NAIROBI, Kenya — Al Shabaab, a radical Islamist group that U.S. officials say is tied to al Qaida, has methodically seized much of southern Somalia and is poised to take the capital, Mogadishu, as the country's internationally backed government nears collapse.
The rise of al Shabaab — from the Arabic word for "youth" — in many ways represents the very scenario that the Bush administration sought to avoid two years ago, when it quietly backed an invasion by Somalia's neighbor, Ethiopia, to drive a federation of hard-line Islamic courts out of Mogadishu.
The invasion aimed to forestall a Taliban-style regime that could have become an East African haven for jihadists. But diplomats, regional analysts and former Shabaab fighters say that it's fueled a diverse Islamist insurgency that's now stronger and more sophisticated than ever, and seems bent on retaking control of the country.
American officials "are fearful" of a return to hard-line Islamist rule in Somalia, according to one official who wasn't authorized to discuss the subject publicly. "There's no question that (the insurgency) is more violent than it has been in recent history, and we are extremely concerned about that," the U.S. official said.
Of several insurgent factions claiming territory in southern Somalia, the most powerful is unquestionably al Shabaab, whose leaders claim allegiance to Osama bin Laden and rule based on a strict form of sharia, or Islamic law.
In recent months, their forces have been bolstered by the arrival of foreign-trained jihadists and by ready supplies of cash, weapons and mercenaries flowing easily through one of the most lawless and impoverished regions of Africa.
The group has recruited perhaps hundreds of fighters from across the permeable border in Kenya, paying young, jobless Muslim men upward of $100 a month and promising large sums to the families of martyrs, say Kenyan ex-militants.
They're also joined by a small but influential number of jihadists from Arab countries who train the mostly young and inexperienced Somali fighters in suicide bombing and other tactics, the fighters say.
Despite nearly two decades of chaos and militia rule, foreign fighters are a new phenomenon in Somalia and a sign that al Shabaab is "becoming more dangerous," said Richard Barno of the Institute for Security Studies, a South Africa-based think tank. Analysts credit Shabaab's foreign wing with plotting five coordinated car bombings in northern Somalia last month that killed at least 31 people — the worst terrorist strike in the country in recent memory.
Analysts say it's unclear if Shabaab's links to al Qaida are operational or mere bluster, but CIA director Michael Hayden last week identified Somalia as a region where al Qaida was forming new partnerships. In March, the State Department designated al Shabaab as a terrorist organization that included "a number of individuals affiliated with al Qaida" and that "many of its senior leaders . . . trained and fought with al Qaida in Afghanistan."
U.S. officials accuse the group of sheltering suspects in the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 220 people. The Pentagon has launched several airstrikes inside Somalia against suspected terrorists, including Aden Hashi Ayro, a top Shabaab commander and reputed al Qaida operative, who was killed in a U.S. strike in May.
In backing the Ethiopian invasion two years ago, Bush administration officials made similar allegations about leaders of the Islamic courts, including Hassan Dahir Aweys, a hard-liner who commands a militia from his base in neighboring Eritrea. But in a sign of a softer approach this time around, the U.S. official said that American envoys had met with allies of Aweys in recent months.
Aweys's forces have sometimes fought alongside al Shabaab against Ethiopian forces and secular, clan-based militias. In a recent interview with McClatchy, Mukhtar Robow, a Shabaab senior commander, said that he and Aweys "have a common enemy and are pursuing a common goal in the struggle to liberate our country" from Ethiopian forces.
While Robow accused the United Nations and the African Union peacekeeping mission of siding with the Somali government — his fighters have attacked peacekeepers and are suspected of murdering and kidnapping aid workers — he denied a global or anti-American agenda.
But he expressed allegiance to bin Laden's worldview and said that his fighters, if called upon by Islamic militant groups in other countries, would "join them to liberate them from Americans' interference in their affairs."
Meanwhile, Somali leaders have been paralyzed by a bitter power struggle between President Abdullahi Yusuf and Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein. With insurgents gaining ground, the dispute could signal "the beginning of the end" for the country's four-year-old transitional government, said Abdikarim Farah, a senior Somali diplomat based in Ethiopia.
Last week Shabaab forces overran the strategic port of Merka, 60 miles south of Mogadishu, and a smaller town 10 miles southwest of the capital — in both cases without firing a shot.
In Shabaab-controlled areas, the imposition of sharia law has brought sometimes-gruesome consequences. Last month in the southern port of Kismayo, a 13-year-old girl who reported being raped by three men was accused of adultery and stoned to death in a stadium in front of about 1,000 spectators, according to Amnesty International.
"Their agenda is to control the whole country with sharia. They are in it for power," said Issa Abdi Ismail, a rail-thin Kenyan who joined al Shabaab this year for the promise of a $150 monthly salary. He quit about two months ago after commanders sent him to train with a foreign jihadist to become a suicide bomber and attack Ethiopian troops in the government-controlled town of Baidoa.
"I was told that even if you kill one person, you will have sacrificed yourself for God," Ismail said at a cafe in the teeming Somali enclave of Eastleigh, in Nairobi. "I had joined just for the money. I could not go through with that."
Despite the influence of foreign fighters, however, analysts say that al Shabaab can only take Mogadishu by forming alliances with other Islamist militias, which could weaken their influence. Somali officials say that al Shabaab's strict version of sharia is unpopular among other groups and everyday Somalis, many of whom opposed the Islamic courts for similar reasons in 2006.
"Tensions between the groups are there already. Once you take out the hard-core members, there are divisions among the foot soldiers," said Abdisaid M. Ali, an analyst and former Somali cabinet secretary.
Questions also surround Ethiopia's plan to withdraw the several thousand troops still guarding government sites in Mogadishu. Experts believe that al Shabaab and its allies are waiting for Ethiopian forces to leave to avoid a bloody battle for Mogadishu, but Ethiopia has been vague about a timetable for withdrawal.
Already, more than 1.3 million Somalis have fled their homes since 2007, with many living in squalid encampments on the outskirts of cities and in Kenya, the United Nations says. Some 3.2 million people — more than half the country — need urgent humanitarian assistance, a number that relief agencies say will surely rise with the next round of fighting.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
McClatchy Newspapers 2008