Somalia's Links to al Qaida Questioned

NPR's Scott Simon talks to Harvard Professor Robert Rotberg about the Islamist militia now in control of much of Somalia, called the Supreme Islamic Courts Council. The United States believes the new leader of the Islamists has links to al Qaida, but Rotberg says the group is funded and armed by the Saudi and Eritrean governments.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In Somalia, the Islamist militia group that seized control of Mogadishu a few weeks ago now says it rules the entire country. The Supreme Islamic Courts Council has restructured in recent days. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys is now the group's leader. The U.S. suspects him of having working ties with al-Qaida.

Somalia's been under the dominion of an assortment of clans and clan militias since 1991. Many Somalis hope that the Supreme Islamist Courts Council may provide stability to their country, but many in the international community are concerned that Islamist leadership could push Somalia in the direction of Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Robert Rotberg has been following developments in Somalia. He directs the program on intrastate conflict and conflict resolution at Harvard University. He joins us from Lexington, Massachusetts. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

Professor ROBERT ROTBERG (Harvard University): My pleasure.

SIMON: And what do we need to know about the Supreme Islamist Courts, sir? How does it function? How does it broaden its influence?

Prof. ROTBERG: The Supreme Islamic Court Council is really shifting all the time. The positive side is for the last six or seven years they've been brining increasing stability to a war-torn country. The increasing shift towards a Taliban-like behavior in the last week or so, particularly in the capital city, has been worrying, but the rest of the country is not necessarily as Talibanized yet. The Courts Council does not control all of Somalia. It hasn't moved into Puntland in the northeast, and of course, Somaliland is separate and maintaining that unrecognized separation.

SIMON: But help us understand the Courts Council, and forgive me for perhaps phrasing this consciously naively, but I mean if you get a traffic ticket, is this where you go?

Prof. ROTBERG: No, if you have a dispute over goats, you go and it gets settled. If you have an adultery case or a domestic dispute of some serious kind, you go there. And nowadays, if you've been caught watching the World Cup, you either get beaten or you show up before a court system somewhere, and they fine you.

SIMON: Please tell us about Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. He's apparently on the U.S. and United Nations terror list.

Prof. ROTBERG: Yes, he was one of the early Islamists in Somalia, comes from the Ayr clan and is supported by them, but that's not one of the very major clans, so it's not clear that a Courts Council led by a person from one clan can impose its will on the other clans.

The other side of that is, these are not terrorists, necessarily. They're Islamists and there's very little evidence that al-Qaida is funding Hassan Aweys or the Islamic Courts Council. The funding, as far as we've been able to determine, comes from our allies, the Saudis. These are Wahhabist's money coming into the Islamic Courts Council. Also, there's Eritrean money, which has been funding this group, because the Eritreans want to support any group that's anti-Ethiopian.

SIMON: Please explain to us the involvement of both Ethiopia and Eritrea in Somalia, and why they've become significant actors.

Prof. ROTBERG: Somalia is the pivot, so to speak, in the area, and Ethiopia has always coveted parts of Somalia. It also wants to keep the Somalis from combining with their Somali kin who live in Ethiopia in the Ogaden Region. So Ethiopia likes to be the power broker in this region, and Eritrea likes to do anything that Ethiopia doesn't want it to do.

SIMON: Professor Rotberg, if you were there in Somalia today, what would you look for?

Prof. ROTBERG: I'd look for popular opinion by going into the marketplaces and talking to people, which is what I hope some of our people from Washington are doing, and finding out who the Council really represents. And also I'd - to quote President Bush - I'd follow the money trail back to Saudi Arabia and our allies are, after all, have been the big supporters of the Courts Council.

SIMON: Robert Rotberg directs the program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard University. Thanks very much for being with us.

Prof. ROTBERG: My pleasure.

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