Alleged spies and Christians have been publicly executed. Thieves have had their legs and hands amputated. And women accused of adultery have been flogged and stoned.
Somalia observer Paula Roque at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies says there is little doubt that in some places, al-Shabab has restored law and order that Somalis have been have been missing since the fall of the last functioning government in Somalia in 1991.
But Roque says al-Shabab is trying to bring order through violence and the threat of violence, which is not what Somalis want.
“There are elements that are extremists, who want to install a caliphate in Somalia,” she said. “So, to that extent, they have an objective and they have a way of achieving it, which is through the use of violence and exterminating those that stand in the way of their objective. Certainly, the public executions are intimidation tactics. This is a movement that is led by military men, not theologians, clerics,” she said.
The militant group is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and Australia for having ties to al-Qaida.
Al-Shabab’s links with al-Qaeda began in the early part of this decade, with the group’s founder, Aden Hashi Ayro, who was trained by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
His death in a US missile strike in May 2008 failed to stop al-Shabab from stepping up recruiting efforts and vastly expanding its territory in Somalia.
The group achieved this largely by portraying itself as a nationalist-Islamist group fighting to preserve Somalia’s sovereignty against threats by Ethiopia and the West.
The militants have invited hundreds of foreign fighters to Somalia to help them battle African Union peacekeeping troops propping up the weak government in Mogadishu.
At the same time, al-Shabab suppressed public dissent through the imposition of its ultra-conservative brand of Sharia.
Somali analyst Afyare Elmi says most ordinary Somalis no longer view al-Shabab as a benign nationalist Islamist force nor do they accept the group’s radical politico-religious stance.
But he says the West should not assume the Somali people also reject Sharia. He says there is overwhelming support for having Sharia as the cornerstone for laws governing the country. Elmi says the problem for Somalis is not Sharia, but the harsh, alien concepts that have been introduced by al-Shabab as Sharia.
“What is the difference here is that al-Shabab, at this stage, has a different kind of interpretation,” he said. “The brand [of Islam] that al-Shabab is trying to impose on Somalis will not be adopted by the majority of Somalis. You can convince 100 young men to join your organization. But to get popular acceptance of your ideas is a completely different thing,” he said.
Last week, al-Shabab militants reportedly rounded up more than 130 people in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, for violating Sharia.
Witnesses say dozens of militants, armed with whips, walked through al-Shabab-controlled areas, beating and arresting women not wearing garments that covered their bodies from head-to-toe. They publicly flogged women who had neglected to cover their feet with socks. Earlier this month in north Mogadishu, al-Shabab whipped women for wearing bras, claiming that it was un-Islamic to wear undergarments that deceived men.
But Elmi says as unpopular as al-Shabab’s brand of Sharia may be, disapproval alone is not likely to ignite a mass uprising.
“I do not think they will just one day wake up and say, ‘We are opposing al-Shabab and want to kick them out of the country.’ No, that will not happen. Political and organizational capacity is always needed. So, a lot will depend on how the government succeeds in recruiting and defeating its adversaries,” he said.
Roque at the Institute for Security Studies agrees that most Somalis are sitting on the fence, waiting to see which side – al-Shabab or the UN-backed government – can offer them a better future.
“There is very little national commitment to anything, unfortunately. Social structures, structures that are needed for the healthy functioning of any society, have collapsed,” she explained. “So, when you have populations that are on the brink of a humanitarian crisis, who are constantly displaced, it is very problematic to address issues of moderation when their concern is stabilization and if al-Shabab can provide them with public order and some sort of opportunity for sustainable livelihood. Then, it is not a question of if they support al-Shabab’s ideology and extremist views, but it is a survival mechanism. In Somalia, whoever is perceived as being the winning force is the one that is going to get support,” she added.
Since 1991, clan-based power struggles and corruption allegations have doomed more than a dozen attempts by Somalis and the international community to establish a functioning government in Somalia.