Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, branded a terrorist by the U.S. government, recently became the leader of the Majlis al-Shura Council, a policy-making body that oversees the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia. The Courts have subdued the warlords in Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia, bringing peace to those areas for the first time in 15 years. But the internationally backed Transitional Federal Government, which controls little more than the small rural city of Baidoa, accuses them of being terrorists who want to impose a Taliban style of government in Somalia. In an interview with NEWSWEEK this week, Sheik Aweys was calm and even good-natured in response to the criticism, chuckling frequently at the questions put to him.
NEWSWEEK: U.S. government sources describe you as a supporter of Al Qaeda, and a terrorist suspect yourself. What do you say?
Hassan Dahir Aweys: The Americans are targeting us and there is no power that can protect us from them except Allah. Whatever we say, even if we deny everything, they don't accept it.
But do you have any connection with Al Qaeda, or with international terrorist organizations?
If the Americans or Westerners know terrorism as Islam and terrorists as Muslims, I am a Muslim; if they know the terrorists as people who want to install an Islamic government, I am that. But if they know terrorists as those who kill people or create problems and tensions, I am not that.
Is it true that you were a leader of Al Itihad al-Islamiya, which the U.S. State Department describes as a terrorist organization?
Yes, I was. But I don't know anything that Al Itihad al-Islamiya did to America. [Al Itihad al-Islamiya] was only concerned with Ethiopia … I think Ethiopia is the agent of America in East Africa. The Americans must say what al Itihad did to them before they accuse us.
They say that you've been harboring in Somalia three suspects in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, for instance.
They don't even have any evidence relating to that, and even if they wanted to get those three people, what are they going to do, kill all the Somali people until they get to them? And they don't have any evidence that we are hiding these people.
But they do have evidence that Aden Ayro is in Somalia, and they accuse him of involvement in two terrorist incidents, the assassination of four aid workers in Somaliland, and the assassination of Abdul Qadir Yahya, the internationally respected founder of the Center for Research and Dialogue, last year.
Aden Ayro is a Somali man, he is a good man, he is part of the Islamic courts, a member of the Islamic Courts, and if they have evidence that he is a criminal, it has to be tried in a court. But I want to ask them, how are the domestic affairs of Somalia a concern of America?
Recently Osama bin Laden issued a statement praising the Islamic Courts Union.
Everybody in the world has a right to say whatever they want or to comment how they want. That is not our responsibility.
What do you personally think of Osama bin Laden?
Osama is a Muslim and there is a war between Osama and America, and each side can accuse or give bad names to its rival. So if we were mediating between him and his enemies we might comment, but we have no way to comment what is Osama and whether he is a terrorist or not.
You don't see him as a terrorist then?
His followers may see him as a hero, but his enemies may call him a terrorist. And it is something existing in the world, to name your enemy as a terrorist, as the British colonialists called the Somali hero Mohammed Abdullah Hassan the Mad Mullah, while we know him as a hero. It is not compulsory to think as the Americans want us to think, as they think. We have different minds. For instance, the [apartheid regime] South Africans said that [Nelson] Mandela was a terrorist, and his people know him as a hero.
Everyone would agree Mandela is a hero, but he never flew airliners into buildings.
If Mandela was not a terrorist to them, why did they imprison him for 27 years? Even Fidel Castro is a hero in his country, and the U.S. government knows him as a terrorist.
Still, we are not talking about people who fly airplanes into buildings and kill thousands of innocent civilians, as Osama bin Laden admits he did.
First, fighting can be with a gun, or it can be with propaganda. Because when there is fighting, it is a fight whether you fire a gun or whether you send a plane into the World Trade Center. But you are a journalist, you cannot consider the propaganda of governments, you have to consider the reality on the ground. Since Osama was fighting against his enemy, he could use any tactic he had available to him.
America and other countries are concerned that the Islamic Courts want to impose a kind of Taliban regime on Somalia.
American citizens choose the way their leaders lead them and how their constitution is. And we have an accord to choose how to rule our country, establish our constitution. So we have to feel free to rule our country as our people want. Every nation has its right to choose their own rules, and our rules come from our religion.
What sort of government do you expect to see in Somalia?
The Somalia people are a homogenous people having the same culture, same language, same religion, same sect also. The only system they can accept to choose is Islam, no one can force them to take another.
Everyone in Somalia agrees they want an Islamic government, but does that mean a severe interpretation of Islam, where movies, music, even football are outlawed? Is that the future you see here?
First we are Muslims. We have to choose the way our people want to go or to learn. America knows how to teach its people the way they want, and we have to know the way we want to tell our people how to learn something. So television, for instance, misleads the people and teaches them bad character, and a culture from some other countries that we don't share culture with. And we know what leads our people astray, as the Americans know what leads their people astray. But I want to tell you that America has a phobia of Islam.
But surely, it's a bit extreme by anyone's view, outlawing watching the World Cup and even killing two people in Dusamareb who were protesting when broadcasts of the event were shut down.
That incident was accidental, it was not intentional. At the time we still didn't have a government system in place, in place of police there is militia. And where the police would have a stick, the militia has a gun. When the people crowded him, he had to defend himself with what was in his hand, so the accident happened like that. But it wasn't a decision from me or any other person in the Courts to do that.
Are you hopeful that the Transitional Federal Government will meet your representatives in Khartoum for peace talks?
If the Somali people want to get together to talk about their problems, they are all Muslims, they understand each other, they speak one language. But if there is intervention, if those intervening don't get their interests satisfied in that meeting, they will prevent any agreement coming from that meeting.
Meaning Ethiopia, which backs the TFG and has vowed to defend it. But what happens if the talks in Khartoum fail? You already have control of Mogadishu, the capital, and much more of the country than the TFG. Why not just declare a government yourselves?
This issue is for the public to decide, not for the Islamic Courts to decide.
The African Union and neighboring countries advocate sending a peacekeeping force to Somalia. Your position?
Why would they need to send troops to Somalia now? The problem of Somalia was the capital city and everyone knows the problem in the capital city is now ended.
Do you suspect it's to make sure the Courts don't take control?
We regard that as a crusade against Islam, and if they attack Islam we will protect ourselves because then we would have a clear right to do so.
Do you still feel the Ogaden region of Ethiopia belongs to Somalia?
Really the Ogaden is a Somali region and part of Somalia and Somali governments have entered two wars with Ethiopia over it, and I hope that one day that region will be a part of Somalia.
There are also Somali majorities in other regions, in Djibouti, in Kenya. And Somaliland wants to be an independent country in the north of Somalia. Do you see those places as you see the Ogaden?
Every community has a right to get freedom first and eventually we will have time to vote for the rights of the different regions of Somalia, whether they should be free or not. The relations between Somalia and Kenya are good now, and [eventually] the people in Kenya can vote for their right to be part of Kenya or part of Somalia. Kenya is different than Ethiopia, because Ethiopia is interfering in Somalia.
Somali pirates operating from your coast have given the country a bad name and even now are holding ships they've seized.
We haven't yet reached that area [Haradhere], but when we do reach it, we will come to a conclusion of this issue that will make everyone in the international community happy. We are planning to go there and do something to insure the safety of that area and of the seas.