A Somali police officer recently received an unexpected summons from the enemy. An unknown caller ordered him to report to a town outside the capital, Mogadishu, where the extremist group al-Shabab would settle a dispute between him and his brother. The caller assured the officer he would be safe even if he showed up in uniform.
Overcoming his fear, Khadar traveled to meet with a panel of four bearded men in an office made from iron sheets. The al-Shabab men wanted to know why he was denying his brothers a share of the land they inherited from their father.
“After an hour and a half of debate, the men directed me to distribute the inheritance among my brothers," Khadar recalled in an interview with The Associated Press, withholding his last name for safety concerns.
Khadar complied, an extraordinary gesture to an armed group that continues to pose a deadly threat to his police colleagues and his government at large.
The al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab is projecting authority and asserting a wider role in public life in this troubled Horn of Africa nation, underlining the extent of the challenge Africa's deadliest Islamic extremist group presents to the newly elected government of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The threats range beyond regular attacks on places frequented by officials and include militant control of vast territory where federal officials don't dare go and can't even collect taxes.
The group, which seeks to create an Islamic caliphate out of Somalia, is also increasingly undermining authorities by offering a parallel justice system — enforced by the threat of violence — in a country where many have little faith in conventional courts.
Some people who spoke to the AP expressed a favorable view of al-Shabab, saying its mobile courts are not corrupt and that the group appears able to protect vulnerable people in ways the federal government cannot.
“You will get justice in al-Shabab courtrooms if you know you are doing the right thing,” said farmer Muallim Abdi, a father of eight children who lives in another al-Shabab-controlled village near Mogadishu. “But in the government-controlled areas it will take time, and the formal courts are corrupt.”
Abdi acknowledged that life under al-Shabab is “extremely difficult,” citing the children forced to join the group, the tax burden and the inability to enjoy private property. Last Ramadan, he said, al-Shabab asked residents to raise money to buy livestock to be slaughtered for the Eid feast, an unreasonable demand at a time when the riverbed was dry and some people were on the verge of displacement amid drought.
Al-Shabab “remains in a healthy financial position” thanks to illicit taxation as well as income derived from the ongoing sale of $40 million in charcoal stockpiles in the city of Kismayo, a U.N. panel of experts reported last year.
Al-Shabab's tax code compels all those intending to buy or sell farmland to register with the group's land office, through which sales can be finalized. Farmers are ordered to notify al-Shabab of the quantities they are harvesting.
“Once I harvested and sold 2,247 bags of onions but did not inform al-Shabab because I had an emergency to attend to," Abdi said. “I was home when two men on motorcycles arrived. I was accosted for not telling them about the harvest. I was detained in a small, dark room and nearly suffocated.” There's no room for appeal in the al-Shabab system.
Despite the $1,123 fine he paid, Abdi still sees al-Shabab in a positive light because later it ruled in his favor to settle a land dispute with a neighbor. Both claimants were summoned and told to prove ownership before a committee that found his papers authentic, he said.
“The public would rally behind al-Shabab if they stopped killing people," Abdi said.
Al-Shabab, which has killed thousands of civilians in the last decade, is estimated to have anywhere between 4,000 and 7,000 fighters, according to the Mogadishu-based security think tank Hiraal Institute.
Although al-Shabab's extortionate power has been a major concern among traders, some businesspeople said they feel more confident in its mediation of disputes.
“They are becoming more reliable, and the people are counting on them,” Hiraal Institute's Samira Gaid said of al-Shabab's court system.
Somalis from minority clans, a growing community, see al-Shabab courts as fair, she said.
Al-Shabab has seized even more territory in recent years, taking advantage of rifts among security personnel as well as disagreements between the government seat in Mogadishu and regional states.
Forced to retreat from Mogadishu in 2011, al-Shabab is slowly making a comeback from the rural areas to which it retreated, defying the presence of African Union peacekeepers as well as U.S. drone strikes targeting its fighters.
The militants in early May attacked a military base for AU peacekeepers outside Mogadishu, killing many Burundian troops. The attack came just days before the presidential vote that returned Mohamud to power five years after he had been voted out.
Al-Shabab’s strategy is to “bleed the system” while patiently waiting for the exit of foreign troops, said Gaid, the security analyst.
The restructured AU peacekeeping mission is set to wind down by the end of 2024, when Somali forces would take over security responsibilities.
American officials cited the heightened threat posed by al-Shabab in mid-May as President Joe Biden signed an order to redeploy hundreds of U.S. troops to Somalia. Somali authorities have welcomed the decision reversing a 2021 order to withdraw U.S. troops.
Mohamud has said securing Mogadishu will depend heavily on pushing militants out of the neighboring regions of Lower Shabelle and Middle Shabelle. That could be challenging.
Al-Shabab “has sharply increased its infiltration of state institutions, particularly security institutions,” said political analyst Abdi Aynte, a former government minister.
Rebuilding Somalia's security system "isn't an administrative problem but ultimately a political one," with the new president needing to reform the security services in a way that's accommodative of all competing groups, he said.
An Associated Press journalist in Somalia contributed. Muhumuza reported from Kampala, Uganda.