December 4, 2008 -- If the Islamic insurgent group Al-Shabaab, which is now in charge of much of Somalia, takes over the capital city Mogadishu, the country will be "in Hell," warns a former Al-Shaabab fighter.
Ali, a Somali-Kenyan, told ABC News he was forced to join Al-Shabaab while living in Somalia over a year ago. He escaped to Kenya two months ago after he says he was asked many times to go on suicide bombing missions. "What they're doing now, the bombing there that's going on. Somalia now itself is hellish," he says. "The people who are there, who are innocent people, are killed any hour any time."
Al-Shabaab is the most popular Islamic insurgent group growing out of resistance to the American-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006. The group has sworn allegiance to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, pledging to rule Somalia under strict Islamic Sharia law, an interpretation whose brutality is drawing comparisons to the Taliban.
Three weeks ago, 32 people, mostly women, were reportedly whipped publicly in another rebel-controlled area for performing a traditional dance that Al-Shabaab leaders said was against Islam. In the Southern port city of Kismayo, a 13-year-old girl was reportedly recently stoned to death for the crime of adultery after reporting being gang raped.
"They pretend to be following the Sharia of law, but if you are with them, they're not really, they're far from," says Ali. "Islam doesn't have the right to kill any other body, so long as it's a human, and needs to respect and save the lives of women."
Death seems to be Al-Shabaab's primary form of intimidation. In September, a reporter for the Christian news agency Compass Direct, went undercover in the city of Baidoa and filmed the beheading of a recent Christian convert using a cell phone camera. The reporter, who cannot be identified for fear of his life, says that the beheading was a very public affair.
"They told everyone in the town to come because there was going to be a celebration," he says. "About 200 people came out; they thought there was going to be a goat or camel slaughtered. They were very surprised and upset to see it was a human being."
Christian Convert Beheaded by Al-Shabaab Leaders
On the video, the convert, who worked for a local humanitarian agency, is seen on his knees, while several Al-Shabaab leaders stand behind him chanting from the Koran. After the actual beheading, the leaders held up the head to display to the crowd before placing it on the man's stomach and walking away.
The reporter says seeing the incident not only traumatized him, but the community. "Everyone was shocked and scared," he says. "Now everyone in the town knows what will happen to you if you don't follow what Al-Shabaab says."
For international humanitarian organizations, the on-going conflict in Somalia has turned a difficult situation into a humanitarian disaster. Somalia has not had a functioning government for more than 17 years. The country is currently being governed by a weak, Western-backed "transitional government" being held up by Ethiopian troops, who invaded the country in 2006.
But there are accusations of human rights abuses on both sides. The United Nation's World Food Program was unable to distribute aid to regions the government deemed "terrorist friendly" for several months. And international humanitarian organizations like the United Nations, Doctors without Borders and Care have been forced to pull all international staff out of Somalia due to safety concerns.
Ali says that in the last year Al-Shabaab has specifically targeted foreign aid workers and even locals who work with them. "They are targeting them because they are saying these are not going under our Sharia of Al-Shabaab," he says. "So long as they are there we cannot tolerate them to be with us in one country. That's why they fight the United Nations."
But the humanitarian organizations say it's really the people of Somalia who are paying the ultimate price. It's estimated that more than 1 million people have been internally displaced because of the fighting, and 10,000 civilians have been killed in the last two years. Because of insecurity and piracy attacks, the World Food Program consistently has problems delivering aid, resulting in a warning that if the situation doesn't improve millions of Somalis could starve over the course of the next year. The United Nations now calls Somalia, the "worst humanitarian crisis in Africa," worse than the Democratic Republic of Congo, or even Darfur.
Somalia is "A Forgotten Conflict"
Aidan Hartley a journalist and documentary filmmaker who's been covering Somalia for more than 20 years told ABC News that he believes the world ignores Somalia and Al-Shabaab at its own peril. "Look at Afghanistan, which for many years was like Somalia: a forgotten conflict…there didn't seem to be anything the West could do to help. They provided humanitarian relief, as they are doing in Somalia today, but they didn't come up with solutions or anything with the urgency that was required," said Hartley "Al Qaeda took hold, the country had to be invaded by Western troops. Now you have a protracted and very difficult conflict to resolve."
"The West and the international community would be well warned to look at the Somali situation and try to urgently come up with solutions."