, ERIGAVO, Jul 22 – A notorious warlord and arms dealer is training Islamist fighters in the remote mountains of northern Somalia and setting up what local officials fear could become a new Tora Bora.
Mohamed Said Atom, one of a handful of men singled out by the UN Security Council as violating an arms embargo on Somalia, has established bases in the Sanaag mountains straddling Puntland and Somaliland, a senior security official said.
The Al Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgent group has been mainly active in southern and central Somalia in recent years, focusing its military efforts on trying to topple the western-backed government in Mogadishu.
But the July 11 bombings in Kampala claimed by the Shebab have signalled the group\’s expanding reach, and activity by Atom\’s men in Sanaag has stirred concern that the rebels were now poised to destablise the two breakaway states.
"Atom has links with Al-Qaeda and represents the Shebab in the region," said Colonel Mohamed Jama, a senior security official from the semi-autonomous state of Puntland.
"We are receiving information that he has mobilised hundreds of Islamist militants in the villages around Sanaag Bari," Jama told AFP.
"Our security forces are now fully prepared to launch an offensive against those terrorists who are establishing a safe haven in the region and want to disrupt our stability," he added.
Puntland and the self-proclaimed state of Somaliland, to the east, have been more stable than central and southern Somalia in recent years but they have been wary of late that the Shebab might seek to open up new fronts.
Residents in eastern Puntland\’s Galgala told AFP that at least 400 fighters were mobilised and trained recently across the region and added that the Shebab\’s black flag was flying in some villages.
"The number of Islamist militants gathered by Atom in the region has increased dramatically. We see some of them on pickups with heavy machine guns and RPGs, proselytising," said Hussein Sahal, a Galgala elder.
"They have several military camps in the mountains where they train young men, most of them from the region. It will be very difficult for any army to fight against them," Abdi Haji Sugule, another elder, told AFP.
The Golis mountain range marking the unrecognised border between Puntland and Somaliland is arid, honeycombed with caves and very difficult to access, a terrain officials fear could become the ideal hide-out for Al Qaeda in Somalia.
"Atom is a local but has old connections with a number of Islamist networks worldwide," said Bile Mohamoud, a security official in Puntland\’s economic capital Bosasso.
Atom, from the Warsangeli clan, was born in Galgala around 1966 and has led his local militia since at least 2006. The UN group monitoring the arms embargo describes him as an arms trafficker and key supplier of weapons to the Shebab.
"We believe he wants to turn this place, the most impenetrable mountains in Somalia, into an Al Qaeda hide-out," Mohamoud said.
"This part of the country is very strategic and important for men like him who are on the run. You cannot flush out a trained army from those mountains unless you have hi-tech military hardware."
"It\’s like Tora Bora in Afghanistan," he said, in reference to the cave complex where Osama bin Laden and top Taliban leaders were believed to be hiding in the country\’s eastern mountains when US forces attacked in 2001.
Abdi Saleban, a Somaliland security official based in Erigavo, the largest town in the area, also acknowledged that Atom was gaining strength but insisted that his forces were ready to face him.
"We know about the movements of this Al Qaeda-linked militant in the mountains but our forces are ready and on high alert," he said.