Exclusive: Tough Talk From Somalia's Islamic Hard-Liner

Finally the warlords of Mogadishu and southern Somalia have been subdued, bringing peace to the ravaged area for the first time in 15 years. The Islamic Courts Union, a popular uprising built around traditional Islamic Sharia courts and financed by fed-up businessmen, collected the warlords' guns and rounded up their battlewagons. "In 15 years, no one was able to do what they did in 15 days," says U.N. official Saverio Bertolino.

But Somalia's troubles are far from over. Instead of warlords now, Somalis have what many are calling an African version of the Taliban, bent not only on imposing a harsh, Wahhabi-style Islam on the country but allegedly also providing a safe haven, Afghan style, for international terrorists. Movies and music have been banned; open-air video parlors showing World Cup matches were shut down. Recently the group appointed a Majlis al-Shura (consultative council) as its supreme spiritual and policy-setting body, appointing as its leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on the U.S. terrorist watch list for his connection to a Somali militant group, Al Itihad al-Islamiya. In an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK last week in Mogadishu, Aweys didn't deny his connection to the militant group but said, "I don't know anything that Al Itihad al-Islamiya did to America. The Americans are targeting us, and there is no power that can protect us from them except Allah." Aweys insisted the group was interested only in opposing Ethiopia, which late last week moved its troops across the border, warning the Islamists against taking complete control of Somalia.

Explaining the Islamists' crackdown on non-Islamic culture, Aweys said that Somalis, as Muslims, "have to choose the way our people want to go or learn ... Television, for instance, misleads the people and teaches them bad character and a culture from some other countries that we don't share. And we know what leads our people astray." He added, "I want to tell you that America has a phobia of Islam."

U.S. officials say the Courts are harboring three terrorists accused of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, a charge the Islamists reject. (Many independent Somalis, like Hassan Mohadallah of the Center for Research and Dialogue, agree. "I don't believe they could hide them--this society is too open, too homogenous; foreigners would be noticed.") But there are plenty of kindred spirits in the Islamists' ranks. Among them is Aden Hashi Ayro, an Afghan-trained Somali who U.S. officials say was behind the assassinations of four aid workers in Somaliland and the execution of Abdul Qadir Yahya, an internationally known civic leader, last year. "Aden Ayro is a good man," Aweys said, "a member of the Islamic Courts" who has never been convicted of a crime.

A Courts-made propaganda video called "Punishment of the Converts" and obtained by NEWSWEEK from an Islamic militiaman in Mogadishu, shows the Somali Islamists training, interspersed with speeches from several of the Courts' leading military figures, including a partially masked man who appears to be Ayro, according to Somalis who know him. The dialogue is frankly Pan-Islamic and pro-terrorist; the voice-over features Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. "Mogadishu is the Afghanistan of the Muslims now," says one masked Somali fighter. "Every Muslim who is victimized in the world, we are calling him to come here," says the fighter. "It will be a safe haven for him." The Islamic militias' internal newspaper, Al Jihaad, puts it bluntly: terrorism is compulsory, reads a July 3 headline. terrorism, extremism and fundamentalism are part of islam and good.

Aweys doesn't disagree. He praised bin Laden to NEWSWEEK, comparing him to Nelson Mandela in that "South Africans said that Mandela was a terrorist and his people know him as a hero." He also justified Al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center. "Since Osama was fighting against his enemy, he could use any tactic he had available to him," he said. "It is not compulsory to think as the Americans want us to think."

Despite Aweys's stated views, many observers give the Courts the benefit of the doubt. "Most of us in the international and relief community do not see them as a new Taliban," says World Food Program country director Zlatan Milisic. "There may be extremists among them, but overall they're providing relief for suffering people." The Courts' leader, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, apparently second in stature to Aweys, has urged moderation on his followers, after an initial crackdown on public morals. There was an early spate of harsh punishments, including chopping off the hands of thieves and even the sanctioned execution of a murderer by his victim's son. But that's all either ended now or gone under wraps. "Really, there is no Taliban style in Somalia," Sharif said. To people in Mogadishu, the fact that the Taliban too took power in Afghanistan with promises of moderation is another world away. Right now they are enjoying the end of a long war. "We are fed up with this fighting," says Idris Osman, a Somali who runs WFP's program in Mogadishu. "Whoever brings peace, they believe in him. There could be a hidden agenda, but it doesn't matter." Ideology is a luxury most Somalis cannot afford.