Before the Islamists lost power in much of southern Somalia earlier this month, the least known but most feared organization in the country was a radical Muslim group called the Shabbab, which means "youth" in Arabic. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu in Mogadishu interviewed two former Shabbab members, who do not know each other but who revealed similar details about Shabbab never told before to Western media.
Somalis tell VOA that during the Islamist's six-month rule from the capital Mogadishu, a mere glimpse of a Shabbab member wearing the tell-tale, red-and-white scarf around the head or neck, caused ordinary people to flee in terror.
They knew few facts about how the group was organized or functioned, but many had heard about Shabbab's founding in mid-2004 as a homegrown extremist organization that recruited young men to wage a violent holy war, or jihad, against the enemies of Islam.
A former Shabbab fighter identified only as Abdi, 18, tells VOA that the group's leaders were careful in selecting their recruits.
Abdi says before Shabbab leaders accepted anyone into the group, they conducted extensive and thorough background checks to make sure he was not a spy.
The Shabbab's call to fight for Islam also included the call to fight for Somali sovereignty and for self-dignity.
To another former Shabbab an unemployed member, who identifies himself only as Hassan, 27, it was a call that he and many other poor, disillusioned, and disenfranchised Somali men found hard to ignore.
Hassan says he joined the Shabbab with hundreds of others in June of this year, shortly after Islamist forces captured the capital from factional leaders.
Hassan describes how Shabbab leaders took him to a former police station-turned-training camp called Fish Trafico, one of a half a dozen training camps that the Shabbab had established in and around Mogadishu.
At the camps, new recruits were divided into small groups. Each group had to complete a grueling, six-week fitness program, designed to strengthen endurance and improve running, crawling, and jumping skills.
Learning to shoot accurately on the run was the final lesson. Hassan says those who performed well overall were sent to front lines to battle Somali government troops and their Ethiopian allies.
Hassan also confirms Ethiopian and government claims that Islamist leaders had incorporated foreign Muslim fighters among the ranks of its militia.
Hassan was in a unit stationed near the town of Bur Hakaba, just a few dozen kilometers from the seat of Somalia's Ethiopian-backed interim government and where one of the first major battles took place in December.
Hassan says about 25 Arabs fought alongside him and other Shabbab members there. He says he does not know from which countries the Arabs had come, but Hassan says all of them spoke reasonable amounts of Somali.
Not every Shabbab recruit was sent to the front lines immediately after basic training.
Abdi says he performed so well in boot camp that he and several hundred other standout students were flown to Eritrea and given an additional two-month advance training in explosives and guerrilla war fighting tactics.
Abdi says he and the others were given detailed instructions on how to make roadside bombs, car bombs, and suicide vests, using explosives material cannibalized from various weapon systems. He says his instructors were a mix of Somalis and Eritreans.
Hassan tells VOA that even though he was not selected to go to Eritrea, the Shabbab men who did go shared what had they had learned with every Shabbab member when they returned to Mogadishu.
The information about Eritrea partly confirms a recent U.N. report that accused Ethiopia's archrival in the Horn of being one of seven countries in Africa and the Middle East that had provided fighters, weapons, training, and logistics support to Somalia's Islamist movement. The report has fueled fears that the Somali conflict could widen into a proxy war between Addis Ababa and Asmara.
What is still not clear is just how many men were members of the Shabbab group, when the Islamist movement collapsed late last month. Estimates range from 3,000 to 7,000 men.
Most Somalis are Muslim, but they have traditionally rejected ultra-conservative forms of Islam.
Hassan says some young Somalis flocked to join the Shabbab, partly because they were impressed by the personal charisma of the group's founder, Adan Hashi Ayro, a father-like figure who spent most of the 1990s in terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.
Hassan says he believes Ayro is a true holy warrior, who inspired hope and encouraged Somalis to defend their religion and their country against Ethiopia. He says Ayro was also a kind man, who fed Shabbab members, gave each of them a monthly salary of $70, and looked after the well-being of each member.
The United States and its allies have a very different view of Ayro. Ayro, who was the Islamists' top military commander, is accused of harboring three al-Qaida operatives who carried out the 1998 attacks against two American embassies in East Africa.
As Ethiopian and Somali government troops advanced on the capital on December 27, Ayro and several hundred members of his Shabbab inner circle fled Mogadishu with Ayro's long-time mentor and the head of the Islamist movement, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys.
Aweys has long been on a U.S. list of suspected terrorists. Both of the leaders are now believed holed up in an Islamist stronghold near Somalia's southern border with Kenya. At least two of the al-Qaida operatives are believed to be with them.
A massive hunt by Ethiopian and Somali forces is under way to capture the operatives and their allies.