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Inside Somalia: Al Shabaab, ally of Al Qaeda

Interview with an Al Shabaab fighter provides a glimpse into the Islamic extremist group.

This foreign influence is changing Al Shabaab from a local insurgent group with national ambitions into a growing player in the wider battle between Islam and the West. Al Shabaab's announcement that it is allied with Al Qaeda will cement the group’s extremist reputation.

In areas under Al Shabaab control alleged adulterers have been publicly stoned to death, those accused of theft have had hands and feet chopped off. The group has banned bras, soccer, musical ringtones and PlayStations. Last year the young winner of a Koran recital competition was given an AK47 rifle and an anti-tank mine.

Yet not every Al Shabaab member is a committed zealot. In fact the rank-and-file foot soldiers are more often hired guns, conscripts or desperate volunteers.

In Mogadishu a young man who had left the group after his leg was blown off in a mortar attack told GlobalPost: “In our country there are three paths: you can join Al Shabaab, you can join [the government forces] or you can go abroad.

“Me, I don’t have money to go away so I join Al Shabaab,” said Ismail Mohamed Ishaaq simply.

The 21-year-old is neither a jihadist nor an extremist, neither murderous nor stupid. Rather he is a young Muslim man with an education but no opportunities in a country that has been at war for as long as he has lived.

During last year’s failed rains when food was scarce and Al Shabaab was in the ascendancy Ismael joined up.

“I didn’t have anywhere to stay or anything to do. My friends, some of them were Al Shabaab and they would tell me that TFG [the Transitional Federal Government] is not Muslim, but Al Shabaab is Muslim,” explained Ishaaq.

In Mogadishu Ismael lived with other young Al Shabaab fighters in a shared house in Bakara Market, an Islamist stronghold. He would wait for a call then take up his AK47 and go into battle. “I was mujahidin for real,” he said.

Four months after joining Al Shabaab a mortar mangled Ismael’s leg and left him bleeding into the dusty street.

GlobalPost caught up with the president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, late last year in Chicago:

African Union peacekeepers (AMISOM) picked Ismael up and took him to their tented hospital close to the sea. Sitting on a camp bed a few months later he rubbed the bandaged stump where his left leg used to be.

“My leg, it is a small wound only,” he said with an ironic smile.

He is grateful to AMISOM for saving his life and said he has even now renounced Al Shabaab. As he spoke he turned a leather-bound Koran over and over in his hands: He has given up the violence of the Islamist insurgency but remains a pious Muslim.

“I would like my country to be at peace but I don’t know how." he said. "How many years have we been fighting now? Twenty? Me, I cannot see any peace, just fighting.”

Inside Somalia: The series

Life in hell: under fire in Mogadishu

Peacekeeping: on the ground with African Union forces

A nation of poets: poetry is a political tool as powerful as the gun

Opinion: When will Somalia improve?