MOGADISHU, Somalia – With an assault rifle slung over his shoulder and a glass of sweet tea in his hand, 15-year-old Farah Ismail was all smiles Friday at an outdoor cafe in Mogadishu, one of the most dangerous cities on earth.
A fighter for Al Shabab, a radical Islamic group at the heart of Somalia's deadly insurgency, Ismail was clearly emboldened as his comrades advanced to within miles of Somalia's capital, seizing vast territory in recent weeks and vowing to use strict Muslim rules to bring their lawless Horn of Africa country under control.
"I am happy with how things are going here," Ismail said, squinting under the dazzling sun in this once-beautiful seaside capital, which has crumbled into a scorched, bullet-pocked shantytown during Somalia's 20 years of anarchy. "I can go freely anywhere I want and I can target my enemy by sight."
The steady and seemingly uncontested rise of Al Shabab, which America considers a terrorist organization, exceeds the worst-case scenarios laid out in late 2006 when Somalia's U.N.-backed government rolled into Mogadishu with the support of powerful Ethiopian troops and drove out radical Islamists intent on ruling Somalia by strict Shariah law.
The past two years have been a bloodbath as the Islamic fighters launched a vicious, Iraq-style insurgency that has killed thousands of civilians and sent an estimated half of Mogadishu's 2 million people fleeing for their lives. They have seized most of southern Somalia — advancing to within 10 miles of the capital — allowing fighters like Ismail to roam the streets unhindered.
Even in the capital, where the government is still nominally in control, Shabab fighters carry out public punishments like lashings and stonings, conduct training exercises and present themselves as alternate government in a country where the official administration has failed to protect civilians.
"The government soldiers and the Ethiopian troops are in a few military bases in the corners of the city, but they hardly move in the streets at all because of all the roadside bombs and ambushes by insurgents," said 26-year-old Mogadishu resident Abdiwali Mohamed. "We don't know who is really in control."
Some war-weary residents say they have no interest in the Shabab's interpretation of Islam — as long as they can bring peace. Many felt the same in 2006, when the Islamists brought six months of relative peace to Somalia, but frightened people into submission with strict laws.
"I do not care about their principles," said Ganey Aflanay, 24-year-old bus driver. "All I need is peace and security to earn a living for my three sons and my wife."
Still, it is unlikely the Islamist fighters will try to take over the capital anytime soon, opting instead to chip away at the Somali and Ethiopian soldiers through their near-daily insurgent attacks. They also are launching what appears to be a hearts-and-minds campaign, promising to restore order.
Aden Haji Macow, a 39-year-old shop owner, said government soldiers are undisciplined and steal from civilians.
"They are poorly paid and they are voracious for money to buy qat," she said, referring to the popular narcotic leaf that Al Shabab has banned in its territory. "The soldiers steal our mobile phones and other valuables at gunpoint, but the Islamists do not do that," Macow said in Merka, a port city some 56 miles from the capital, which Al Shabab captured earlier this week.
Still, the Ethiopian troops stationed in Mogadishu have far superior firepower, which was crucial in driving out the Islamists in 2006. Ethiopia will not say how many fighters they have there, but their numbers are in the thousands. Their supporters also say the Ethiopians have a national interest in staying in Somalia — to prevent a radical Islamist regime right next door.
Analysts say the Islamists are trying to advance toward Mogadishu partly in an attempt to cut the supply lines to the Ethiopians. Al Shabab also appear to have a much longer timeline for capturing Mogadishu than they did in 2006, this time convincing the Ethiopians and the Somali citizenry that foreign troops cannot remain here forever.
Despite their advances, however, the Islamists are suffering internal divisions. Al Shabab, which the U.S. considers a terror group because of its leaders' alleged links to Al Qaeda, controls the most territory. But more moderate fighters from groups including the Council of Islamic Courts have also taken towns, including Elasha, about 10 miles from the capital.
"Because of these divisions, they are likely to weaken," said Dahir Mohamed Yusuf, a Somali political analyst.
The United States worries that Somalia could be a terrorist breeding ground, particularly since Osama bin Laden declared his support for the Islamists. It accuses Al Shabab of harboring the Al Qaeda-linked terrorists who allegedly blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing over 230 people.
The U.S. sent a small number of special operations troops with the Ethiopian forces in 2006 and in early 2007 conducted several airstrikes in an attempt to kill suspected Al Qaeda members. But the fact that Ethiopia is a key U.S. ally, and most Somalis loathe America, doesn't help matters.
Ethiopia itself is a traditional rival of overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia. It has large Christian and Muslim populations as well as one of Africa's largest armies, which many Somalis see as abusive and heavy-handed. Al Shabab, which means "the Youth," mounts almost daily mortar attacks, suicide bombings and ambushes.
Somali government forces, acknowledging they are struggling, say — rather unconvincingly — that they will get all of Somalia under control, but offer no details.
"The government is preparing to retake all the areas it lost," Col. Abdullahi Hassan Barise, a police spokesman, said with a heavy sigh.