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. His comrades advanced to within miles of Somalia's capital in the last few days, 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 supported by powerful Ethiopian troops and drove out radical Islamists intent on ruling 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 from near-daily roadside bombings and remote-controlled explosions. They have seized most of southern Somalia — advancing to within 10 miles of the capital Wednesday — allowing fighters like Ismail to roam the streets unhindered.
Who is in control?
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.
Princeton Lyman, an Africa expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the recent gains by al-Shabab — which means The Youth — reflect "the almost total collapse" of the government.
"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."
One thing Somalia's are accustomed to, however, is chaos.
After two decades of violence and uncertainty, Somalia's capital somehow carries on. Buses are packed with people, women sell vegetables by the side of the road and businessmen operate out of tumble-down storefronts. Men sporting henna-stained beards gather for hours in small cafes.
When the rains of mortar shells fall — as they always do — everyone scatters for cover.
'All I need is peace'
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 say the Ethiopians have a national interest in staying in Somalia — to prevent a radical Islamist regime right next door. But the Ethiopians, hemorrhaging money and troops, have already pulled back from some positions as part of a peace deal with the moderates and the regime has said it wants to withdraw.
Al-Shabab appears 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, considered a terror group because of its leaders' alleged links to al-Qaida, 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-Qaida-linked terrorists who allegedly blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing over 230 people.
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.