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Last Updated: Friday, 30 June 2006, 07:39 GMT 08:39 UK
Profile: Somalia's Islamist leader
By Joseph Winter
BBC News

Sheikh Aweys
Sheikh Aweys denies terror groups operate in Somalia
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys is one of the leaders of the Islamist group which controls much of southern Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu.

The United States says it will refuse to deal with him - he has been on the US list of people "linked to terrorism" since shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Mr Aweys has been named to head the Union of Islamic Courts' Shura, a consultative body, while Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, previously chairman, now heads the executive committee.

It is still not clear which man is more powerful.

A former army colonel, Mr Aweys was put on the US list because he used to head al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, an Islamist militant group accused of having links to al-Qaeda in the 1990s.

Mr Aweys, 61, however, strongly denies the US allegations.

The good of the Somali people is more important than my personal interests
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys
"It is not proper to put somebody on a list of terrorists who has not killed or harmed anybody," he told the AFP news agency.

"I am not a terrorist. But if strictly following my religion and love for Islam makes me a terrorist, then I will accept the designation."

Smiling

I met him in 2004 in his large, well-maintained family house set down a labyrinth of dirt tracks in a middle class Mogadishu suburb, over the road from the mosque where he preaches.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, talking softly and calmly and often smiling through his red, henna-stained beard, the small, elderly man did not give the impression of being a terrorist mastermind.

SHEIKH HASSAN DAHIR AWEYS
Former army colonel
Led Islamist militia
Defeated by President Yusuf and Ethiopia
Muslim scholar
On US 'terror' list
Denies links to al-Qaeda
Children were happily running around the house and courtyard, until Mr Aweys shooed them away while I interviewed him.

Afterwards, he tried to convert me to Islam but I managed to avoid this by asking him to pray for me.

He moved around quite openly in Mogadishu, albeit in a convoy of armed guards, including a technical - a truck with an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back.

But in lawless Mogadishu, such extensive security is not exceptional for those who can afford it.

BBC Mogadishu correspondent Hassan Barise says that despite being on the US list, he has been able to travel abroad quite freely - to Saudi Arabia and Dubai, without being arrested.

He has always denied allegations that he was running training camps for Islamist fighters in Somalia.

Amputations

"No-one here is fighting against the US," he said in 2004, insisting that he is merely a Muslim scholar, who believes that only Sharia law and Islam offer the solution to Somalia's problems.

However, he agreed with those who say that worldwide, Islam is under attack by the US and its allies and supports "the Mujahideen who are fighting back".

map
After al-Itihaad was defeated in the 1990s, he started to play a key role in the emerging Islamic courts, being set up by businessmen desperate for some kind of law and order in a city ruled by warlords.

Although these courts imposed such punishments as amputations for thieves and stoning to death for serious crimes such as rape and murder, they were warmly welcomed by residents of north Mogadishu, who felt safer than those who lived in warlord-controlled but lawless south Mogadishu.

In the past two years, the gunmen who enforced rulings from the separate clan-based Islamic courts joined forces, becoming Somalia's strongest militia.

Mr Aweys was always the courts' spiritual leader, although Sheikh Ahmed was officially the group's chairman.

Many observers were surprised at the speed with which the Islamic courts militia defeated a coalition of the warlords who had controlled Mogadishu since 1991.

Personal history

Some credit Mr Aweys with organising the fighters' training and strategy, although he was not in Mogadishu during the battles, staying in the central Galgudud region.

Earlier this year, a UN report said that he had been getting significant military aid from Eritrea - a claim Eritrea has denied.

Somalia's President Abdullahi Yusuf
President Yusuf was once imprisoned by Mr Aweys

Eritrea may be supporting the Islamists because of its long-standing rivalry with Ethiopia, which is seen as being close to the weak, interim UN-backed government based in Baidoa, about 200km north of Mogadishu.

Mr Aweys has a long personal history of fighting Ethiopia.

Reuters news agency reports that he was decorated for bravery during Somalia's war against Ethiopia in 1977.

Ethiopia later helped the man now interim president, Abdullahi Yusuf, defeat al-Itihaad forces in the 1990s.

However, at an early stage in the fighting, Mr Aweys captures Mr Yusuf and put him in jail.

When Mr Yusuf was elected president in 2004, Mr Aweys said he would support the new Somali leader, even if he pursued those linked to al-Itihaad, as long as he ruled the country according to Islam.

"The good of the Somali people is more important than my personal interests," he said.

However, Mr Aweys' public promotion could set the stage for renewed conflict, with the US and Ethiopia again backing those opposed to Islamist rule.




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