Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – A few years ago, a local gang in Mogadishu kidnapped a young student and demanded a ransom from his family in return for releasing their son. This incident was one of countless other kidnappings and killings perpetrated by armed groups in the Somali capital who exploited the disintegration of the central government, after president Mohammed Siad Barre was ousted from power.
This even marked a turning point in the life of Sheikh Sharif Ahmad, head of the Islamic courts organization and considered by many as “Mogadishu’s strongman,” and accused of being the Somali equivalent of Mullah Omar, founder of the Taliban movement and leader of Afghanistan before the 2001 US invasion.
Born in Chabila, a town in central Somalia, in January 1964, Sheikh Sharif taught geography, Arabic and religious studies in Juba secondary school, where the young student was once a pupil. The kidnapping outraged him and prompted him to intervene to secure the boy’s release.
Sheikh Sharif, a fluent Arabic speaker who attended university in Libya and Sudan, realized he no longer recognized the society in which he lived where violence prevailed and the poor suffered. He decided to search for a solution.
“I met with [the student’s] teachers and decided to act. We issued a statement that attracted people’s attention in Mogadishu. I began speaking to the residents of the neighborhood where kidnappers tended to hide their victims and implored them not to cover up for them,” he told Asharq Al Awsat in a telephone interview.
Prior to the kidnapping, Sheikh Sharif had no affiliation to the Islamic courts organization, which was modestly established in 1996 and grew in 1998. He was surprised to be nominated to lead the organization that maintains a 5000-strong armed militia. “I was visiting a friend when I heard I was nominated for the post. I thought of turning it down and continuing to work as a teacher and guide pupils. But I soon agreed for fear that the organization might fail while still in its infancy.”
The Islamic courts organization holds court proceedings, sentences defendants to prison or lashes if found guilty, according to Islamic Sharia and away from the law of the jungle that has taken hold in Somalia and especially in the capital.
Asked about the number of forces loyal to him, Sheikh Sharif said he could not discuss exact figures for security reasons. “This is top secret information. If I tell you, some parties might underestimate us if the numbers are small. We might exaggerate our force if we mention large figures. Since the beginning of the civil war, all Somalis are armed. We have not banned anyone from joining us. Some people are under the impression that we are a heavily-armed organization.”
With armed clashes erupting around Mogadishu last week, Sheikh Sharif indicated that he might need to re-consider the security measures he takes to safeguard his life. “By nature, I do not like to have guards around me. But I was forced to seek the help of highly-trained and armed bodyguards” because of the recent flare up of violence which Sheikh Sharif blamed on “the devil’s allies,” in reference to US-backed warlords. “I used to go out quite often without guards and I enjoyed it. This is no longer possible,” he added.
Despite these complications, Sheikh Sharif did not regret becoming the leader of the Islamic courts organization. “This is our fate and responsibility. Our aim is to serve the Somali people and defend their rights and dignity.”
He expressed fear for his country’s futures and worried about Somalia, which appeared to have been “forgotten by the world” and stroked off the world map.
Sheikh Sharif told Asharq Al Awsat he lives with his wife and two children, Ahmad, aged 9 and Abdullah, who is a toddler, in a modest house in Mogadishu . He does not own a computer or a satellite phone he added. “I live a simple life, like the majority of Somalis,” he said, in response to those who accuse him of amassing a vast fortune as the new “uncrowned king of Mogadishu.”
In order for peace and security to return to Somalia, the country’s citizens should unite and cast aside their political and tribal differences, Sheikh Sharif said. However, he insisted he is no Mullah Omar who won popular Afghan support and came to power on the back of a destructive civil war and discredited warlords. “Our situation differs from Afghanistan’s and we are not presenting ourselves as an alternative government or seeking control of the capital, as our enemies claim.” But according to the latest UN Security Council report, militiamen loyal to twelve courts administered by Sheikh Sharif across Mogadishu now control 80% of the capital.
Denying receiving financial aid from aboard, Sheikh Sharif said the organization’s popularity stems from people’s love and appreciation for its actions, given the absence of a central government. “We rely on our limited resources and what ordinary citizens give us. We welcome financial contributions, however small they are, but do not oblige citizens to contribute.”
He denied having any contacts with the transitional federal government led by President Abdullahi Yusuf and Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Ghedi, currently based in Nairobi, adding that he did not object to future talks, if they serve the interests of the Somali people. Criticizing the US administration’s role in the recent fighting, Sheikh Sharif said Washington was not acting in the interest of Somalis but was repeating past mistakes. President Bush’s remarks on the presence of Al Qaeda in Somalia were “lies,” to promote the US’ war on terror, he added.
According to western intelligence sources, the Islamic courts organization is sheltering Muslim extremists, some of whom have ties to Al Qaeda, including three suspected of carrying out the attacks on US embassies in East Africa in 1998.
For his part, Sheikh Sharif emphasized that Osama Bin Laden’s group did not have any presence in Somalia. “There are no fugitives from Al Qaeda or any other organization, as the US and Ethiopian intelligence services are claiming. This is an open country and strangers will be found out very quickly. Look at the number of lies Washington is telling about Iraq and Afghanistan. It is trying to repeat the same thing in Mogadishu but we will not let it.”
As for the Islamic union organization, accused by Addis Ababa of involvement in a series of terrorist attacks that hit the capital in the 1990s, Sheikh Sharif said it was no longer active, after suffering heavy losses because of the violent campaign Ethiopian forces launched against it.
He also accused the Arab world of failing Somalia twice, the first time by ignoring the crisis in the country and the second by refusing to intervene to solve it and provide urgent humanitarian and financial aid to help save the lives of millions of civilians displaced by the civil war. “They [the Arabs] hear about us from the foreign media which exaggerates the news from Somalia and paints us in a way that suits its interest. None of [the Arabs] have thought of contacting us, like you did, to listen and learn about out our point of view. This is very sad.”