Somalia's Islamic Leaders Deny a Link to Terror

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Islamist fighters at a demonstration in Mogadishu last Friday. A large crowd rallied in support of Mogadishu's Islamic courts.

Since Somalia's Islamic leaders took control of the capital, Mogadishu, Monday after months of heavy fighting with warlords, the Bush Administration has made no secret of its worry that Somalia could become a new version of Afghanistan under the Taliban. "We don't want to see Somalia turn into a safe haven for foreign terrorists," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "We do have very real concerns about that."

But the country's Islamic leaders have written a letter to the United Nations, the Arab League, the African Union, the European Union and the U.S. State Department, as well as to various European and African embassies, that aims to allay those fears. In the four-page letter obtained by TIME, signed by Sheikh Sherif Sheikh Ahmed, Chairman of the Islamic Courts Union in Mogadishu, the city's new bosses say they want to end the chaos and bloodshed in Somalia's capital, help rebuild the country and "establish a friendly relationship with the international community that is based on mutual respect and interest."

"We categorically deny and reject any accusation that we are harboring any terrorists or supporters of terrorism in the areas where the courts operate," the letter says. "We share no objectives, goals or methods with groups that sponsor or support terrorism. We have no foreign elements in our courts, and we are simply here because of the need of the community we serve."

The Islamic Courts' appeal for cooperation comes at a time of fundamental change in Somalia's capital, which like most of the rest of the country has had no functioning government for 15 years. During that time, southern Somalia has been ruled by warlords, who have carved the Horn of Africa nation into a patchwork of fiefdoms. The warlords fought U.S. peacekeepers sent to secure United Nations' aid deliveries during a terrible drought in the early 1990s, but some are now believed to be backed by the U.S. Those warlords have now fled the capital, or are holed up and surrounded by Islamic militias.

Over the past two decades, the influence of Islamic clerics in Somalia has grown steadily. Like the warlords, they use their own militias and freelance hired guns to enforce their rule. But many residents of Mogadishu have applauded the Islamic groups for cracking down on crime, dismantling the hundreds of roadblocks around the capital and running schools and health clinics when no one else would. They began providing social services in the early 1990s, and by 1998 a loose collection of Islamic courts had been established and was running parts of Mogadishu. When TIME interviewed Sheikh Hussan Sheikh Mohammed Adde, then head of the Islamic Courts Union, in May 1999 he said that Somalia's Islamic movement saw its influence growing in stages. The first phase was to clear Mogadishu of "gangsters and warlords"; then the Islamic groups would open the airport and ports. "After that we take the next step," he said. "We don't want to fail so we are going slowly, slowly."

The Islamic Courts were close to taking on the warlords when 9/11 put their campaign on hold. After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamists laid low, for fear of being the next target in the war on terror. Rumors began circulating that the warlords had won backing from the U.S.

In the past few months, as the fighting between the Islamists and warlords has grown, Islamic leaders, members of Somalia's transitional government and Somalia watchers such as the International Crisis Group's John Prendergast have claimed that the U.S. is paying the warlords. The U.S. has not confirmed or denied the reports. (See the May 17 Washington Post story on U.S. ties to the warlords.)

In his letter, Sheikh Sherif argues that the warlords have duped the U.S. government for its own gain. "The present conflict has been fueled by the wrong information given to the U.S. Government by these warlords," he writes. "Their expertise is to terrorize people and they were able to use it and terrorize the American government by misinforming them about the presence of terrorists in Somalia."

Despite U.S. concerns, there are real differences between Somalia and Afghanistan under the Taliban. While Somalis are Muslim, many are secular in outlook and would fight against the strict imposition of shari'a law. The coalition of groups who forced the warlords out of Mogadishu is also far from homogenous — and may fall apart now that the common enemy is banished. Privately some U.S. State Department officials focused on Somalia have questioned whether there is any link between Mogadishu's Islamic leaders and Al Qaeda.

Still, the parallels to the Taliban are obvious. Both groups swept to power under the banner of religion. Both promised to end the anarchy and bloodshed of the regimes they ousted. And both argue that Islam is the answer to their societies' problems. At a rally of hundreds of people in Mogadishu Tuesday, Sheikh Sherif said that the Islamic struggle in Somalia would continue "until we get the Islamic state."

So it is possible that Somalia's Islamic leaders may try to impose a hardline-style Islam on Mogadishu. Because the city has been off limits to most reporters and diplomats, it is difficult to tell what plans Mogadishu's new mayors have for the capital or the country beyond. In the letter Sheikh Sherif dismisses concerns that they "intend to establish an anti-U.S. and Western government in Somalia. This is not true. Such an agenda is against our objectives and goals since this would contradict our wish for there to be a peaceful Somalia."