, MOGADISHU, March 27 – Egged on by Osama bin Laden and drawn in by Ethiopia’s pullout, foreign jihadists have flocked to Somalia in recent months, joining forces with local fighters to turn the country into an Al-Qaeda haven.
Somalia now shelters an estimated 450 foreign fighters who are working with the Shebab, a home-grown hardline Islamist group that has spearheaded a bloody insurgency since 2006.
While foreign fighters wanted for links to Al-Qaeda have long used Somalia as a backyard, their numbers have swollen dramatically in 2009, experts say.
"There were maybe 100 foreigners last year but now our estimate is up to 450," said Ismail Haji Noor, a former Somali security official who has established a secular militia bent on rooting out the Shebab and their foreign allies.
Noor said the foreign jihadists come from the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia and often enter the country on regular airlines from the northern semi-autonomous state of Somaliland.
Most of them are concentrated in Garowe, in the northern breakaway state of Puntland, and the southern towns of Baidoa, Merka and Kismayo.
"The risk is being taken increasingly seriously that they will look outside Somalia for their operations now," said one Nairobi-based diplomat.
Stripped of their arch-enemy Ethiopia, which ended its two-year military occupation in January, the Shebab have revamped their organisation and moved closer to Al-Qaeda, intelligence officials said.
A 10-member "cabinet" includes several known Somali members who have trained in Afghanistan, including Mukhtar Robow who has been the group’s main spokesman.
But it is also believed to include several foreigners, from Saudi Arabia and Sudan, as well as Fazul Abdullah, a Comoran-born Al-Qaeda operative wanted over the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
"They will be targeting Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia. Western powers will focus their efforts on protecting those neighbouring countries instead of tackling the problems inside Somalia," Noor warned.
He said Somalia’s new moderate Islamist president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, needed to be urgently shored up if the threat was to be neutralised.
In a recent Internet audio message addressed to "the champions of Somalia", bin Laden urged the Shebab to topple Sharif, heightening fears the group could seek to gain an Al-Qaeda "franchise" with spectacular operations.
In the meantime, the Shebab are consolidating their grip on key towns.
"Everyone here knows that many foreign fighters are among those who fought us in Bay and Bakol regions," said Colonel Adan Abdullahi, a police officer from the Baidoa region, where clashes have killed dozens in recent months.
"A young man who talked to me said he was from Morocco but the group leader is called Mohamed and he is a white American," a local shop owner who said his life would be in danger if his name was published told AFP.
Residents say many white men are among the newly-arrived Islamic fighters in Baidoa, a town 250 kilometres (155 miles) south of Mogadishu where the country’s transitional parliament normally sits.
"These white men are heavily armed with hand grenades and machine guns. They sometimes come to the mosque and pray with us," resident Ahmed Hasan said.
"They are more disciplined than local fighters, they look very religious, but I don’t know why they are here, there is no jihad now that the Ethiopians have left," said 28 year-old Mohamud.
One of the pictures featuring prominently on the Shebab website’s gallery of "martyrs" is that of "Abu Horriya" (Father of freedom), a Hispanic American also known as the "Seattle Barber" who was killed in combat in 2008.
His real name is Ruben Shumpert and he was once jailed on gun and counterfeiting charges. He was also wanted for showing jihadist videos to children in his Seattle hair salon.
Washington earlier this month voiced concern that Somali youths in the diaspora were being recruited by hardline groups to fight in their homeland, notably among the large Somali community in the US city of Minneapolis.
Britain, which is also home to a large Somali community, warned in a report unveiling its counter-terrorism strategy and released earlier this week that Al-Qaeda activity could be heating up in Somalia.