Mogadishu’s Islamist rulers sought to extend their authority across Somalia on Thursday and ratified a hardline Muslim cleric suspected of al-Qaida ties as their overall leader in moves sure to spread alarm in the West.
The Islamists said Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys — whom the United Nations has linked to al Qaida — would be the overall leader of a new 91-member Council of Somali Courts.
Washington, whose disastrous attempt to pacify Somalia in the early 1990s was captured in the book and film “Black Hawk Down," has ruled out any contact with Aweys.
“From today, the council will change from the Council of Islamic Courts of Mogadishu to the Council of Islamic Courts of Somalia,” Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the moderate former leader of the Mogadishu courts’ body, told reporters in the city.
Because the courts now controlled large parts of Somalia, it had become necessary to formally expand their authority to ensure they were responsible for political, security and social affairs across the nation, Islamic courts officials explained.
Ahmed, seen as leader of the Islamists when its militia took Mogadishu and some other southern towns from U.S.-backed warlords earlier this month, said he had been named chairman of the Islamic courts executive committee with 15 members.
But it is now clear real power among the Islamists will reside with Aweys, who has said he wants sharia law to be the basis for any future Somali constitution.
‘Internationally known extremist’
Thursday’s moves brought a strong reaction from the fragile interim government of President Abdullahi Yusuf.
Formed in Kenya in 2004, it has the endorsement of the international community but has little power on the ground and is based in the provincial town of Baidoa.
“The Islamic courts had already broken the agreement reached in Khartoum by killing people and engaging in fresh attacks in Mogadishu,” assistant information minister Salad Ali Jele told Reuters from Baidoa, referring to an agreement between the government and the Islamists to stop military campaigns.
“If they have now an internationally known extremist as leader, it shows they are not ready for talks ... The government will be forced to quell any threat if they attack us.”
Yusuf is close to Ethiopia, which has massed troops on the border. And diplomats who have spoken to Ethiopia say it would send in troops if the Islamist militia crossed a buffer zone towards their border, including Baidoa.
Consternation in the West
The rise of Aweys will also cause consternation in the West, which had been hoping an Islamic courts group led by moderates would negotiate with Yusuf’s administration to build some sort of power-sharing national government.
Western security services fear Somalia could be a safe haven for al-Qaida-linked extremists or that the Islamists could impose a Taliban-style rule.
“We know that when western countries hear Somalia is ruled by Islamic law, they express their bad feelings towards us,” Ahmed added at Thursday’s news conference.
Somalia has been without central rule since the 1991 toppling of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre by warlords.
The tension in Somalia was underlined just outside of Mogadishu where rival militiamen linked to the Islamists and defeated warlords have faced off just 200 yards apart since the courts captured checkpoints.
As the international community scrambles to respond to the power-shift, east African regional body IGAD and African Union officials approved in Nairobi a political delegation — including a military observer component — to go on Monday.