Militia leader calls for Islamic rule in Somalia


Oct 13, 2005 (NAIROBI) — The West should not try to stop Somalia from forming an Islamic government, a top Somali religious leader and alleged al-Qaida collaborator said Wednesday, vowing to wage holy war on any foreign forces that try to meddle.

Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys said in an interview that allegations he is a terrorist were invented by his enemies. The United States linked Aweys to al-Qaida shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Last week, the United Nations reported that he was arming hundreds of men to keep a Western-backed transitional government from taking power in Somalia after years of clan fighting.

U.S. officials have repeatedly expressed concern that lawless Somalia could become a new base for Islamic terrorists. Investigations have shown that terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil in 1998 and 2002 were launched from Somalia.

In a report earlier this year, the International Crisis Group, a Belgian-based think tank, said the threat of terrorism inspired by an extremist interpretation of Islam "in and from Somalia is real" and identified Aweys as an important Islamist leader.

Speaking by telephone from a mosque in northern Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, Aweys said non-Muslims too often think that all fundamentalist Muslims are terrorists.

"I would advise the Western world to change their mind, because all of the time they call the Islamic countries, the Islamic people terrorists, which is not true," he said. "That is one of the things that has been pulling Islamists and the Western world apart.

He said he and his followers, who include armed militiamen, would not rest until they had established an Islamic government in Somalia. He said he opposed efforts to install a Western-style democracy and called for the international community to leave Somalis alone to choose their own future.

"The Western world should respect our own ideas in choosing the way we want to govern our country, the way we want to go about our own business. That is our right," he said.

Aweys said he would wage holy war on any foreign forces that enter Somalia. He said he plans to have an important role in the country’s future.

"I can influence all of my people with the faith and our religion," Aweys said. "The existing government is not an Islamic one and we will be having our own Islamic faith and we will be very strong in influencing our people."

Aweys did not answer directly when asked whether he has ever had contact with al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden or whether he has been accepting funding and weapons from Eritrea, neighboring Ethiopia’s longtime rival. But he said he has the right to make contact with and have relations with anyone he wants.

Aweys co-founded the Islamic group al-Itihaad al-Islamiya in the early 1990s. The United States alleges that during this time Aweys made contact with bin Laden, then living in Sudan.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, an old enemy of Aweys, sent troops into Somalia to stop al-Itihaad. Al-Itihaad’s armed wing was destroyed, but the group’s founders continued to lead mosques and teach in religious schools.

Aweys said al-Itihaad doesn’t exist anymore and he now leads a political party, the Somali Salvation and Unity Council. In recent years, Aweys said he has helped form Islamic courts to provide security for civilians and to sort out disputes in the absence of a government.

These courts have recently begun using armed militias to enforce their rulings and Aweys has become an important religious and political leader.

There are concerns, though, that al-Itihaad poses a military threat to the transitional government.

In September, U.N. experts monitoring an arms embargo on Somalia reported that Islamic hard-liners, including Aweys, were importing high explosives, mines, hand and rifle fired grenades, anti-tank weapons and ammunition and anti-aircraft guns and ammunition.

Two years of peace talks sponsored by the European Union resulted in the formation last year of Somalia’s transitional government. Somalia has been without a central government since warlords ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1992 and the country was divided into fiefdoms.

The new U.N.-backed parliament met in neighboring Kenya because Somalia was considered too unstable. Earlier this year the parliament and Cabinet split into two factions, one that returned to Mogadishu, and another one led by the president and the prime minister, which moved to the town of Jowhar, Somalia.