Nairobi — Two letters signed by the leader of a religious movement in Somalia urging terrorist operations in Kenya and Ethiopia led to the latest US travel alert against Kenya.
The letters called for the assassination of 17 prominent Kenyan and Somali nationals involved in the Somali peace process, an uprising by ethnic groups in Ethiopia and Kenya and urged elite forces within a militia called Al-Shabab Al Mujahideen to mass along the Kenya-Somali border.
The spokesperson of the US embassy in Nairobi on Friday confirmed that the travel alert was prompted by the letters.
"We have seen those letters and they were sufficiently alarming to cause us to issue the advisory," said embassy official Jennifer Barnes.
The letters, obtained by The Sunday Nation, are signed by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, leader of the radical wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). They are written in Arabic though an English translation was also obtained.
They outline a strategy to resist the entry into Somalia of a proposed Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) peacekeeping force.
Among these are "the training of 50 Al-Shabab Mujahidin to execute suicide explosions in prominent landmarks in Ethiopia and Kenya and to preposition explosives in designated places nearly one month prior to carrying out these explosions in strict accordance with the instructions of the Executive Committee of Al-Shabab Mujahidin."
The Sunday Nation could not establish the authenticity of the letters. The warring factions in Somalia have in the past sought to portrary their rivals as terrorists. Kenya's ambassador to Somalia, Mohamed Abdi Affey, one of those named as a target for elimination, did not think the letters presented a particularly serious threat.
"We are aware of those letters and Kenyan authorities are studying them. However, I must stress that we have embarked on constructive dialogue with the ICU. Kenya's role in this process is positive. We want to see a stable Somalia and do not see any reason why anyone involved in the process would want to harm any Kenyan," he said.
Somalia has been without a functional government since the toppling of President Siad Barre in 1991.
A lengthy peace process in Nairobi culminated, in 2004, in the election by delegates of a Transitional National Government (TNG) led by President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, the first Somali government recognised by the United Nations in more than one and half decades.
But the government has been weak and riddled with divisions and has failed to assert its authority.
The Islamic Courts Union rose to prominence in February this year when a US-backed anti-terror force, comprised mainly of warlords, was dealt a decisive military defeat by the Islamists.
The ICU has extended its influence in parts of the country and is generally popular with many war-weary Somalis.
There have been concerns, however, that the Islamists harbour a radical agenda and could possibly play host to fundamentalists linked to Al Qaeda.
Attempts to reach the ICU's head of foreign relations Professor Ibrahim Hassan Adow for comment were unsuccessful.
Mandera Central MP Billow Kerrow, who was part of a recent Kenyan delegation to a meeting with the Islamists in Somalia, however, said Western countries have overplayed the dangers posed to regional security by the ICU.
"The Islamic courts have gained acceptance virtually across Somalia because they have filled a vacuum and restored order in the country. The Somali government picked in Nairobi was essentially a take-away administration which squandered its initial support by failing to appear on the scene. If anybody wants to replace the ICU, they need to show the Somali people an alternative," said Mr Kerrow.
The unpredictable nature of the Islamists has, however, unsettled neighbouring countries and the European Union (EU) last week warned that a wider regional war could be the outcome of the present standoff between the Islamists and the Transitional National Government.
The drama in Somalia had its biggest direct impact on Kenya when the US embassy in Nairobi issued an adverse terror alert against Kenya and Ethiopia earlier this month.
The advisory was one of its most strongly worded yet and warned of "suicide explosions" at major landmarks in the country. "It could be hours, it could be days, it could be weeks," it warned.
The Sunday Nation has established that the alerts were based on letters signed by Aweys, which appeared to declare war on Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.
The three countries are accused by the Islamists of backing plans to send a multi-national peacekeeping force in the country.
The ICU strongly objects to the presence of any foreign forces in the country, particularly those from bitter rivals Ethiopia.
The letters, which were authored some time in mid-September, called for the elimination of President Yusuf and Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Ghedi and many members of their cabinet, most of who are in exile in Nairobi and London.
They also urged the Islamists militia to take control of the crucial border town of Kismayu to serve as a base to resist "invasion" by any peace keeping troops.
Security sources are unsure of the authenticity of the letters. However, one official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, pointed out that several events the Islamists had called for in the letter had already transpired.
The attempted assassination of President Yusuf in the Somali town of Baidoa in September and the recent seizure of Kismayu by Islamist forces are two such examples.
A central theme of the letters is efforts by the Islamists to stop the deployment of foreign troops in the country.
The resolutions apparently represent the views of the executive committee of the ICU, named in the letters as the Al-I'tisam Union.
Besides the capture of Kismayu, the letters calls on the militia to "attack and kill all foreigners who participate in sending foreign troops to Somalia, such as the Ambassador of Kenya (to Somalia) Mohamed Abdi Affey."
It also requires that Kismayu be designated the new headquarters of the movement and urges beefing up of troops along the Kenya-Somali border.
It also calls for instigation of "uprisings inside Kenya and Ethiopia and particularly in those regions populated by Somalis and Oromos and with the assistance of religious men in these regions."
Aweys appeared to endorse these views in an interview last week when he outlined his movement's expansionist agenda and called for the creation of a "Greater Somalia."
"We will leave no stone unturned to integrate our Somali brothers in Kenya and Ethiopia and restore their freedom to live with their ancestors in Somalia," he told Mogadishu's Shabelle Radio.
Such sentiments, allied with the controversial letters have caused considerable disquiet among local and international security agencies.
All major terrorist attacks which have taken place in East Africa had a connection with Somalia, with militants either planning or taking refuge in the country after execution of the attacks.
These include the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and the bombing of the Paradise Hotel in Kikambala, whose fourth anniversary will be marked on Tuesday.