There is growing evidence that battle-hardened extremists are filtering out of safe havens along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and into East Africa, bringing sophisticated terrorist tactics that include suicide attacks.
The alarming shift, according to U.S. military and counterterrorism officials, fuels concern that Somalia is increasingly on a path to become the next Afghanistan — a sanctuary where al-Qaida-linked groups could train and plan their threatened attacks against the western world.
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.
But a similarly small cell of militant plotters was responsible for the devastating 1998 bombings of U.S. 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 from seven years at war against the U.S. and allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
"There is a level of activity that is troubling, disturbing," Gen. William "Kip" Ward, head of U.S. Africa Command, told The Associated Press. "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 American officials already are seeing extremist factions in East Africa sharing information and techniques.
Several military and counterterrorism officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters cautioned that the movements of the al-Qaida militants do not suggest an abandonment of the ungoverned Pakistan border region as a safe haven.
Instead, the shift is viewed by the officials more as an expansion of al-Qaida'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-Qaida 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-Qaida terror techniques are gaining ground in East Africa. Those harbingers include a coordinated series of suicide bombings in Somalia in October.
In the past, officials said, suicide attacks tended to be frowned on by African Muslims, creating something of an impediment to al-Qaida's efforts to sell that aspect of its terrorism tactics.
But on Oct. 29, 2008, suicide bombers killed more than 20 people in five attacks targeting a U.N. 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 U.S. citizen — a young Somali man from Minneapolis — carried out a suicide bombing.
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-Qaida in East Africa, a small, hard-core group also known by the acronym EEAQ.
While not yet considered an official al-Qaida franchise, EEAQ has connections to the top terror leaders and was implicated in the August 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 225 people. The bombings were al-Qaida's precursors to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a plot spawned by a small cell of operatives as far back as 1992. Four men accused as al-Qaida plotters were later convicted in federal court in New York for those bombings.
Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and several other EEAQ members remain under indictment in the United States for their alleged participation in those bombings. Mohammed is on the FBI's most wanted terrorist list with a reward of up to $5 million on his head.
Al-Qaida has the skills while al-Shabab has the manpower, said one senior military official familiar with the region. The official said EEAQ appears to be a small cell of a few dozen operatives who rarely sleep in the same place twice and are adept at setting up temporary training camps that vanish days later.
What worries U.S. military leaders, the official said, is the that EEAQ and al-Shabab may merge in training and operations, potentially spreading al-Qaida's more extremist jihadist beliefs to thousands of clan-based Somali militants, who so far have been engaged in internal squabbling.
The scenario could become even more worrisome, the officials said, if the foreign fighters transplant their skills at bomb-making and insurgency tactics to the training camps in East Africa.
Africa experts, however, said it won't be easy for Islamic extremists to win many converts in East Africa.
Francois Grignon, Africa program director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization, said in an interview that many clan members generally practice a more moderate Islam, and militants are not inclined to join a fight they do not see as their own.
The U.S., he said, needs to encourage the new government in Somalia to deal with the growing terror threats there and to marginalize the jihadists so they are not able to sustain their activities in Somalia.
Ward said U.S. Africa Command is working with a number of nations to build their ability to maintain security. But he said commanders are less able to do much in Somalia, where the new government is still fragile.
Meanwhile, he said, officials continue to watch as the ties between the terror groups grow.
"I think they're all a threat," said Ward. "Right now it's clearly a threat that the Africans have, but in today's global society that threat can be exported anywhere with relative ease."