An influential religious leader and alleged al-Qaida collaborator has vowed to establish an Islamic state in Somalia, a lawless Horn of Africa nation the United States fears could grow into a major base for Islamic terrorists.
The United States linked Aweys to al-Qaida shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Last week, the United Nations reported that he was arming hundreds of men to keep a Western-backed transitional government from taking power in Somalia after years of clan fighting.
U.S. officials have repeatedly expressed concern that Somalia, which has not had a central government since warlords ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1992, could become an Islamic terrorist haven. Investigations have shown that terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil in 1998 and 2002 were launched from Somalia.
In a report earlier this year, the International Crisis Group, a Belgian-based think tank, said the threat of terrorism inspired by an extremist interpretation of Islam "in and from Somalia is real" and identified Aweys as an important Islamist leader.
Speaking by telephone from a mosque in northern Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, Aweys said Wednesday that allegations he is a terrorist were invented by his enemies. Aweys said non-Muslims too often think that all fundamentalist Muslims are terrorists.
He said he and his followers, who include armed militiamen, would not rest until they had established an Islamic government in Somalia. He said he opposed efforts to install a Western-style democracy and called for the international community to leave Somalis alone to choose their own future.
Aweys said he would wage holy war on any foreign forces that enter Somalia. He said he plans to have an important role in the country's future. Aweys did not answer directly when asked whether he has ever had contact with al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden or whether he has been accepting funding and weapons from Eritrea, neighboring Ethiopia's longtime rival. But he said he has the right to make contact with and have relations with anyone he wants, AP reports.