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Inside Al Shabab: How the Somalia militant group rules through fear

As the Somalia government fends off militant group Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked insurgency shows its power through intimidation of a whistle-blower.

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A government pushback?

But the coming months may see a change, if not in the power balance in Somalia, then at least in the level of violence, as thousands of freshly trained Somali troops return from Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Uganda to take up positions with the weak Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu.

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These troops have also been joined by recently mobilized militias of an anti-Al Shabab religious society called Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, which has opened up new fronts against Al Shabab and its allied Islamist militia, Hizbul Islam. Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa's powerful militia signed a formal agreement on Monday with the UN-backed government to offer ground support in exchange for senior government positions.

In Mogadishu, officials loyal to President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed talk openly about a coming government offensive against Al Shabab. Already the number of attacks between the two factions has increased, with reports of hundreds of Al Shabab fighters from Kismayo – led by Alabama-born commander Abu Mansour al-Amriki – to reinforce the front lines of Mogadishu, while tens of thousands of Somalis moved in the opposite direction, seeking safety in displacement camps.

‘I dream that they will kill me’

For Egal, however, such displacement or refugee camps offer no safety. His wife, children, and parents have gone into hiding far from Kismayo, and he hasn’t heard from them for months. He has received refugee status from the United Nations, and has applied for political asylum – like some 18,600 other Somalis – to live in another country. He has also been offered shelter inside a protected UN facility, but Egal refuses to enter it, worried that he might be spotted there by an Al Shabab sympathizer among the other residents.

“I have no work, no relations to give me support,” he says. “I don’t sleep in any one place more than once. Every night, I dream that they will kill me.”

Egal’s caution is understandable, even in Nairobi. In the Somali-dominated neighborhood of Eastleigh, the majority of residents are either Somalis of Kenyan nationality or refugees who fled the war. But the number of radical mosques that support Al Shabab is growing, and at Friday afternoon prayers, sermons extolling support for Al Shabab’s social revolution in Somalia can be heard blaring from mosque loudspeakers.

While Egal stays in hiding, he still harbors a grudge against Al Shabab and the foreign militants who increasingly come to Somalia to carry out their own idea of jihad.

“People are coming from other countries like America and Britain and the Arab countries to fight jihad against the unbelievers, but this is a country full of Muslims,” he says, incredulous. “If they want jihad, why don’t they do it in their own country? Why do they want to destroy my country and kill my children?”