NAIROBI (Reuters) - At least 12 al Qaeda members have crossed from Yemen into Somalia in the last two weeks, bringing money and military expertise to Somali rebels battling the Western-backed government, a senior Somali official said.
Somalia’s al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels are waging a deadly insurgency against the transitional government headed by a former rebel and are intent on imposing a harsh version of Sharia Islamic law throughout the war-ravaged nation.
A smaller group -- Hizbul Islam -- which has an alliance with al Shabaab in Mogadishu, expressed its loyalty to al Qaeda on Wednesday for the first time and invited Osama bin Laden to Somalia.
“Our intelligence shows 12 senior al Qaeda officials came into Somalia from Yemen in the last two weeks,” said Treasury Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman, adding that he had been briefed by Somalia’s intelligence agencies.
“They were sent off to assess the situation to see if al Qaeda may move its biggest military bases to southern Somalia since they are facing a lot of pressure in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he told Reuters by telephone on Wednesday.
Osman did not say who the al Qaeda members were nor their positions in the organisation.
Western and regional intelligence agencies have long feared that Somalia’s porous borders and lack of a strong central government could make the Horn of Africa nation a safe haven for militants looking to attack the region and beyond.
Al Qaeda in Yemen jumped to the forefront of Western security concerns after a Yemen-based regional wing claimed responsibility for a failed attack on a U.S.-bound transatlantic flight in December.
“They brought money to al Shabaab which had been facing difficulties to recruit more fighters because of cash shortages,” Osman said.
Some of the foreign commanders had landed in airstrips in the south disguised as humanitarian workers and two were in Mogadishu, he said.
Since plunging into anarchy in 1991, hundreds of thousands of people have perished from famine, war and disease in Somalia. Multiple attempts to set up central rule have failed.
Somalia’s current government backed by African Union peacekeepers has been unable to wrest control of the sea-side capital from insurgent groups. Al Shabaab controls large swathes of southern Somalia and Mogadishu.
Moallim Hashi Mohamed Farah, a senior Hizbul Islam leader in Mogadishu, said the group had asked bin Laden to Somalia.
“It is true, we have invited him. Our call is that Islamist forces around the world have to unite, and defend their cause as one group. The West may call him as a criminal, but we call him our brother and he is not criminal,” he told Reuters by phone.
“Questioning the relationship between us and al Qaeda is like questioning the relationship between two brothers, and that is not realistic.”