Nairobi, Kenya – Another bloody week in Mogadishu was on the face of it like so many others: dozens of civilians blown to pieces or maimed by explosions, shot to death or injured.
But this week’s attacks were different, signalling a change in the fighting that rages between Islamist insurgents and the United Nations and Western-backed government.
The recent bombings indicate bitter faction fighting within the Islamist fundamentalist rebels of Al Shabaab, according to local residents.
Last Tuesday, April 27, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a new detachment established by African Union peacekeepers (AMISOM) who are attempting to gradually expand their tiny zone of control in the capital city. It was the first suicide attack in months. Later that day a landmine exploded outside the Abu Hureyra mosque in Bakara Market, an insurgent stronghold, killing one and wounding eight as they made their way to prayers.
It was the first time in Somalia’s 19-year war that a mosque had been deliberately targeted, but it was not to be the last.
On Saturday, May 1, at the Abdalla Shideye mosque where Al Shabaab insurgent leaders like to preach, noon prayers were torn apart by a double bombing, this time inside the mosque itself. And on Sunday, May 2, another mosque was bombed in the southern port city of Kismayo, an Al Shabaab stronghold, killing at least one person.
The target of Saturday’s attack appeared to be an Al Shabaab leader called Sheikh Fuad Mohamed Shongole who often delivered Saturday prayers at the mosque.
“Thirty-two people died and more than 70 were wounded in the attack,” one Al Shabaab official told Reuters. “Sheikh Fuad suffered wounds on the hands.”
Saturday’s explosion was the deadliest since December when a suicide bomber struck at a university graduation ceremony killing 27, including three government ministers.
All the main warring parties — Al Shabaab, Hizbul Islam, the government and AMISOM — have denied responsibility for the bombing but after the attack the wounded Sheikh Shongole went on local radio to blame foreign security firms working on behalf of AMISOM for the attack.
Although AMISOM frequently launches mortars and rockets into heavily populated neighborhoods, including Bakara Market, few give much credence to the accusation that it would plan deliberate bombings of public places.
One Mogadishu resident told GlobalPost by phone that, “99 percent of the people” believe the bombing was orchestrated by factions within Al Shabaab. Despite its success in hemming in the government and its AMISOM protectors to just a few blocks of the seaside capital, analysts say that Al Shabaab is deeply divided along ideological and clan lines.
Shongole is described by Oslo-based Horn of Africa specialist Stig Jarle Hansen as, “one of [Al Shabaab’s] principal ideologues.” He was once imam at the now-closed Rinkeby Mosque in Sweden and is thought to be a conduit for diaspora cash. There are an estimated 25,000 Somalis living in Sweden; last year 5,000 more applied for asylum. Recently he was among 11 Somalis suspected of terrorism to have his assets frozen by the U.S.
Along with Al Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane and Ibrahim Haji Jamaa, both Afghanistan veterans, Shongole is a key proponent of the drive to internationalize the Somali insurgency by actively recruiting foreign fighters.
Analysts say the influx of hundreds of foreigners with Al Qaeda links from Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere has caused divisions within the insurgent ranks. Some are opposed to the ideology of global jihad espoused by Al Shabaab’s senior leaders and want to limit their battle to winning control of the Somali state.
“The next fight is between the foreign jihadis and the nationalist jihadis,” said Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst with the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. “The mosque bombings are a sign of things to come, a vicious fight within the ranks of the insurgency.”
As ever it is the ordinary Somalis who will be caught in the maelstrom.
Another fight also looms. At the weekend members of the Hizbul Islam militia, a junior partner in Somalia’s Islamist insurgency, overran the pirate town of Haradheere forcing the pirate gangs to flee.
Eyewitnesses described fancy SUVs loaded with flat-screen televisions racing north towards Hobyo, another infamous pirate haven, as the Islamists invaded Haradheere in a fleet of pickup trucks fitted out with heavy machine guns known as “technicals.”
“From now on Harardheere is one of the Somali towns where Islamic sharia will be implemented,” a Hizbul Islam commander told the French news agency, AFP.
“There will be no piracy or any kind of robbery here. From now on people will obey Islamic law,” said Sheik Ahmed Abu Yahya. “Our presence here will change the image of this town which the bandits destroyed.”
Another Hizbul Islam commander said his group would release any of the 300 or so hostages that it found.
But hopes that the Islamist takeover of Haradheere might spell the end of piracy off the Somali coast are unlikely to be realized. Already the pirates have simply moved on, taking their hijacked vessels and hostages with them.