TORONTO - A Somali-Canadian businessman is a "key player" in an emerging armed Islamic group that some describe as Africa's Taliban, sources have told the National Post.
Former Toronto resident Abdullahi Ali Afrah, who goes by the nickname Aspro, holds a senior position in the consultative council of Somalia's hardline Islamic Courts Union.
As second deputy chairman, he reports to Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on Canadian and United Nations lists of designated terrorists and was a founding member of the outlawed terror group Al-Ittihad Al-Islam (AIAI).
Mr. Ali Afrah is one of several members of the Toronto and Ottawa Somali-Canadian communities who have reportedly returned to their homeland and joined the Islamic Courts, either in leadership and support roles or as fighters in armed militias.
Backed by its militias, the Islamic Courts have captured Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, and much of the south from clan warlords since June, replacing lawlessness with strict Taliban-like rule.
The Department of Foreign Affairs is watching the development, but an official said Ottawa was unaware a Canadian had been appointed to a senior position in the Islamic Courts.
"We're monitoring the situation in Somalia closely," said Andre Lemay, press secretary to Peter MacKay, the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
"We are aware that some Canadians with dual Somali citizenship are working and doing business in Somalia, including in affiliation with the transitional federal government, the courts and NGOs."
But he said "the Canadian government has no details of any Canadian being number two to the leader of the Islamic Courts Union."
A native of Mogadishu, Mr. Ali Afrah moved to Toronto in the 1980s and became a Canadian citizen.
According to community sources, he earned his nickname by selling aspirin, "aspro" in Italian, and later ran the Canadian branch of an international money-transfer company.
"He was one of the colleagues working here very hard for his family," said Aden Esse, a Somali-Canadian community leader.
"At that time there were not those names al-Qaeda and Taliban; they were not even in the picture at the time. He was just a typical Somali-Canadian at the time that I knew him."
Mr. Ali Afrah opened the Canadian branch of Al-Barakaat, which helped Somali-Canadians transfer money back to relatives in their homeland, Mr. Esse said.
Two months after the 9/11 attacks, Al-Barakaat offices were shut down worldwide at U.S. urging due to alleged ties to al-Qaeda, but the Americans have since backtracked and only the Barakaat offices in Somalia remain on the UN and Canadian lists of terrorist entities.
Mr. Ali Afrah moved back to Somalia sometime in the late 1990s, Mr. Esse said. Sources who knew him in Somalia said he managed the Al-Barakaat office in Mogadishu.
"I met him a number of times that he came back, a number of years back," said Mr. Esse. "I think he was more a business person than any other thing.
"I don't know when he went back to Somalia, but he was not an Islamic person even at the time I knew him.... Is he there [as] an administrative person or one of the religious leaders? I don't know."
In testimony before the House subcommittee on Africa in June, Ted Dagne of the Congressional Research Service, called Mr. Ali Afrah one of the "key players in the Islamic Courts Union" and said he held a "key position."
Somalia has had no central government since the fall of Siad Barre in 1991. Warlords have ruled ever since but in recent months militias loyal to courts that enforce shariah Islamic law have taken control of the south.
The Islamic Courts Union has won popular support for its efforts to restore order to Somalia, but international observers are concerned it has been imposing rigid social restrictions based on extremist interpretations of Islam.
Watching World Cup soccer has been banned, for example, while public executions have occurred as recently as last week. The UN has ordered its staff out of Mogadishu, citing threats from the Islamic Courts.
There are also allegations of ties to al-Qaeda. The youth militia of the Islamic Courts, the Shabbab, is headed by Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, who was allegedly trained by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Several Somali-Canadians are believe to be serving in the militia, the Post revealed on the weekend.
The Canadian presence in the "African Taliban" has raised alarms in Ottawa, which fears a repeat of the Afghanistan experience. After participating in the 1980s Afghanistan war, Canadian extremists such as Ahmed Khadr escalated to terrorism and returned to Canada and helped radicalize a new generation.
AL-ITTIHAD AL-ISLAM (AIAI)
"The AIAI is an internationally established Islamist organization that engages in terrorism in Somalia and Ethiopia. Guided by the goal of creating an Islamist theocracy based on Islamic law, the AIAI's objective is the unification of all Muslims in the region under the banner of creating a 'greater Somalia'. To achieve this goal, the AIAI is committed to using indiscriminate terror tactics, including the targeting of foreigners and political leaders of foreign states. The AIAI has ties with states that are known to support terrorism and is believed to have operational links with Al Qaida."