Who are Somalia's al Shabaab rebels?

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The Independent Online

Australian police arrested four men linked to Somalia's al Shabaab militants today, accusing them of planning a suicide attack on an army base and raising concerns the al Qaeda-linked group is seeking targets outside Africa.

- Prosecutors told Melbourne Magistrate's Court they had evidence some of the men had taken part in training in Somalia and at least one had engaged in frontline fighting there.

Here are some details about the al Shabaab group:

* Waging war in Somalia:

- Al Shabaab, which means "Youth" in Arabic, is an al Qaeda-inspired militant group that has taken control of large swathes of south and central Somalia. The Horn of Africa nation has been mired in anarchy since warlords toppled military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

- The interim government's attempts to restore central rule have largely been paralysed by infighting and the Islamist-led insurgency. Fighting has killed more than 18,000 people since the start of 2007 and has uprooted at least 1 million civilians. The chaos has also helped fuel kidnappings and piracy offshore.

- Al Shabaab's hardline militia was initially part of the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) movement which pushed US -backed warlords out of Mogadishu in June 2006 and then ruled for six months before Somali-Ethiopian forces ousted them.

* Strict practices:

- Last month, al Shabaab took possession of two French hostages after winning a tussle with another insurgent group, Hizbul Islam, which had been holding one of them. The pair were kidnapped from the capital's Sahafi Hotel on July 14.

- In June, al Shabaab officials in one of the group's Mogadishu strongholds ordered four teenagers to each have a hand and a leg cut off as punishments for robbery.

- Al Shabaab's hardline interpretation of Islamic law has shocked many Somalis, who are traditionally more moderate Muslims. Some residents, however, give the insurgents credit for restoring order to the regions under their control.

* Foreign fighters:

- The Somali government says hundreds of foreign fighters have joined the insurgency from countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Gulf region and Western nations like the United States and Britain. Some of the foreign jihadists have taken up leadership positions in militant groups including al Shabaab.

- One American national of Somali origin was killed while fighting for al Shabaab in Mogadishu last month.

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