ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — If Somali warlord Hussein Mohamed Aidid is to be believed, Somalia is crawling with terrorists.
But Aidid, a onetime U.S. Marine whose father was America's most wanted Somali before being killed in factional fighting, claimed "Islamic terrorists" already control the economy.
"They control the ports and all the exports. . . . They are preparing for the introduction of Islamic rule," said Aidid, who was interviewed in a hotel in neighboring Ethiopia where he has been holed up for two months.
So far, the United States has shown no indication it buys Aidid's dire scenario, and most outside analysts are skeptical of it. But he is eagerly pushing it nonetheless, as are a handful of other Somali faction leaders who oppose the country's fledgling government and claim it too is riddled with terrorists.
America's war on terrorism is fast becoming the latest chapter in the decade-long struggle for power among Somali factions. Aidid and his allies have heard U.S. officials saying lawless Somalia could be a haven for terrorists. So, they've tailored a message in hopes it will resonate.
"They really want to be the next Northern Alliance," said Ted Dagne, a specialist in African affairs at the U.S. Congressional Research Service. "These factions see the war on terrorism as an opportunity to go to Mogadishu and assume power on the backs of the United States."
Aidid is the son of Mohamed Farah Aidid, the warlord who angered the United States when U.S. troops were in the country in the early 1990s. The father was killed in factional fighting in August 1996, and his son lacks the firepower to live safely in Mogadishu.
Aidid grew up in California and served in the U.S. Marines. He went to Somalia as an interpreter with U.S. forces protecting U.N. food convoys in the early 1990s, then returned to assume the mantle of his father.
"I know what the U.S. wants, and I know what these terrorists can do," he said.
Asked for evidence of the terrorist threat emanating from Somalia, Aidid said "certain information is not made for the public, it is made only for the decision-makers."
Most of the Somali leaders crying terrorist are from a loose confederation known as the Somali Reconciliation and Reconstruction Council, formed by previously feuding factions in March to oppose the country's transitional government.
The council is backed by Ethiopia, a country that fought two wars with Somalia in the mid-1970s over a border region that is home to tens of thousands of ethnic Somalis.
So far, the United States appears to be keeping Somalia's faction leaders at arm's length, making contacts but not alliances, despite American concerns that some members of the transitional government do indeed have links to terrorist groups.
In December, nine Americans visited the western town of Baidoa, a stronghold of clan-based factions opposing the transitional government.
The Americans were not identified by name or function, but their visit was widely reported and confirmed by U.S. officials. They were said to have met with leaders of the Baidoa-based Rahanwein Resistance Army and with Mohamed Saeed Hirsi, known as Gen. Morgan, the leader of a separate faction trying to regain control of its former base in the southern port of Kismayo.
But a U.S. official in the United States, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a large-scale military operation in Somalia requiring local allies was unlikely.
There are no hard targets such as bases, the factions are considered unreliable allies and any suspects could be nabbed by U.S. special forces, the official said.
"There are people in Somalia (the U.S.) would like to question or talk to, and that can be accomplished without these factions," said Dagne, the Africa specialist.
So far, America's limited actions in Somalia appear aimed at keeping terrorists from striking roots in the country.
U.S. planes are conducting aerial surveillance, Navy vessels are searching ships off the coast and the United States has effectively shut down the country's largest company over alleged ties to Osama bin Laden.
Somalia hasn't had a government since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. The transitional government chosen at a peace conference in August 2000 is Somalia's first central authority in a decade, but has little influence outside Mogadishu, the capital.
In the far north of the country is Somaliland, which declared its independence from the rest of Somalia shortly after Siad Barre's ouster. It has been spared much of the violence that has engulfed other parts of the country.
Next to Somaliland is breakaway Puntland. It too had managed to avoid widespread factional fighting until August, when Abdullahi Yussuf, the region's former leader, decided he wanted his old job back and sparked a near civil war in the region.
Now, like Aidid, Yussuf is telling anyone who will listen that his rivals are controlled by al-Itihaad al-Islami, a Somali Islamic organization the United States says is linked to bin Laden.
In Mogadishu, the most powerful faction leader opposing the government is Musa Sude Yalahow. But his authority was recently dealt a severe blow by the defection of a top commander and numerous fighters to the government.
"The problem in Somalia is you don't have one single faction that is militarily strong enough to overwhelm the others," Dagne said. "And nobody trusts each other enough to really unite."