MOGADISHU, Somalia — A fundamentalist Muslim who is listed by the U.S. State Department as a suspected al-Qaida collaborator 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.
Militia from the Islamic Courts Union arrive at a rally against neighboring Ethiopia’s alleged interference in Somali affairs moments after an unidentified gunman shot dead a Swedish cameraman, Friday, June 23, 2006 in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The assailant came up from behind and shot the cameraman through the chest at close range, killing him on the spot before disappearing in the crowd, an Associated Press reporter who witnessed the shooting said. Another Western reporter who was walking with the victim was unhurt.
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 Sept. 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 Sept. 11 attacks and only re-emerged in August 2005.
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.
He also agreed this week to stop all military action and recognize the largely powerless interim government which is based in Baidoa, 90 miles from of Mogadishu, because the capital is so violent. Aweys has condemned that government and any attempts to install a Western-style democracy.
The government has taken control only of a small portion of the nation of 7 million.
Anger at foreigners runs high Mogadishu, which is awash in weapons after so many years of anarchy. Anti-foreigner sentiment has been stoked by reports that the warlords defeated by the Islamic leaders this month had been secretly financed by the CIA.
On Friday, 47-year-old Swedish journalist Martin Adler was shot in the back and killed while covering a rally in Mogadishu to celebrate the deal with the interim government.
The assailant has not been caught, but the militia said the killing was planned by a foreign enemy that wants to shatter weeks of relative peace since the Islamic militia took over.
The death was a blow to the militia’s pledge to pacify Mogadishu.
Mogadishu resident Madina Hussein, a mother of four, said she hopes the killing won’t prompt international leaders to turn their backs on Somalia.
“We need the assistance of the international community. We are tired of the continuous violence and fighting. There is no reason to kill foreigners who came here to show the world what is going on,” she said.
At least 13 other journalists have been killed in Somalia since 1991, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.