Traders at Mogadishu’s largest open-air market, Bakara, have been closing shops since Wednesday to avoid levies demanded by a group claiming to be affiliated to ISIS.
The Second Street, where most hardware shops are situated, has been deserted due to the threats by the group whose membership and leadership is unknown.
Bakara is a popular shopping centre for Somalis looking for daily essentials as well as imported goods. It has been operational since 1975.
But for the past five years, al-Shabaab have been targeting shops, demanding as high as $500 per month as ‘protection’ fees, some shop owners say.
The new threat could be a first by ISIS-linked operatives and could mean more extortion rings.
The traders already pay levies to the federal government and local authorities.
On Thursday, one trader told The EastAfrican they had closed shop to protest the exorbitant illegal “tax” and push the federal government to intervene.
Somalia's Cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble, met Thursday afternoon and decided to cancel the deployment of special forces to Beledweyne in central Somalia and have them return to Mogadishu to beef up security and address complaints by the Bakara business community, according to a statement by the Ministry of Interior.
The market’s closure has elicited talk in Mogadishu, with the Coalition of the Presidential Candidates (CPC), the grouping of opposition politicians led by Former President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, criticising President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo for sending elite forces to Beledweeyne town in Hirshabelle State ostensibly to offer protection to a state president, while Mogadishu traders are terrorised by thugs.
They said that the President was misusing the Turkish-trained GorGor and Haram'ad forces to destabilise the district ahead of the elections that favours Farmaajo supporters.
“The closure of Bakara Market today (Wednesday) is an indicator of how deep is the terror groups’ grip on our financial centres,” said Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Farmaajo’s predecessor and a member of the CPC.
“Instead of protecting our taxpaying citizens, considerable security forces were deployed in Beletwein to dismantle Hirshabelle state and rig elections.”
Shabaab operatives have in the past targeted traders, including showing them copies of importation manifests, which signals that their informers have infiltrated government agencies including Customs.
Those who refuse to pay have often been killed or their shops bombed. On January 24, an improvised explosive device went off at the door of one of biggest shops in Bakara.
The threat by ISIS operatives, however, could raise another possibility of a rivalry between ISIS and al-Shabaab.
In the past, whenever ISIS tried to interfere in businesses that already pay Al-Shabaab, the Somali militant group could track them down and kill them.