America's bogeyman is an Islamist hero to many in Somalia

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The Islamist fighters looting the United Nations and African Union compounds in Jowhar were led by a man so thin that he looked almost frail with a row of grenades strapped to his chest.

The man was Aden Hashi Ayro - to the Americans al-Qa'ida's chief killer in east Africa, but to many Somalis a nationalist fighting for his country and for Islam against the US and their corrupt client warlords.

What is not in dispute is that Ayro has been one of those most instrumental in the sweeping successes enjoyed by the Islamic forces, and that even in a place bristling with gunmen, such as the capital, Mogadishu, he inspires genuine fear.

What has also emerged is that many of his fighters are Somalis returning from the diaspora to the West. Those storming the buildings in Jowhar, just 50 miles from Mogadishu, spoke English with American and British accents and the same tones can be heard among others in Mogadishu. Some said they did not want their photographs taken because they wanted to seek work in the West.

The attack on the international compound, staffed by Somalis left behind when foreigners were evacuated, stopped after a direct appeal to Commander Ayro, who put the buildings under his personal protection.

Such moderation is not the image usually associated with the militia leader, who had trained at a camp in Taliban Afghanistan. Ayro has been accused of a series of murders of Westerners as well as Somalis. He is also the man who dug up the bodies in Mogadishu's Italian cemetery and built a corrugated iron mosque on the site. The remains were then sold to the Italian government, the revenue going towards arming his militia. When elders of his clan, the Habr Gadir, protested at this, Ayro warned them that they were following a dangerous path by "supporting infidels". A respected veteran of the insurgency against former president Mohamed Siyaad Barre, Abdirahman Diriiye Warsame, was shot dead after he denounced the desecration of the cemetery.

The policy of the US in Somalia is based on the premise that a violent Muslim extremist threat has to be countered by funding the same warlords responsible for America's humiliating retreat from the country 13 years ago. The warlords are accused of exaggerating the terrorist threat to keep the money tap flowing, and the fact that they are US-sponsored has driven Somalis to support the Islamists.

The Islamists are making rapid gains - yesterday they took Baladwayne, 20 miles from the Ethiopian border. The Ethiopians have moved troops to the frontier backed up by armour and Hind helicopter gunships. Somalis remember only too well that the Ethiopian invasion of the 1990s began with attacks by such gunships.

At the same time the parliament of Somalia's transitional federal government, which has set up its headquarters in internal exile at Baidoa, wants foreign troops "to restore stability". Diplomats believe this gives the Ethiopians an excuse to send troops across the border.

The Islamists vehemently reject the idea of foreign forces. Hundreds of their supporters demonstrated yesterday in Mogadishu against the Baidoa government, chanting, "We don't need foreign troops".

Meanwhile, the business community in Mogadishu, who have bankrolled the Islamists, warned that the introduction of foreign soldiers will strengthen the young militant fundamentalists in the Islamist movement led by Ayro at the expense of the moderates.

The "moderate" face of the Islamist movement is Sheikh Ahmed Sharif, keen to talk to the Western media to show it has responsible leaders. Asked about Ayro, with his alleged links to al-Qa'ida, he told The Independent: "The claims made against him by the Americans are exaggerated. As far as we know, he is a normal citizen trying to help Somalia. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, anyone can go there, why not?"

Ayro has only given one interview, to the local radio and television station Horn Afrik, and stated he was unhappy with what went on the air. A day later, two grenades were lobbed into Horn Afrik's offices.

Some public figures in Mogadishu hold, however, that Western intelligence is creating the "myth of Ayro", a figure close to the Islamist leadership said. "It is the American way, they paint a man out to be a monster and sooner or later the man becomes that monster. Just remember how Zarqawi became so famous."