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03-20-09, 08:32 AM
Bin Laden rallies Somali militants in tape
By Elizabeth A. Kennedy - The Associated Press
Posted : Thursday Mar 19, 2009 20:21:37 EDT

NAIROBI, Kenya — Osama bin Laden has urged Somalis to overthrow the country’s new president, issuing a statement that clearly outlined al-Qaida’s ambitions in a nation long feared to be a haven for the terror network.

Bin Laden’s 11 1/2-minute audiotape focused entirely on Somalia, an impoverished country in the Horn of Africa that has been in chaos for nearly two decades, torn apart by warlords and Islamic militants.

In January, parliament elected President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a moderate Islamist, in hopes that he would unify the country’s factions.

In the audiotape, bin Laden addressed Somalia’s militants.

“You are the first line of defense for the Islamic world in its southwestern part; and your patience and resolve supports your brothers in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Islamic Maghreb, Pakistan and the rest of the fields of Jihad,” he said.

Experts said the focus on Somalia supports U.S. contentions that al-Qaida aims to be a force there.

“I think people who were skeptical that al-Qaida has ambition in Somalia will now have to think twice,” Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank in Nairobi, Kenya, said on Thursday.

U.S. counterterrorism officials have warned of al-Qaida’s growing ties with Somalia’s powerful al-Shabab militants, who frequently battle government troops and attack African Union peacekeepers in the country. Last year, the U.S. State Department added al-Shabab, which means “the Youth,” to its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

“These are people who believe in the idea of permanent jihad and permanent war with the West,” Abdi, the ICG analyst, said of al-Shabab. “Any engagement with the West is tantamount to renunciation of the faith.”

For years, Islamic militant groups have battled Somalia’s feeble U.N.-backed central government, which controls only a small part of the capital, Mogadishu. All public institutions have crumbled and Mogadishu, the once-beautiful seaside capital, is now a gun-blasted shantytown. The lawlessness gripping the nation of some 9.5 million people also has allowed piracy to flourish off the coast in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Somalia is nearly 100 percent Muslim, but most Somalis are moderate and chafe against rules prohibiting music, sports and even chewing qat, a narcotic leaf popular in Somalia.

Ahmed’s election as president has been welcomed by the United Nations and Washington. His predecessor Abdullahi Yusuf resigned in December over his failure to stop the Islamic insurgency and went into exile.

Ahmed is a moderate from the Islamist opposition and has succeeded in drawing several other groups out of the insurgency. The aim is to isolate Somalia’s hard-line militants, particularly al-Shabab, which controls much of the country and has been blamed for imposing a harsh brand of Islam on the regions it controls.

Rights groups say a 13-year-old girl who said she had been raped was stoned to death last year after Islamic militants accused her of adultery.

In the audiotape, bin Laden lashed out at Ahmed as a turncoat and tool of the United States, saying his election was “induced by the American envoy in Kenya,” a reference to the U.S. ambassador in Nairobi.

A spokeswoman for U.S. ambassador Michael Ranneberger had no immediate comment on the audiotape.

“(Ahmed) turned ... to partner up with the infidel,” bin Laden said, accusing Ahmed of abandoning his religion by entering a national unity government.

“(He) must be dethroned and fought,” bin Laden said, adding that militants are obliged to “continue fighting the apostate government.”

Spokesmen for Ahmed and other Somali government officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The recording, titled “Fight on, champions of Somalia,” was posted on an Islamic militant Web forum where al-Qaida often releases messages from bin Laden and other top leaders.

Ahmed emerges from a coalition of Islamic militants known as the Council of Islamic Courts, which brought a semblance of peace to Somalia for six months in 2006. But two years ago, troops from U.S. ally Ethiopia invaded Somalia and removed the union because of feared links to al-Qaida. Islamic militants then launched a bloody insurgency against the Ethiopians and their ally, the U.N.-backed central government.

Ethiopian troops withdrew in January as part of a U.N.-brokered deal to bring onboard moderate Islamists and dissident lawmakers.

Mogadishu resident Abdulqafar Ismail Ali said Thursday that bin Laden should withdraw his call for more fighting.

“Osama should not lecture us on Islam. We are Muslims,” said Ali, 28. “We are tired of wars and hostility in Somalia. It is not the time to topple the government.”

— Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo, Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Somalia, and Malkhadir M. Muhumed and Tom Maliti in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.

Ellie