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Somalia in the crosshairs for terror

Somalia is in the news again as a potential target in America’s war against terrorism because of the reported presence of al-Qaida operatives in the impoverished nation. MSNBC’s Dr. Bob Arnot interviews President Abdiqasim Salad Hassan.
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Somalia is in the news again as a potential target in America’s war against terrorism because of the reported presence of al-Qaida operatives in the impoverished nation. It’s also the subject of an acclaimed new movie, “Black Hawk Down” — about the heroic efforts of U.S. Rangers and Delta Force soldiers pinned down by hostile fire in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu in 1993.

RECENTLY, MSNBC traveled to Mogadishu to discuss the looming threat with President Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, head of the country’s first central authority since Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991 by clan-based faction leaders.

Although Hassan’s Transitional National Government has a tenuous grip on power and controls very little of Somalia outside the capital, it is the closest the country has come in a decade to resolving the bloody civil war that has consumed that nation.

Now Hassan is trying to head off another crisis as Washington weighs the next stage of its war on terrorism.

MSNBC: There are allegations made by Hussein Aideed [chairman of the Ethiopian-backed Somalia National Alliance] that your government is associated with terrorist groups. How do you respond?

Hassan: If by terrorists he means the warlords, of which he is one — and a notorious one — then of course we are associated because as you know he lives in Mogadishu or he has gone to Gabon. But if by terrorists he claims that al-Qaida or bin Laden or people associated with these organizations are in Somalia, then I think this is false and we invite the Americans, we invite the United Nations Security Council, we invite the press of the world to come to Somalia and see for themselves.

MSNBC: Since you don’t have a navy, an air force, you don’t have a large army, are you actually saying you would invite American soldiers to Somalia and search out terrorists?

Hassan: [In the past], there was an agreement between Somalia and the United States, that the facilities, whether sea or air facilities, could be used by the Americans.

Now, we are part of the international community and we want to be part of the fight against terrorism, for that reason we invite the Americans and others to come, to see with us, to investigate with us, to join hands with us, so that if there are any terrorists in this region, not only in Somalia [but] in the region, we will help each other to combat that kind of terrorism.

MSNBC: Including the positioning of U.S. troops here in Somalia?

Hassan: Well, we have enough force to deal with any such threat, because as you know terrorists don’t have airplanes and a navy. …We have enough forces but we need the logistics, the sharing of information and we can deal with it. Of course, the expertise of the Americans is needed. In other words, we have to cooperate to fight terrorists in this region.

MSNBC: To be clear, does that mean that should, in sharing intelligence, you and the United States actually determine there is a problem, would you invite U.S. forces back here into Somalia to look to destroy these elements?

Hassan: If Somalia can cope, with assistance of the Americans, with this threat, of course we will cope with it. Otherwise we will ask not only the Americans, but the international community for help.


MSNBC: Is it an irony or a tragedy that just at a time when you have a transitional government that many people agree on and you have a real chance, that suddenly you are accused of being a terrorist state?

Hassan: Yes, of course it is regrettable. We are neither a terrorist state, nor harboring terrorists. If such was the situation I don’t think that, for example, we [would invite you and] many other Americans to come here ... to go all over country and see for themselves. We suffered, we are one of a few peoples in the world [that have] suffered from terror for a long time. That’s why we don’t want to see terrorism or any loss of life all over the world. That’s why we sent a message of condolences to President Bush when the 11th of September happened in New York and Washington. That’s why we want to join hands with the international community to combat terrorism.

MSNBC: Major news organizations such as The Washington Post, the BBC, etc. have reported that the Bush administration, the Pentagon, look upon Somalia as the next potential country where they would search for and destroy terrorists. Should they, without consulting you, attack this country or attack elements of this country?

InsertArt(1373237)Hassan: [It’s] unfortunate to hear from American officials and an esteemed newspaper like the Washington Post allegations without foundation. Secondly, you have seen Mogadishu, there are many refugees, internal refugees, thousands and thousands and hundreds of thousands and in every city in Somalia. There are huts, are they going to bomb those huts? Will that satisfy the American people? Will the blood of Somalia? Poor elements you have seen, who are hungry, have got diseases, who should be helped by the American people, will be bombed for no reason. Why that should take place? To the contrary, let them come and see for themselves the facts.


MSNBC: There are also elements in the U.S. military who would like payback for the death of 18 American soldiers in Mogadishu in October, 1993, a story now featured in the new movie, “Black Hawk Down.” Do you think that makes the risk of some kind of conflict here higher?

