Terror Hot Spots: Somalia -- Kids In The Cross Ha

Somali fundamentalists didn't figure anybody would mind when they took over a looted and abandoned high school in downtown Mogadishu. They weren't building a bomb factory or training terrorists. They were restarting Somalia's only university, with classes in economics and computer science, Arabic and English. But before even the first semester was out in 1997, gunmen working for a local warlord broke up the studies. "The students rushed to me as I arrived," recalls Osman Omer Jelle, an English teacher. "They said, 'Teacher, there are gunmen in the university!' "

Today, wild-eyed thugs still block access to the former school. Down the block, other clan-based militiamen killed a passerby last week for his AK-47, worth $400 at the city's central market. Yet "Mogadishu University" has survived. The fundamentalists, from an organization called Al Islah (Reconciliation), negotiated to buy back their meager library and moved to an old hotel with sagging ceilings. Clean-cut young men and women registered for second-semester classes last week, and held a gathering attended by alumni from the first graduating class, which received diplomas last June. The host was university president Ali Ahmed Abubakar, a Saudi-trained Ph.D. in Islamic law. "We will continue even if we have to hold classes under a tree," he says.

In failed states like Somalia, the line between good guys and bad--between "our guys" and the "evil ones"--often gets blurry. Somalia is home to a relatively small number of hard-core Muslim extremists, some of them connected to Al Qaeda. (The extremists regard members of Al Islah as sellouts because they oppose violence and favor a more progressive interpretation of Islam.) Yet the Somali gunmen who do the looting and pillaging are not fundamentalists at all. And some of the people doing good works favor the gradual creation of an Islamic theocracy. The difficulties in sorting out the various players raise questions about the ways that the global war on terror should be fought. Is it enough to bomb and capture terrorists? Many experts on Somalia think that direct military action could even be counterproductive--spurring greater frustration and swelling the small ranks of militants.

Since September 11, Washington has shut down Somalia's leading financial institution, a money-trading outfit called Al Barakaat, which was accused of funneling money to Al Qaeda. And U.S. and allied warships patrol the 1,900-mile Somali coastline, while surveillance aircraft hunt from the skies. Early this month Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made clear that Washington was concerned about Qaeda operatives in Somalia. "They go in and out," he said. "We know there have been training camps there and that they've been active over the years and that they... go inactive when people get attentive to them."

The last time the United States got really attentive to Somalia was back in the early 1990s. Operation Restore Hope began as a mission to save Somalis from starvation, but ended in a horrific fire fight that left 18 Americans and several hundred Somalis dead. (A pirated version of the movie "Black Hawk Down," which chronicles that battle, was shown in Mogadishu last week.) Since then, the international community has largely withdrawn from Somalia.

Organizations like Al Islah have stepped into the void. By locating out-of-work teachers, Al Islah has so far knitted together a network of 112 primary and secondary schools serving 17 of Somalia's 18 regions. Of those, 92 use course materials imported from the Arab gulf; others use an English-language curriculum from neighboring Kenya. Funding comes from tuition--$6 a month for school and $600 per year for the university--and also from patrons in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (Religion is taught, but not aggressively, according to students and parents.)

Some powerful Somalis see the education program as a creeping Islamic-militant takeover, funded from abroad. "These people are trying to transform the whole society," says Mohamad Kanyare Afra, a former warlord who joined the country's latest attempt at a government (which controls only parts of Mogadishu). "They can go to hell." Osman Ali Ato, another prominent warlord, says that building schools "is what I would do if I wanted to spread terrorism and religious fundamentalism."

Ato may have a point. But then, he's not building schools. And neither is the international community. Just about everyone who follows Somalia agrees that the country won't be safe from terrorists--or safe for kids with ambitions beyond what they can get with a gun--until rule of law is established, and a central authority can be held accountable. That could mean bolstering the transitional government now in place. But after getting burned there once, Washington isn't anxious to rush back in.