For the past three years, the Shabab, one of Africa's most fearsome militant Islamist groups, have been terrorising the Somali public, chopping off hands, stoning people to death and banning TV, music and even bras in their quest to turn Somalia into a seventh-century-style Islamic state.
At the same time, they have drawn increasingly close to the al-Qaeda, deploying suicide bombers, attracting jihadists from around the world and prompting American concerns that they may be spreading into Kenya, Yemen and beyond.
But could Somalia finally be reaching a tipping point against the Shabab?
Not only is Somalia's transitional government gearing up for a major offensive against the Shabab — with the American military providing intelligence and logistical support — but Mogadishu's beleaguered population, sensing a change in the salt-sticky air, is beginning to turn against them.
Women who have been whipped and humiliated by morality police for not veiling their faces are now whispering valuable secrets about the Shabab's movements into the ears of government soldiers. Teenage students outraged that Shabab-allied fighters hoisted a black flag in front of their school recently pelted the fighters with stones. Defectors are leaving the Shabab in droves, including one 13-year-old who said that he was routinely drugged before being handed a machine gun and shoved into combat.
Since 1991, when Somalia's central government collapsed, the people here have endured one violent struggle after another, which has reduced the capital, Mogadishu, to ruins and this nation to the archetypal failed state. But never before has the Somali public had such a vested interest in who wins as they do in the coming showdown against the Shabab.
“They are like rabid dogs,” said Dahir Mohamed, a shopkeeper, who still has puffy, oddly circular scars on his face from where he says young Shabab fighters bit him.
The Shabab have defied expectations in the past and proved resilient, determined and formidable. Some Somalia analysts fear that even if the government dislodges the Shabab and ends their ability to operate in the open, they can still wreak havoc with suicide bombs and other guerrilla tactics.
“They will pull out and leave people behind the lines,” said Mark Bowden, head of U.N. humanitarian operations in Somalia.
But if Somalis, who possess considerable firepower of their own, decisively turn against the Shabab, and the government provides people with an alternative to rally behind, it could be difficult for the militants to reconstitute themselves, even as a guerrilla army. The best example of that backlash is already happening in Medina, a neighbourhood a few miles from the centres of Mogadishu. Just past the airport, it is a place of sandy streets and once beautiful homes now chewed up by gunfire and mold.
Shabab fighters, in their trademark green jumpsuits and checkered scarves, used to control parts of Medina. But in the last year or so the neighbourhood, dominated by a single clan, banded together to drive them out.
Young men joined the local militia. Old men raised money for guns. Women and girls hauled ice, rice and milk to the front lines and braved gunfire to evacuate the casualties.
“We hate the Shabab,” said one mother, Amina Abdullahi Mohamed. “They misled our youth.”
Medina is now one of Mogadishu's safest areas, and while still not particularly safe, an unmistakable beat of life has returned.
There has not been a suicide attack for months. The markets are packed, protected by baby-faced militiamen in polo shirts and Kalashnikov rifles over their shoulders. Beat-up old minibuses cruise the streets, and there is even something close to traffic. A tight clan network keeps a watchful eye and last month, a teacher of the Quran recruiting children for the Shabab was promptly arrested. — © 2010 New York Times News Service