osama bin Laden. If that summons memories of the old relationship between the Afghan Taliban and bin Laden, it should. Both Somalia and Afghanistan have been at war for more than a generation. Both wars have followed a similar progression: a toppling of the central government that was followed by years of warlord feuding (18 U.S. soldiers died protecting a U.N. mission in Mogadishu in 1993, an episode that later became the subject of the book and film Black Hawk Down) and then the rise of a movement the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Shabab in Somalia that proposed an extremist vision of Islam as a solution to the lawlessness. The two countries are both poor and populated mostly, it can often seem, by men with a uniform taste for beards, AK-47s and pickup trucks.
For years, when it came to host countries, al-Qaeda seemed to prefer the inaccessible mountains of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to Somalia's flat, open scrub. The handful of jihadis based in Somalia staged international attacks: in August 1998, they killed 224 people in twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and in November 2002, 13 people died after a car-bomb attack on an Israeli-owned hotel on Kenya's coast. But they attempted nothing on the scale of Sept. 11. Now there is a fear that their ambitions may be rising. The worry over Somalia also has a regional dimension: just across the Gulf of Aden is Yemen, long a staging ground for al-Qaeda attacks and the place where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day, is thought to have been trained.
Al-Shabab's Long Reach
If Somalia's extremists are becoming an international threat, that's partly because of their cosmopolitan leadership. One sure result of war is refugees, and decades of fighting in Somalia have seen the rapid growth of a large Somali diaspora in places from Cape Town to Minneapolis. But not all who have been forced to make new lives far away from Africa have done so easily. The past few years have seen the arrival in Somalia of 200 to 300 young ethnic Somali men from the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, Norway and Sweden, migrants' children returning to their ancestral homeland, according to diplomatic and intelligence sources in East Africa. A Western soldier working in Somalia says these foreign-born Somalis now dominate al-Shabab. "All their cells are commanded by a foreigner," he says. "All tactical and strategic decisions are taken by foreigners."
To extend their reach overseas, al-Shabab's leaders in Somalia are thought to circle back to the diaspora, looking for those who can be recruited to extremism. The FBI is tracking more than a dozen Somali Americans who disappeared from their homes and are suspected of joining al-Shabab, and in November, 14 Minnesota men with connections to Somalia were charged with offenses like aiding a terrorist organization; four have pleaded guilty. In August, Australian police arrested five men from the Somali community in Melbourne on suspicion of plotting to attack an army barracks outside Sydney. The September call to Cape Town was picked up because a group of ethnic Somalis in the city were already under surveillance on suspicion of raising funds for al-Shabab, according to the intelligence officer. "If you've been waiting for a moment to declare Somalia a priority threat, what else do you need?" asks the Western soldier in Somalia. "There's no longer a serious risk that southern Somalia could become a jihadi operational deployment facility. It already is."