JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – A group of largely moderate Muslim leaders who took control of Somalia’s capital a month ago has been pushed aside in recent days by radicals determined to create a strict Islamic state there, according to Somali and other political analysts.
Leading the drive has been Hassan Dahir Aweys, whom the United Nations and the United States consider a terrorist with ties to al-Qaida. Aweys’ June 24 appointment as head of the Islamic militias ruling Mogadishu, the capital, has been followed by the installation of like-minded lieutenants in other key posts and the demotion of moderates such as the previous leader, Sharif Ahmed, analysts say.
Among those losing clout is Abdurahman Osman, a Somali-born U.S. citizen who emerged last month as a spokesman for the Islamic militias and a moderate face toward the outside world. He arranged for Western journalists to visit Mogadishu and met on behalf of the Islamic militias with Jendayi Frazier, a U.S. assistant secretary of state, in Nairobi last month.
Osman resigned last week, two days after Aweys took charge of the militias. On Monday, he booked a plane ticket home to Minnesota.
“I have nothing to do with those people now,” Osman said from Nairobi. “I’m so depressed the last three nights I’m almost out of my mind.”
On June 5, Mogadishu fell to Islamic militias affiliated with neighborhood religious courts and backed by a moderate coalition of businessmen, civil society activists and elders from the city’s leading families. Ousted was a group of secular and widely hated warlords who benefited from U.S. financial support in exchange for capturing suspected terrorists.
Many people in Mogadishu cheered the change because the Islamic militias provided the first semblance of a government since 1991.
Street crime plummeted. Shops stayed open past dark for the first time in years. Many residents said they welcomed the idea of sharia, or religious law, in a society in which Islam has traditionally been practiced moderately. Few women wear veils in Mogadishu, and schools have typically mixed girls and boys in the same classes.
The first hints of change came when militia members forced the closure, in some neighborhoods, of cinemas showing the World Cup and films they deemed too sexually explicit. Some young women opted for more conservative head coverings, some young men for shorter hair.
The fatal shooting on June 23 of a Swedish journalist, Martin Adler, appeared to signal the growing power of Mogadishu’s most extreme elements. Aweys took control the following day and soon announced that he intended to extend his interpretation of Islamic law to all of Somalia. He also announced that five alleged rapists would be stoned to death, in accordance with sharia.
“The radicals won,” said Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minn. “The radicals got the upper hand in this movement so they can impose their vision of Islamic sharia.”