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Islamic group suspected in Kenya attacks

Somali-based Al-Ittihad al-Islami may have links to al Qaeda

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Al-Ittihad al-Islami

Since the 1991 overthrow of Somali dictator Muhammad Siad Barre, Somalia has been a nation in conflict. Al-Ittihad al-Islami emerged with Barre's ouster. The group wants to establish an Islamic regime and has helped spread Islamic fundamentalism, according to the U.S. government.

Some observers say Al-Ittihad al-Islami was responsible for bringing down two American helicopters and the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers in 1993, according to a congressional report. A United Nations peacekeeping mission led by the United States ended in the deaths of hundreds of Somalis and numerous soldiers, including the 18 Americans. The 15-hour firefight was dramatized in the movie "Black Hawk Down."

Al-Ittihad al-Islami has participated in a number of insurgent-style attacks against Ethiopian forces and Somali factions, according to the State Department. The group is also thought to be responsible for a series of bombings in public places in 1996 and 1997.

Eight Red Cross workers and two pilots were kidnapped in 1998 as they arrived in Somalia. Gunmen demanded a $100,000 ransom but released them about a week later. The State Department believes Al-Ittihad al-Islami is responsible for their abduction.

With the signing of the USA Patriot Act on December 5, 2001, the Bush administration placed Al-Ittihad al-Islami, or the Islamic Union, on its list of organizations whose funds are frozen. The intent is to deter donations to the organization and alert other governments to U.S. concerns about the group's involvement in terrorist activities.

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The Somali Islamic group described by a senior Bush administration source as topping the list of suspects in Thursday's terrorist attacks in Kenya is believed to have links with al Qaeda dating back a decade.

And some say the group may have been responsible for bringing down two American helicopters in a Somali incident later dramatized in the movie "Black Hawk Down."

The militant group, Al-Ittihad al-Islami, or AIAI, wants to establish an Islamic regime in the east African nation. The group helped spread Islamic fundamentalism within Somalia in the 1990s, according to observers and the U.S. government.

Following the September 11 attacks on the United States, President Bush put the group on the first list of terrorist organizations to have their assets frozen. U.S. officials have accused AIAI of long-standing ties with al Qaeda, although details of such contacts are vague.

"Some observers contend that Al-Ittihad and al Qaeda were behind the killings of the 18 U.S. Rangers in Mogadishu in 1993," Ted Dagne, who monitors Somalia for the Congressional Research Center, wrote in a report to Congress earlier this year. That incident was first serialized in newspapers and then made into a book and a movie, "Black Hawk Down."

The U.S. State Department says the group "maintains ties to al Qaeda" and some of its members are believed to have trained in Afghanistan. Late last year, Secretary of State Colin Powell said some followers of Osama bin Laden were holed up in Somalia, "taking advantage of the absence of a functioning government."

In the indictment of bin Laden in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S. government said bin Laden at various times in 1992 and 1993 issued "fatwahs to other members and associates of al Qaeda that the U.S. forces in the Horn of Africa, including Somalia, should be attacked."

The Bush administration source said AIAI and al Qaeda are at the top of the list of suspects in Thursday's attacks against Israelis in Kenya.

AIAI, the largest militant Islamic organization in Somalia, emerged with the ouster of the government of dictator Siad Barre in 1991. The country has since been marred by factional fighting and warlord control.

"In the mid-1990s, Islamic courts began to emerge in parts of the country, especially in the capital, Mogadishu. These courts functioned as a government and often enforced decisions by using their own Islamic militia. Members of the Al-Ittihad militia reportedly provided the bulk of the security forces for these courts," Dagne wrote in his congressional report.

In addition, the group sponsors Islamic social programs, such as orphanages and schools, and provides security in some areas of the country.

According to the State Department, AIAI also has participated in insurgent-style attacks against Ethiopian forces and other Somali factions.

"The group is believed to be responsible for a series of bomb attacks in public places in Addis Ababa in 1996 and 1997, as well as the kidnapping of several relief workers in 1998," the State Department says on its Web site.

But the extent of just how effective or influential the group is remains in dispute.

"Many Somali watchers believe that Al-Ittihad's strength is highly exaggerated and that information about its alleged links with international terrorist organizations is unreliable," Dagne wrote. "There is no reliable information or pattern of behavior to suggest that Al-Ittihad has an international agenda."

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