Island's 'Ayatollah' Denies He'll Support Extremism

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT


Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - Voters in the Comoros - an island nation in the Indian Ocean -- have elected as president an Islamic cleric who was educated in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Some are concerned that he may introduce Islamic law, support extremism and provide diplomatic support to despotic Islamic states at the U.N.

President Ahmed Abdallar Mohammed Sambi's background has given rise to media speculation in Africa that he may pursue an anti-Western stance and end the country's support for the U.S.-led anti-terrorism war.

Comoros, located off Africa's southeast coast, is about half the size of Rhode Island. Although small, its location is important.

The U.S. is engaged in efforts to disrupt terror activities along the Indian Ocean coastline, activities known to have contributed to terrorism in East Africa. The waters off Somalia to the north are also a haven for pirates.

Sambi, who was elected this week with 60 percent of votes cast, has sought to quell the concerns.

He told reporters that he was not ashamed to be a Muslim, but that "our country is not ready to be an Islamic state and I will not make anyone wear the veil."

"I am against extremism and terrorism. I am a theologian, I am also a pragmatist. I did not use a single Islamic slogan in my campaign," Sambi said in response to questions.

Shortly before the election, the man nicknamed "Ayatollah" paid a symbolic visit to a Catholic Church. Some 98 percent of the Comoros' 690,000 people are Sunni Muslim, with the remainder Catholics.

Sambi also denied he had links with Iran, despite having studied there. But he also said he would not end relations with Tehran, adding "we need help from everyone."

He said his priority would be to fight poverty and unemployment in a country with a per capita income of $600.

Comoros' most prominent link to terrorism emerged when a Comoros-born extremist, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, was implicated in al-Qaeda's 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and a 2002 attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa. He remains at large, whereabouts unknown.

In 2004, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Comorian branch of the Saudi Arabia-based Al Haramain Islamic Foundation (AHF) as a conduit for international terrorism financing.

Otherwise, however, the previous administration was supportive of the campaign against terrorism launched after 9/11.

Comoros is a party to seven out of 13 international counter-terrorism conventions, according to the State Department.

In its most recent global report on terrorism, the department said it was possible that terrorist suspects traveled through or sought safe haven in Comoros, where the security forces have limited resources and training in counter-terrorism and maritime security.

"The government has shown a consistent effort to improve its counter-terrorism measures, including participation in U.S. training programs and cooperation with the Rewards for Justice Program.

"The Comorian government and local religious leaders disapprove of Islamic extremism and have stopped taking money from suspect Islamic charities," it said.

Comoros became a member of the United Nations after obtaining independence from France in 1975, and the US recognized the nation two years later. The two nations have cordial relations, although the U.S. closed its embassy in Moroni in 1993 and is now represented by a nonresident ambassador, based in Madagascar.

Comoros has been plagued by instability, having endured 19 coups or coup attempts since independence from France in 1975.

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