NAIROBI, Kenya – An influential religious leader and alleged Al Qaeda (search) collaborator vowed in an interview Wednesday 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 Western world should respect our own ideas in choosing the way we want to govern our country, the way we want to go about our own business. That is our right," said Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys (search), a key figure in a growing religious camp vying with secular factions for control of Somalia.
Despite peace talks and the formation last year of a transitional government, Somalia remains a patchwork of heavily armed clan fiefdoms — with no government to provide such basics as schools, hospitals, phone service, even traffic lights.
Earlier this year, the parliament and Cabinet split into two factions. As a result, fundamentalists offering Islam as a solution have drawn support in Somalia (search), and there are concerns that Awey's followers poses a military threat to the transitional government.
The United States linked Aweys to Al Qaeda shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Last week, the United Nations reported that he was arming hundreds of men to keep the Western-backed transitional government from taking power 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 (search), 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 (search), Somalia's capital, Aweys told The Associated Press Wednesday that his enemies invented allegations he is a terrorist and that non-Muslims too often think that all fundamentalist Muslims are terrorists.
"I would advise the Western world to change their mind, because all of the time they call the Islamic countries, the Islamic people, terrorists, which is not true," he said. "That is one of the things that has been pulling Islamists and the Western world apart.
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 and that he plans to have an important role in the country's future.
"I can influence all of my people with the faith and our religion," Aweys said. "The existing government is not an Islamic one and we will be having our own Islamic faith and we will be very strong in influencing our people."
Aweys did not answer directly when asked whether he has ever had contact with Al Qaeda chief Usama bin Laden or whether he has been accepting funding and weapons from Eritrea (search), neighboring Ethiopia's longtime rival. But he said he has the right to make contact with and have relations with anyone he wants.
Aweys co-founded the Islamic group al-Itihaad al-Islamiya in the early 1990s. The United States alleges that during this time Aweys made contact with bin Laden, then living in Sudan.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (search), an old enemy of Aweys, sent troops into Somalia to stop al-Itihaad. Al-Itihaad's armed wing was destroyed, but the group's founders continued to lead mosques and teach in religious schools.
Aweys said al-Itihaad (search) doesn't exist anymore and he now leads a political party, the Somali Salvation and Unity Council. In recent years, Aweys said he has helped form Islamic courts to provide security for civilians and to sort out disputes in the absence of a government.
These courts have recently begun using armed militias to enforce their rulings and Aweys has become an important religious and political leader.
In September, U.N. experts monitoring an arms embargo on Somalia reported that Islamic hard-liners, including Aweys, were importing high explosives, mines, hand and rifle-fired grenades, anti-tank weapons and ammunition and anti-aircraft guns and ammunition.