MOGADISHU, Somalia—Even in the violent, anarchic landscape of Mogadishu, Adan Hashi Ayro stands out.
Some describe him as a ruthless holy warrior, a student of the Taliban and a relentless fighter who can scale walls and jump from moving trucks without dropping his weapon. Others offer a more sympathetic portrait of a misguided young militant who is at odds with his own clan, bitter over foreign meddling in Somalia and the scapegoat of U.S. agents who needed to put a face on their enemy.
Somali community leaders agree, however, that the United States can't afford to ignore Ayro, who they say was crucial to the recent victory of the militant Islamic Courts Union over U.S.-backed warlords. If Ayro splits with the Islamic Courts' relatively moderate leadership, he could form an army of extremists prepared to attack American interests in the Horn of Africa, they fear.
"The Courts have a very extremist wing, and maybe Adan is leading this wing. He is said to be the real commander of the fighting, the mastermind," said Abdullahi M. Shirwa, a secular peace activist who supported the Islamic Courts as an antidote to Mogadishu's violence and disorder. "This is a critical time. The United States should not threaten the Islamic Courts with bombings or military action. They should show a deep and committed plan for Somali reconstruction."
U.S. officials met with Somali counterparts in New York last week to help craft a new policy toward the impoverished, battle-scarred country, which has had no real government for 15 years. Many here urged the Bush administration to try to begin a dialogue.
"Go straight to the Islamists and see what they have achieved," said Osman Hassan Ali, a member of Somalia's figurehead transitional government whom American forces detained during fighting in the 1990s. "If the U.S. pushes too much, then they will go against everything. But at least open the dialogue, create some trust."
An International Crisis Group report last year named Ayro as the "main protagonist on the jihadi side" and implicated him in the assassinations of four foreign-aid workers and at least 10 Somali former military and police officers.
"The group is also believed to have helped al-Qaida operatives in Somalia with logistics, jobs, identities and protection, and to operate training sites," the report said.
Ayro, said to be in his late 20s or early 30s, is a relative and protege of a commander of a now-disbanded militia. The Crisis Group report says Ayro was sent to Afghanistan for training and, by at least one account, arrived on the eve of the American offensive against the Taliban after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He didn't return to Somalia for several months.
Sheik Sherif Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, confirmed in an interview with Knight Ridder that Ayro had been in Afghanistan, but he declined to offer details. Ahmed said his group didn't shelter al-Qaida or other terrorism suspects and that U.S. claims to the contrary were false.
"Adan is a normal citizen, a Somali individual trying to contribute," Ahmed said. "Anyone can go to Afghanistan, and people like Adan should not be blamed for it."
In Mogadishu, several Somalis who've met Ayro or know him through his clan said they doubted he was the terrorist chief portrayed by international intelligence agencies.
"He looks like a starving kid," said Ali Iman Sharmarke, a managing partner of HornAfric, a media group in Mogadishu whose radio station last year broadcast the only known interview with Ayro. "I think they are blowing him out of proportion, but that is the culture of the Americans. They have to create a monster so they can take action. Unfortunately, the monster they `create' then becomes a monster."
Sharmarke, who's met Ayro twice, said most Somalis had never heard of the militant until January 2005, when Ayro's forces dug up a colonial-era Italian cemetery in Mogadishu, removing the remains from about 300 Italian graves. Part of what's now Somalia was an Italian colony until World War II.
Sharmarke said the desecration was in part to embarrass Ayro's clan because it had failed to defend him when the forces of a U.S.-backed warlord, seeking a senior al-Qaida suspect, raided Ayro's house. The suspect wasn't there, according to the Crisis Group report, but raiders found a bomb-making manual and Ayro's brother-in-law, a fugitive who was wanted in connection with assassinations in the Somaliland region.
Ayro's role in the recent battle for Mogadishu is in dispute, though all Somali officials said he was crucial to victory. Some said he was valued for the insurgent tactics he allegedly picked up from the Taliban. Others said his battlewagons, equipped with antiaircraft artillery used as ground weapons, were able to penetrate even the best-defended warlord positions.
Somalis here said Ayro represented a faction of Islamic Courts supporters who came of age in vicious, modern-day Mogadishu and were less educated and more dogmatic than the older clerics who form a moderate majority. Many think the moderates can stay in power only if the United States and other interested countries engage in negotiations without recriminations.
"If they come with the mentality that the Taliban is there, let's get them out, we will see a very harsh Courts that's probably capable of driving out 20,000 peacekeepers, like what happened in the past," Sharmarke said.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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