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Militant’s capture creates problem for Somalia

Last update 09-07-13

Militant’s capture creates problem for Somalia

By Katrina Manson in Nairobi

The capture of a senior al-Qaeda-linked Islamist in Somalia may seem like a fresh victory for the western-backed government. But the arrest of Hassan Dahir Aweys, the spiritual leader of al-Shabaab, late in June has presented the fragile administration with a difficult dilemma.

In recent years, UN-backed African troops have pushed al-Shabaab militants out of the capital Mogadishu, increasing hopes for stability in a country known for piracy and terrorism and torn apart by civil war for nearly 20 years.

Now international diplomats want Mr Aweys to face justice in court, either in Somalia or elsewhere, for his alleged role in suicide bombings and terror attacks in the Horn of Africa. “We believe Aweys should be brought to justice,” Brian Phipps, acting special representative for Somalia for the US, told the Financial Times.

But the government in Mogadishu fears this will destabilise a fragile peace. “It is a nightmare. I wish we had not got him,” a senior government official told the FT. “We are risking attack from al-Shabaab; we are risking attack from the clan,” he said. The weak and isolated government relies on support from Mr Aweys’ clan, which has complained about the handling of the case.

Officials in the Mogadishu government have suggested Mr Aweys could be sent to the Gulf state of Qatar, a nation that has funded Islamists in the past, including Mr Aweys. Qatar is home to a Taliban representative office, with the aim of facilitating talks between the Afghan militants and the west. It is not clear under what conditions Qatar would accept Mr Aweys or if indeed it would. Officials in Qatar could not be reached for comment.

In any case, Mr Aweys, listed by both the UN and the US as a terrorist since 2001, is subject to a UN travel ban and cannot leave Somalia. The UN’s Somalia envoy, Nick Kay, said “the decision is for the Somalis” but urged the president and leadership to comply with Security Council resolutions that prevent him from travelling.

Though Somalia is in theory bound by the travel ban, there are possible temporary exceptions to it. Mr Aweys – in his late 70s with a distinctive orange-dyed beard – remains under house arrest by Somali intelligence service, on what officials said were doctors’ orders.

“[Next week] what will happen is interrogation or investigation or questioning will start and from then on all options are on the table,” said Abdirahman Omar Osman Yarisow, spokesman for the president. “If he starts to choose the path of peace, then he has to renounce violence and ask forgiveness of the people and then . . . make a decision to apply for an exemption [to the travel ban] to travel due to health reasons.”

Citing health grounds could help the Security Council justify lifting the travel ban temporarily, officials said. Any suspension or movement to Qatar would probably come with conditions restricting his movement and political activity.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the US was prepared to be pragmatic about this; having him in a gilded cage in Qatar is better than having him roaming around at large in Somalia. He’d effectively be neutralised; this takes him out of play,” said Matt Bryden, Somali expert and director of Sahan Research think-tank.

Mr Aweys fled for his life last month after splits within al-Shabaab turned violent. Members of his clan then tried to secure his safe passage to Mogadishu. But on arrival in the capital, those accompanying him were beaten by government security forces and Mr Aweys was arrested.

The government holds little sway beyond the capital over which it claims authority and the nature of his arrest could reignite tensions within an administration that relies on support from Mr Aweys’ clan.

“Aweys doesn’t have a large number of supporters or followers. He’s a marginal player but circumstances have propelled him back to centre stage. Now [his clan] is up in arms, whether they like Aweys or not, against the government and the way they feel the government has handled his case,” said Mr Bryden.

Officials are also mindful of the fact that the treatment of Mr Aweys may influence the behaviour of other senior recent al-Shabaab defectors, notably Mukhtar Robow. Mr Robow, who is still at large, fought in Afghanistan.

Despite the splits in al-Shabaab, it is unclear that the movement has been weakened by the infighting. Hardline leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, who favours international jihad over the others’ more nationalist agenda, has successfully ousted the pragmatists. But consolidating his power over a more isolated extremist movement may make fundraising and recruitment harder.

“[Aweys] is another piece off the chess board but he was never really a danger anyway – the queen’s still on the board,” said one official in the Somali government, referring to Mr Godane. 

Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr


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