National security reporter Michelle Shephard on her 2006 interview with Somalia’s foremost Islamic militant, who is once again at the centre of a political storm
The call for the interview came just minutes before we were to meet. “Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys will see you. Now,” an intermediary told us by phone.
We ran to our cars, guards in front, guards behind, and raced through Mogadishu’s sandy streets in the heat of an October afternoon.
Aweys’ home was somewhere off Ballad Rd., although all I can remember clearly is a little boy cradling a dusty blender and waving furiously at us as we turned onto his street.
“Ask me anything,” Aweys began our interview, although after an hour of talking through a Somali translator it was clear he would dodge as many questions as he would answer.
Aweys, who was added to the UN terrorist list in November 2001 for alleged links to Al Qaeda, is one of Somalia’s foremost militants. When we met in 2006, he was a leader of the Islamic Courts Union, which had briefly overthrown rivalling warlords to bring order to Somalia’s chaotic capital. The ICU had sanctioned the Toronto Star’s visit, which didn’t ensure our safety, but did allow us to get out of the airport with a $250 passport “visa” stamp.
Wrapping up the interview, Aweys stated: “We don’t have any links to Al Qaeda,” adding almost plaintively, “Why don’t they give us a chance?”
By “they,” he was referring to Washington critics who had dubbed the ICU “Africa’s Taliban.”
Fast forward through seven bloody years: a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion that quashed the ICU and helped give rise to Al Shabab; the Shabab’s formal merger with Al Qaeda in 2012; a succession of unpopular internationally backed governments; till today, where there is cautious optimism about Somalia’s recovery.
Once again, the aging but still powerful Aweys finds himself at the centre of the political storm.
The 78-year-old was taken into custody by Mogadishu’s security forces last week — perhaps by surrender, perhaps through forceful persuasion — to an uncertain fate. He has reportedly defected from Al Shabab, which he had joined in 2010, after clashing with the Shabab’s hardline leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane.
Aweys’ detention sparked both celebrations and protests in the capital — a reflection of Somalia’s complicated clan-influenced politics. Regarded by some as a war criminal, to others he remains an elder statesman of the Hawiye clan, which is dominant in Mogadishu.
His defection may be a political victory for President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, also Hawiye, but all eyes are on Mogadishu to see what happens next.
“Aweys’ case is a minefield for the government,” argues analyst Abdi Aynte, founder of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, a Mogadishu-based think-tank. “It’s a litmus test because there are potentially other (Shabab) leaders who will assess how he’s treated and will defect, or not, based on that.”
Aynte says there is also pressure from outside, such as the U.S., EU and Ethiopia, for Aweys’ prosecution for the myriad of suicide bombings and assassinations committed by the Shabab.
Then, as always, there are clan considerations, with ramifications for either treating Aweys leniently or harshly.
“The government is trying to play this jigsaw carefully,” says Aynte.
If reports are accurate that Aweys surrendered thanks to a deal negotiated by elders within his Hawiye subclan, Habar Gadir, there is likely an agreement for his safe passage elsewhere. Local reports stated Friday that Aweys, once dubbed the Old Fox for his wily ways and henna-stained red beard, may be given such asylum in Qatar, Turkey or Norway.
Such a move, however, would likely need the blessing of the UN Security Council and the White House, since Aweys is listed as a “specially designated global terrorist” under U.S. law.
Whatever his destination, others are asking if Aweys could become a powerful ally in fighting the Shabab, providing intelligence, while steering his following away from Godane and the global Al Qaeda doctrine he espouses.
Aynte notes that Aweys has so far been unwilling to renounce violence or recognize the legitimacy of the government. But, he adds, “that may change.”
Aweys was just one leader the Shabab lost last week in what appears to be a Godane power grab. Unconfirmed local reports claimed that Godane loyalists killed group veteran Ibrahim al-Afghani, who had fought alongside Osama bin Laden, and sent longtime Shabab spokesman Mukhtar Robow into hiding.
Again, how this will impact the future of the organization remains unclear. Political analyst Hassan M. Abukar, writing in African Arguments blog, suggests that Godane’s “coup” may “pave the way for the fragmentation of the militant group along clan lines.”
Despite the Shabab’s waning popularity, in recent months they’ve executed a series of co-ordinated attacks in Mogadishu, including the June 19 assault on the UN compound, and the April 14 Supreme Court massacre, reportedly led by a Canadian recruit.
The Shabab may have been the latest group to which Aweys pledged allegiance, but from his roots in the Somali-Ethiopian war of 1977 to the formation of the Islamist group, the al-Itihaad al-Islamiya in the early 1990s, he is known for his ability to adapt.
Following the demise of the ICU in 2007, Aweys helped found the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS) and then the Hizbul Islam, which merged with the Shabab three years ago.
But Aweys’ reputation as an opportunist, rather than a committed ideologue, matters little when it comes to his designation in the West as a terrorist or to the victims of Shabab suicide bombings, which he supported.
No longer can Aweys state, as he did in 2006, that his organization is not tied to Al Qaeda. After all, the Shabab has boasted of the connection.
The question is simply what chances will he be given now?
Michelle Shephard is the Star’s National Security reporter and has covered Somalia for the last decade. Follow her on Twitter https://mobile.twitter.com/shephardm @shephardmEND.