Somalia’s Islamist movement, whose leadership is accused by the US of sheltering some of al-Qaida’s most wanted operatives, sent a delegation on a fundraising trip to Britain last year, the Guardian has learned. Led by an Islamist minister, the Union of Islamic Courts delegation received pledges of funding from members of Britain’s Somali diaspora at a meeting at a north London school in November.
According to one community leader, the Somali delegation also met sympathisers at the Finsbury Park mosque, which became notorious as a recruiting ground for radical Islam under its former imam Abu Hamza.
Abdiwali Mohamud, a Somali community worker in Camden, said: “They were trying to influence people in a Muslim way, saying are you with us or with the unbelievers?”
Although they were not officially recognised by Britain, the Islamists also held talks with Foreign Office officials, who urged them to negotiate with Somalia’s government.
The Foreign Office meeting underlines the strikingly different approaches taken by the US – which describes the Islamists as “extremists to the core” and targeted Somalia with an air strike this week – and Britain, which accepts that there were moderate elements within the UIC.
Around 500 people attended the Islamists’ fundraising meeting at the Islington Arts and Media School, according to a British Somali who was in the audience. A delegation led by Omar Mohammed Mahamoud Aftooje, the Islamist minister responsible for reconstruction, appealed for financial help.
“They talked about the progress they made in Mogadishu, how they defeated the warlords,” the audience member, who requested anonymity, told the Guardian. “More than 20 people donated Â£1,000 each, some people said Â£100, others Â£300, some of them gave cash on
the spot, others gave bank details or agreed to transfer money. They said the money was for repairing roads in Mogadishu.”
However, one of the UIC delegation also spoke of the need for military support, which prompted concern from the audience.
The audience member said: “He said: ‘We are at war at the moment, people have died and we need military support.’
“Some people were angry, they said, are you asking for money to rebuild our country or money for fighting? Some were happy to support fighting but some were not.”
But did anyone object to the “Talibanization” of their country?
The delegation also visited Birmingham and Manchester.
The Foreign Office confirmed yesterday that a UIC delegation had met British officials on November 20.
A spokeswoman said: “They asked for the meeting. HMG appreciated that at the time the UIC was a reality on the ground and in dialogue with the [Somali] government. It was reasonable to meet them.”
The government was aware that the Islamists were trying to raise funds. “We were neither happy nor unhappy about that. The UIC is not a proscribed terrorist organisation.”
Many among Britain’s 43,000-strong Somali community admire the movement for restoring peace and the rule of law to the capital, Mogadishu, and southern Somalia, which has been fought over by rival factions since the collapse of central government 16 years
ago. An Islamist supporter, Mohomoud Nur, a community worker with the London-based Somali Speakers Association, said: “Somali tribes are so fragmented the only thing that can unite them is Islam. People felt the only way they could find justice is through Islam.”
The Home Office is still investigating Ethiopian claims that seven British passport holders were injured in Monday’s US air strike on suspected jihadists in southern Somalia.
Mr Nur said he had phone contact with British Somali families who were stranded in Somalia and feared that their teenage sons might be accused of being jihadi fighters. “There are families that are hiding there now, who are afraid they may confiscate passports and accuse them, that they are foreign fighters.”
Abdirahman Warsame, the Finsbury Park mosque’s executive manager, denied claims that the Islamists had met supporters there, saying the only fundraising had been at the Islington school.