Perhaps the only thing standing in Al Shabab's way is an unlikely enemy: an army of citizens and clerics who are fighting to preserve what's left of the Somalia that they have known for generations.
Western experts call them moderate Islamists; they call themselves Ahlu Sunna wa Jamaa.
Compared with the highly trained, well-funded Al Shabab, which took the transitional capital of Baidoa last week, Ahlu Sunna is poorly armed, but popular. And although the moderate Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was elected president of Somalia by a transitional parliament last week, Ahlu Sunna knows that its time is running out.
"For Ahlu Sunna, a key concept is that everyone has the right to human dignity and peaceful coexistence, and a political war is not part of our principles," says Sheikh Mahamad Moallem Hussein, the secretary-general of Ahlu Sunna, in a recent interview in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. "But when we came to see that there is no life security for the common man, no law and order, and even the dead are not safe – their tombs are destroyed and looted – that is when the situation could not be tolerated any longer."
As adherents of a passivist Sufi order, Mr. Hussein and the members of Ahlu Sunna do not make natural warriors, but they may be Somalia's last best hope for restoring peace.
Claiming to represent a broad swath of Somalia's citizens, Ahlu Sunna have recently taken up arms and secured a number of military victories over the better armed, better funded Al Shabab.
Now, as Ethiopian peacekeepers withdraw, and a secular transitional government appear to be all but forced into exile, Ahlu Sunna's time for testing appears to have finally come.
"Al Shabab has consolidated its control over southern Somalia, and it's a caricature to call them, as you see in the news media, a rag tag militia with a harsh version of Islam – in fact they are quite sophisticated and are much more in touch with the common man than the secularists," says Rashid Abdi, a Somali expert at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi.
Mr. Abdi admits that Ahlu Sunna's passivist and spiritual outlook is more in tune with Somali society, even after decades of war, but the Sufi clerics are taking a big risk by taking up arms and entering politics.
"The dilemma for Ahlu Sunna is that the more they take arms and pursue a military agenda, the more they erode their moral high ground and credibility," he says. "It's a contradiction for Sufi clerics to go to battle, for whom quietism and passivism are the highest ideals. But for Al Shabab, violence is sacrosanct."
Violence, in any case, has been the story of Somalia's past 18 years, since the fall of its last real government under the dictator Siad Barre in 1991.
As rival clans sought to impose their control over the country, nearly 1.1 million Somalis have been displaced from their homes, and a staggering 3.2 million Somalis (40 percent of the population) now rely on food aid for survival.
Unifying power of Islam?
Amid the constant clan-based wars, the one possible unifying force continues to be Islam, a religion that more than 95 percent of Somalis share. But which version of Islam will Somalis embrace?
War has undermined the traditional Sufi school of Islam, whose clerics have often supported one clan leader or warlord in the past two decades.
Many young Somalis find the forceful message of violent action espoused by the Salafists – and the $200 per month salary they offer young fighters – more attractive than the patient approach of compromise taught by the Sufis.
When Islamists took control of most of Somalia in July 2006, under a coalition calling itself the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), much of the Somali population also found them attractive.
In short order, the Islamists dismantled the checkpoints of various warlord factions, restored law and order, and even put a brief stop to piracy. But threats by radicals within the UIC promises to create a Greater Somalia, including ethnic Somali areas in Ethiopia and Kenya, prompted Ethiopia to send in troops and overthrow the Islamic Courts six months later, backed quietly by the US.
Foreign peacekeepers leave
Ethiopia's forceful two-year intervention succeeded in dislodging Al Shabab and other Islamist militias from political control, but it also increased their popularity, as scores of young Somalis took up arms to expel the foreign force.
Al Shabab has been using Ethiopia's departure last month as a rallying cry to take over.
Sheikh Hussein, the Ahlu Sunna's secretary-general, admits that his group is less well armed than Al Shabab, but he insists that the public is firmly behind Ahlu Sunna. "Because we have the population on our side, we are going to succeed without large casualties," he says. "We can isolate our population from Al Shabab, and we will make inroads to get the hearts of youths. If we can succeed with that, then definitely we can start to dismantle their military power."
While the notion of an Islamist government makes countries like the US uneasy, most experts agree that Somalia can only have peace if Islamists take a role in government.
"The reason past governments have failed is that they always ended up being dominated by one group, with several other groups left out," says Iqbal Jhazbhay, a Horn of Africa specialist at the University of South Africa in Tshwane. "But if they can find a way to bring the Islamists on board, they may be able to neutralize and soften some of the non-moderate ideas. The Somalis themselves are a pragmatic people, and they will be a check and balance on the hardness of the Islamists."