Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a moderate Islamist, warned on Sunday that there was a "real risk" of Al-Qaeda setting up a "strategic zone" for its network in Somalia, as it did in Afghanistan.
In an interview published in the Italian economic daily Il Sole 24 Ore, Sharif said Al-Qaeda has been eyeing the Horn of Africa nation with its long coastline and cells of the extremist group are already established there.
"Al-Qaeda sees Somalia as a strategic zone like Afghanistan to establish its network. We have become a priority.... It is a real risk," said Ahmed, who will travel to Italy Tuesday for an international conference on his country, a former Italian colony.
"We're not talking about the Somalia of the 1990s. Today, there are Al-Qaeda cells in the country. It is no longer just Somalia's problem, it's the world's problem," he told the newspaper.
"The international community has a duty to protect Somalis and the government from Al-Qaeda. It must do it for the good of everyone."
Stressing the "long and good relations" between Somalia and Italy, he urged Rome to take the lead in getting the rest of the European Union to support his fledgling government under siege from a hardline Islamist insurgency.
Sharif's government, which has been confined to parts of the capital Mogadishu, took up power in January after a UN-sponsored reconciliation process.