MOGADISHU, Somalia – Allegations that al-Qaeda terrorists have been hiding in Somalia revolve around an old cleric, a young warrior, a desecrated cemetery and a lot of uncertainty.
President Bush and other Western leaders have expressed concern that Somalia could become a safe haven for Usama bin Laden's terrorist network — worries heightened by the victories of a militia vowing to bring Islamic rule to the Horn of Africa nation.
Interviews with Islamic leaders, moderate business people and other Somalis reveal that people are frightened by recent events and that the Islamic leaders and the clans through which they operate are under close scrutiny.
The militia loyal to the Islamic Courts Union seized Mogadishu on June 6 after months of fighting that saw more than 330 people killed, most of them civilians. They have since taken control of much of southern Somalia after defeating a coalition of U.S.-backed secular warlords who had been fighting each other since the last effective central government collapsed in 1991.
The courts union's chairman, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, denied in an interview Saturday that anyone in his group was involved with international terrorists.
However, in testimony before the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee on June 13, the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, Henry Crumpton, said a "resilient, enduring, dangerous al-Qaeda cell" operates in Somalia, led by a man on the FBI's most-wanted terrorist list, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed.
Investigations by the FBI and Kenyan police have also shown that terrorist attacks in Kenya against the U.S. Embassy in 1998 and an Israeli-owned hotel in 2002 were launched from Somalia, which is only 125 miles across the Gulf of Aden from the Arabian peninsula. The same al-Qaeda cell is believed responsible for both attacks.
The union is made up of 15 small, clan-based courts, which each have different rules but have pledged to work together to bring stability to Somalia. Most courts practice the moderate Sufi form of Islam that has dominated Somali culture for centuries.
Two men from the Ayr clan with important roles in three of the courts have alleged links to terrorism, according to international reports, and a third has been accused of arms smuggling.
An Ayr clan leader, however, denies this.
"There are no foreigners in a group training or carrying out terrorist activities in Somalia, (but) there may be individuals who are hiding," said Ali Iman Sharmarke, a businessman and self-described moderate.
He told The Associated Press that in an attempt to defuse allegations about the courts union's connections with terrorists, clan elders met with U.S. Ambassador William Bellamy in Nairobi and promised to capture al-Qaeda terrorists if the Americans "tell us exactly where these men are in Somalia."
The U.S. Embassy would confirm only that the ambassador has met with Somali community leaders.
But the U.S. has long accused members of the Ayr clan of having ties to al-Qaeda.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States released a list of individuals and organizations accused of having ties to terrorism. A conservative Somali group called al-Itihaad al-Islaami and its founder, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, were featured for their alleged links to bin Laden while he was living in Sudan in the early 1990s.
Aweys, a cleric believed to be in his 60s, has told the AP in past interviews that al-Itihaad no longer exists and he has no ties to al-Qaeda.
In recent years, he helped establish the Islamic Courts Union and continues to be one of the group's most influential and fundamentalist leaders, strenuously advocating for an Islamic government to end the chaos in Somalia.
In Somali society, and in the absence of any government, each clan has autonomy over its own members and Islamic courts settle internal disputes. The transformation of the clans into a united political and military power, however, is new and some see the influence of al-Itihaad.
A May 2006 report by a U.N. committee monitoring the flow of arms into Somalia reported that al-Itihaad still operates as a militia supporting the courts union and was receiving weapons from Eritrea. The report named Aweys and Sheik Yusuf Indohaadde as the group's leaders.
Attempts to reach Aweys for this story were not successful.
Indohaadde, who is also an Ayr leader within the union, said Saturday that such reports were fabrications by the union's enemies to discredit their organization.
"We want to say in a loud voice that we have no enemies, we have not enmity toward anyone," Indohaadde said. "There are no foreign terrorists here."
A young Ayr leader in charge of the union's most formidable militia, Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, also has been linked to al-Qaeda through his association with Aweys and his military training in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion in 2001.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group, Ayro's "militia has links to al-Qaeda operatives in Mogadishu ... to whom it provides protection."
Residents of Mogadishu, including moderate supporters of the courts union from outside the Ayr clan, told the AP the al-Qaeda suspects operate from a camp established in an old Italian cemetery which they desecrated in January 2005.
Ayr militia, acting on orders from Aweys and Ayro, dug up more than 700 Italian bodies buried between 1908 and 1941 and dumped the bones at the airport. They then constructed a training camp, mosque and field hospital at the site.
The camp has become one of the most fortified compounds in Mogadishu, and few people have visited it since the militia took over. But several people who said they had been inside described seeing men from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan training young men for the Islamic militia.
"The Saudis have very big beards," a truck driver told the AP on condition that he not be named for fear of retribution.
"They take orphaned boys and indoctrinate them, then send them off for military training," another Mogadishu resident said, also speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Ahmed, the union's chairman, acknowledged the union's militia uses the camp for training, but denied that any foreigners or suspected terrorists were there.
"These kinds of rumors were spread by our enemies," he said during the interview in Jowhar, 55 miles north of Mogadishu.
He agreed to a request to visit the cemetery, but a spokesman later told the AP that Ahmed would have to accompany journalists and the tour could only occur after the militiamen in the camp were notified.
Requests to speak to Ayro were also declined because he was not in Mogadishu, union officials said.
Moderate elements who make up the majority of the union's supporters said little can be done against al-Qaeda suspects who may be in Somalia unless the clan protecting them decides to push them out or turn them over. Any outside interference in clan affairs will only result in bloodshed, they said.
These moderates, who also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said that if a new national government takes power in Somalia, it would be much easier to arrest and deport terror suspects. But until then, clan rules apply.