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Somalia - East Africa's new Afghanistan?

Screengrab of video reportedly showing Aden Hashi Ayro
The question now is what impact Ayro's death will have on Somalia's Islamists
After a US missile killed a senior leader of an Islamist militant group in Somalia, the BBC's Rob Watson considers how serious the West considers the militant threat from the region.

The precise links, if any, between Somalia's Islamists and al-Qaeda are decidedly murky.

But there is little doubt that the US and other western countries see Somalia in particular - and East Africa in general - as a potential breeding ground for violent Islamic extremists.

Al-Qaeda itself has made little secret of its approval of Islamist fighters in Somalia, with Osama Bin Laden frequently voicing his support for them.

Most of the attention focuses on a group known as al-Shabab, the military wing of the Islamic Courts, the Islamist group that briefly ruled in Mogadishu until ousted at the end of 2006 by Ethiopian forces, backing up Somali government troops.

The US alleges that some of al-Shabab's leaders are "affiliated" to al-Qaeda and have links to the group's leadership hiding out in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Certainly it is known that some Somali jihadists are veterans of the Afghan training camps of the 1990s - including the man killed on Thursday, Aden Hashi Ayro, who was the leader of al-Shabab.

Ungoverned spaces

The US further accuses al-Shabab of protecting foreign al-Qaeda operatives suspected of involvement in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, including Fazul Abdallah Mohammed and Saleh ali Saleh Nabhan.

Some US and Somali officials believe his death is a major setback for the insurgency

So is Somalia in danger of becoming the new Afghanistan of East Africa?

Certainly western security sources are worried that the country's large ungoverned spaces are very inviting for would-be jihadists, as are its virtually non-existent border controls.

Indeed it is thought there are already terrorist training camps in Somalia, though on nothing like the scale of pre-9/11 Afghanistan.

But there are vital differences.

The fall of the Islamic Courts has limited the freedom would-be jihadists have to operate in the country and has even led some to leave to surrounding areas.

Added to that, Somalia's intricate clan structure and high levels of violence make it a tough and dangerous place for outsiders, in comparison to the more permissive atmosphere created in much of Afghanistan by the Taleban before their fall from power.

Brutal methods

The question now is what impact the killing of Aden Hashi Ayro will have on the Islamist movement in Somalia.

Some US and Somali officials believe his death is a major setback for the insurgency fighting Somalia's government and its Ethiopian allies.

They argue his brutal methods, including the use of suicide attacks, were deeply unpopular and that his death could make it easier for more moderate Islamists to reach some kind of an agreement with the government.

But they also concede his death could lead to revenge attacks and encourage more young recruits to a movement seen as heroic by many Somalis for standing up to the Americans and their Ethiopian allies.

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