Terrorists belonging to the group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are fleeing war-torn Yemen and moving into ungoverned areas of northern Somalia, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, made a surprise visit to Mogadishu, the Somali capital, on Tuesday where Somali officials informed him of the new al Qaeda threat, said officials familiar with the meeting and reports from the region.
"As everybody knows, more than 20 years ago, the United States was forced to pull back from this country," Kerry said in a statement. "And now we’re returning in collaboration with our international community and with high hopes mixed, obviously, with ongoing concerns."
Kerry offered to provide additional U.S. support to the Somalis for increased counterterrorism operations against the new flow of terrorists to the region but offered no specifics of the aid, the officials said.
The new influx of terrorists to Somalia is threatening to undermine a major international effort to try to stabilize Somalia, once a major redoubt for al Qaeda.
According to the officials, the Somali Federal Government was tipped off to the presence of the terrorists by neighboring Ethiopia, which estimates as many as 600 are in Somalia or will arrive in the near future from Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has mounted military operations against Houthi rebels in Yemen, triggering an exodus of some 500 refugees leaving the country each day.
There are currently some 5,000 refugees from Yemen who fled in boats across the Gulf of Aden and arrived in the ports of Bosaso and Berbera.
Authorities in the region are said to be carefully vetting all arriving Arabs for ties to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the most threatening affiliates of al Qaeda that has been blamed for plots to blow up several U.S. airliners in recent years.
The al Qaeda fighters are said to be in the Puntland and Somaliland regions of northern and northwestern Somalia.
Among the terrorists suspected of reaching Somalia with groups of refugees from Yemen are some of the 300 prisoners who were freed from a Yemeni prison during an al Qaeda operation April 2.
Many of the boats carrying the refugees from Yemen originated in Al Mukalla, the southern Yemeni port where the prison break by al Qaeda occured.
The prison break by al Qaeda and the regrouping of the terrorists in Somalia is similar to an operation carried out in Iraq last year. That operation, also a prison break designed to bolster a terrorist group’s forces, aided Islamic State in its seizure of large areas of Iraq.
Former CIA official Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution expert on al Qaeda, said the flow of terrorists from Yemen indicates a new regional reach for the Yemen-based al Qaeda group.
"This deployment shows [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] is becoming a regional force for disorder, capable of crossing the Gulf of Aden to assist its ally in Africa," he said.
Kerry, making a brief stop in Mogadishu airport, met with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the federal government’s prime minister, and with provincial leaders.
U.S. intelligence agencies are working on assessments of the terrorist influx, and the State Department is said to be working on policy options.
Kerry, in the statement, said the United States plans to join several other nations, including Britain, in opening an embassy in Mogadishu. He did not provide a specific time for when the embassy would be reopened.
"I’m here today because Somalia is making progress in its mission to turn things around," he said. "A determined international effort has put virtually all of Somalia’s pirates out of business. New life has returned to the streets of Mogadishu, and fresh hope to the people of all the country."
Kerry made no mention of the flow of al Qaeda fighters from Yemen in the statement.
A National Security Council spokeswoman referred questions to the State Department and CIA, which declined to comment.
A State Department spokeswoman did not return emails seeking comment.
In addition to U.S. military activities in Somalia, an African Union military force known as AMISOM has driven terrorist groups from many strongholds in the country.
The new threat to Somalia further contradicts President Obama’s 2012 presidential reelection campaign statements that said al Qaeda was in decline as a result of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Al Shabaab, Somalia’s main terror group, has conducted deadly attacks, including a shopping mall shooting attack in Nairobi, Kenya in September 2013 that killed 67 people.
U.S. special operations forces have been conducting both covert military operations against al Qaeda on the ground in the Horn of Africa and drone strikes that target terrorist leaders.
Several key members of the al Shabaab terrorist group, the al Qaeda affiliate that operates out of several areas of Somalia, have been killed in recent months. In September a U.S. airstrike killed al Shabaab leader Ahmad Abdi Godane.
Kerry also disappointed Somali officials by not raising the issue of U.S. sanctions that are designed to cut off cash remittances from Somali-Americans back to the country, payments that have been a lifeline of funding for many in the country.
The Treasury Department in February imposed a complete cutoff of remittances to Somalia by prohibiting U.S. banks from authorizing transfers to the country.
"That is certain to drive more impoverished Somali youth to the extremists," said one official familiar with the Kerry meeting in Mogadishu.
Kerry also did not include the president of the independent Somali state of Somaliland in the three-hour meeting. Somaliland is the largest and most peaceful province of Somalia. Other regional leaders were invited to the meeting, but the omission of the Somaliland leader left Somali officials wondering why he was snubbed.
The Somalis were not impressed by Kerry, who was described as "coming in like an animal on one leg—injured and on his way out," one U.S. official said.
U.S. intelligence agencies in recent months have reported that al Qaeda appears to be splitting up in Yemen. Many of the militants are aligning with the Islamic State, and al Qaeda’s top military commander in Yemen recently began applying the brutal methods used by Islamic State, a group that was disavowed by al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in February 2014.