BARAWE, Somalia — In this coastal city on the Horn of Africa, about 130 miles south of the capital of Mogadishu, the al-Shabab terrorist organization holds sway.
But unlike other parts of war-torn Somalia, peace reigns here, albeit precariously, under the al Qaeda-allied militants’ fundamentalist interpretation — and enforcement — of Islamic law.
Armed rebels in camouflage patrol and deliver sermons on thoroughfares full of businesses and shoppers. Chants of “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) fill the air. Open-air markets are booming. Trading stops only for daily prayers conducted by al-Shabab leaders.
As a result, many people in Barawe support the militants.
“We feel peace when we are under al-Shabab,” said Munira Mohammed, a mother of five who owns a butcher shop in Barawe. “They do patrols to ensure we are safe. They respect our businesses and our lives. So we are feeling good, and we want to tell foreign soldiers to let us keep this kind of life.”
Ms. Mohammed’s attitude reflects how people in southern Somalia are disillusioned with international efforts to rebuild their country, said Nazlin Umar Rajput, a political analyst and chairwoman of the National Muslim Council of Women of Kenya.
Al-Shabab is extreme, but not as radical as its critics charge, Ms. Rajput said. The militants allow women like Ms. Mohammed to own businesses and attend madrassas that provide religious education, for example. Many locals have accepted the group’s Islamist ideology in exchange for stability, she said.
“Al-Shabab started as the Somali people’s movement for an all-inclusive democracy, self-rule, true-independence and a people’s constitution,” said Ms. Rajput. “They’re gaining popularity where it matters most — in the hearts of the local Somali populace. This is the reality that the world needs to face.”
While the African Union and Somali armed forces have severely restricted al-Shabab and curtailed its reach in recent years, the group is still a powerful force in southern Somalia.
Barawe, also known as Brava, a port town in the southwestern Lower Shebelle region, is an al-Shabab stronghold that hosts training camps where the much-feared group trains hundreds of fighters from around the world.
Al-Shabab is seeking to overthrow the Western-backed Somali government based in Mogadishu and impose Islamic Shariah law throughout the country. The group has launched a number of deadly attacks in Kenya, presumably in retaliation against that country’s participation in the African Union’s peacekeeping force in Somalia.
Last April, al-Shabab militants attacked Garissa University in northern Kenya, killing 148 students. The terrorist group killed 65 people in a 24-hour period in and around Mpeketoni, a town on the Indian Ocean. It also was responsible for the 2013 raid on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, where 67 died.
Some residents complained about al-Shabab’s recruiting methods for those camps, including kidnapping children and forcing them to join their ranks.
“Many underage boys have been abducted from schools,” said Mohammed, a young man who declined to provide his last name or other details. “They undergo tough physical combat training, but they have no option than to defend their religion and country.”
But many young Somalis like Mohammed are eager to battle the African Union, Kenya and the Somali National Army. Last year, Somali forces indiscriminately detained and killed civilians, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. African Union troops also have been accused of raping Somalis and rampaging against al-Shabab sympathizers.
Human Rights Watch also has accused al-Shabab of restricting human rights, executing suspected spies with court reviews and carrying out terrorist attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere.
Yet Abdullahi Farah, who sells khat (an herbal recreational stimulant chewed by many Somalis), said he would prefer dealing with a homegrown regime than one imposed from the outside.
“Somalia’s U.N.-supported central government destabilizes the existing peace,” said Mr. Farah, 33. “Al-Shabab are very good people. They have maintained law and order, and there’s no need for foreign soldiers to come here. They will cause war, which will affect civilians.”
Residents of Barawe cited raids three years ago by American and Kenyan air forces that sought to kill Abdukadir Mohamed Abdukadir, also known as Ikrima, the man believed to be behind the siege at Westgate Mall. The raids destroyed local homes, they said.
“We have been caught in the middle of a deadly war being played out in our streets,” said Ms. Mohammed, the butcher shop owner. “Many people have been killed by warplanes for no reason. I wish they knew that we are better off being ruled by al-Shabab than foreign troops.”
Traditional elders in the region have often accused the Kenyan government of killing unarmed civilians and destroying residential areas in airstrikes.
“If they think no one will come after them over these crimes, we will hold Kenya to account,” said Dahir Adan, an elder of the region. “They are not exempted from international law, and we will not allow our civilians to be killed in such harsh and unacceptable way.”
Kenyan military spokesman Col. David Obonyo denied the accusation, saying Nairobi has targeted only al-Shabab camps.
Saleh Abdi, 61, chairman of Barawe’s markets, said local support for the group is simple and goes beyond foreign involvement resulting in the killings of civilians, the destruction of property and the poor local economy.
“We honor al-Shabab because they are part of us,” he said. “They are protecting our religion at all costs.”
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