Hassan: That is what the Somali public is thinking. That because of the 18 servicemen killed America wants revenge. But this is not the case. These people [were] killed by a warlord, who killed maybe hundreds of Islamic men. … I apologized to the United Nations in general and U.S. in particular for what happened in Somalia during those years because I am the first sitting president after that happened. After that, I may say that the 18 Americans who lost their lives, I think they died for a just cause. They died because they wanted to help a poor people; they wanted to help the suffering people. That’s why they came. Unfortunately, they died.

I think the best monument for these people is to see the involvement of America not through bombs or B-52s but through aid, through economic, through medical aid, through cooperation, for peace and stability in Somalia. There is general thinking, why is Somalia [being] targeted? Since we know that there are no al-Qaida bases and we invite all the international community. Why? One reason is the one we just mentioned. The second is that this is a poor Muslim country. Is that the case? [That would be] contrary to what President Bush said — that this is not war against Islam.

MSNBC: Do you think there is a real risk that America’s war against terror could be seen as a war against Islam?

Hassan: Yes, of course. I think that by now the U.S. knows that, too, because this is the feeling.

MSNBC: Do you feel this country is being set up?

Hassan: This is what worries us nowadays, this is why we are saying to you: Just come and see. I think the [U.N.] Security Council will send some fact-finding missions. This is the best way of assessing it. I think that to wage war just for the sake of finding scapegoats for what happened in New York will not solve the problem. It is in the best interest of America to have more friends for its war on terror, not fewer friends. And, like I said, these are people who are friendly to the United States.

MSNBC: The movie “Black Hawk Down,” shows Somalis shooting at U.S. Rangers and Delta Force soldiers. America saw around 3,000 people killed at the World Trade Center and there is a real sense that the war on terror is a just one. Amid all this, how can you convince Americans beyond words that what you say is really true — that there are no terrorists — when the Taliban said similar words and lied?

Hassan: I watched from CNN and Al Jazeera, bin Laden himself speaking from somewhere in Afghanistan. Have you ever seen bin Laden speaking from Somalia, our coasts or our towns? No [and] America will understand that. ...

Of course, 18 servicemen and hundreds and thousands died also during the civil war at the hands of the warlords. One of [those warlords] was [Mohammad Farah] Aideed, who killed the 18 servicemen. Will it be any help to the American people to destroy the huts you have seen, to kill innocent people, will that serve the purpose? I don’t think so. …

It is not [similar to] the case of Afghanistan because [Taliban leader] Mullah Mohammed [Omar] was a friend of bin Laden. We are not friends of these people, we don’t know them. I heard of al-Qaida for the first time after September 11, not before.


MSNBC: In Pakistan, the government stood with America and President Pervez Musharraf has been very supportive of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, despite criticism from radical Islamic groups inside the country. Do you have any such elements here in Somalia in any way shape or form?

Hassan: Of course we do. Americans are cooperating with Pakistan [even] with the presence of these groups. We have radical elements here. This country is 100 percent Muslim, [but] our Islam is a moderate Islam.

Even when we have had small demonstrations, the police cordoned it off. Immediately [after Sept. 11] the religious community of all Somalia issued a statement condemning al-Qaida, terrorists of all kinds. This is the feeling of the religious community. This is why we are saying this is not a place where people can hide and have training camps. Individuals, maybe.

Of course, you could have such radical elements, in one or two or 10 mosques, but as we establish the authority of the state, as we establish the rule of law, as there is peace and development in this country they will be phased out and you will not hear and see them because the people of Somali do not like any kind of radicalism or terrorism.

It is like the book of Somalia calling it pastoral democracy. Somalis are democrats by nature.

MSNBC: In your view as the leader of a country where Muslims are in the majority, do you think there is a basis to concerns about growing Islamic fundamentalism in a world and its link to terrorism or is it a figment of America’s imagination?

Hassan: No religion should be associated with terrorism. This is an offence to intelligence. Islam teaches peace and harmony; to kill a single person is to destroy the whole world, according to Islam. I think that the acts of Timothy McVeigh, if we associate and enlarge and say that this is a Christian phenomenon or American phenomenon, the reaction would be one of outrage. That was an aberration not the American way of thinking.

If we take the Red Brigades of Italy, Italy is a Christian country, could we say that they were Christians? You cannot associate terrorists to any religion.

Terrorists are pure and simple terrorists without religion. Maybe for their propaganda sake they claim to be Christians or Jew or Muslims. To associate this terrorism to Islam means a war against Islam.

Dr. Bob Arnot, special foreign correspondent for MSNBC, recently traveled on assignment in Somalia.