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Archive for Sunday, June 25, 2006

Suspected al-Qaida collaborator named new leader of militia

June 25, 2006

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— A fundamentalist Muslim who the U.S. suspects of collaborating with al-Qaida terrorists was named Saturday as the new leader of an Islamic militia that has seized control of Somalia's capital.

The militia, which changed its name Saturday from the Islamic Courts Union to the Conservative Council of Islamic Courts, said in a statement it had appointed Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys as its new leader. The Bush administration has said Aweys was an associate of Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s.

The Islamic militia seized control of the capital Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia from an alliance of warlords earlier this month. Aweys' appointment makes it unlikely that the increasingly powerful militia will govern using the moderate brand of Islam practiced by most Somalis.

The appointment is also likely to stoke Washington's long-standing fears that the chaotic Horn of Africa nation will become a safe haven for bin Laden's terror network much like Afghanistan did in the 1990s.

U.S. officials have accused the Islamists in Somalia of harboring al-Qaida leaders responsible for the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Aweys appeared on a list of individuals and organizations accused of having ties to terrorism which the United States released after the 9-11 attacks. A conservative Somali group called al-Itihaad al-Islaami and its founder, Aweys, were featured for their alleged links to bin Laden while the al-Qaida leader was living in Sudan in the early 1990s.

The State Department had no immediate comment Saturday.

Aweys, a cleric believed to be in his 60s, has told The Associated Press in past interviews that al-Itihaad no longer exists and he has no ties to al-Qaida. He went into hiding following the 9-11 attacks and only re-emerged in August.

In recent years, he helped establish the Islamic Courts Union militia and continues to be one of the group's most influential and fundamentalist leaders, strenuously advocating a strict Islamic government to end 15 years of anarchy in Somalia.

In 1991, warlords drove out dictator Mohammed Siad Barre and turned on each other, rendering Somalia a patchwork of rival fiefdoms.

Aweys replaces Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who is moderate in comparison. Since the militia drove widely despised secular warlords out of Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia earlier this month, Ahmed has softened his rhetoric calling for strict Islamic, or sharia, law.

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