Johannesburg, South Africa - The bomb attack on a mosque in Mogadishu’s thriving Bakara market on Saturday marks a radical departure in the rules of war in Somalia.
While there have been targeted killings in Somali mosques before, this marks the first time a bomb has been used, killing at least 32, including both members of the radical Al Shabab militia group as well as ordinary worshipers.
The target of the attack appears to have been Fuad Shongole, one of the top three Somali leaders of Al Shabab, but Mr. Shongole appears to have survived with injuries. In a radio interview after the blast, Shongole blamed unnamed foreign security firms working for the African Union for the bomb attack, and encouraged Islamist fighters to take revenge.
"The Muslim people of Somalia must fight the African Union troops of the occupying force using the means at their disposal, including suicide attacks," said Shongole. "Go to their compounds and make all the necessary sacrifices to fight these invaders."
In a war where even the army of the Somali government frequently shells busy marketplaces full of civilians, the bombing of a mosque at prayer time seems to be the last remaining taboo of war.
Details of how the bomb blast was carried out – with a planted bomb set off by remote control, or by suicide bombers wearing bomb vests – are still unknown, and if investigated may never be divulged.
Experts say that the bomb blast could be a signal of an internal power struggle within Al Shabab, although no group has taken credit for the attack.
“We don’t know who is responsible for the attack, but the most likely answer would be factions within Al Shabab itself,” says E.J. Hogendoorn, director of the Horn of Africa program for the International Crisis Group’s office in Nairobi. Whoever carried out the attack, Mr. Hogendoorn adds, it is certain that “this does really take the tit-for-tat attacks up another level. Mosques were considered out of bounds for bomb attacks.”
A 'staggering blow' to Al Shabab
No organization has claimed credit for the blast, but Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, a moderate Islamist militia group that recently added its forces to the Somali transitional government, called the attack “a staggering blow to Al Shabab.”
“Our sources did not know who is behind this blast,” writes Abdul Kareem Hussein Abdi, an Ahlu Sunna spokesman based in Nairobi in an email to the Monitor. “Similar operations targeting extremist officers occurred recently at Dinsor district in Bay region.”
Mr. Abdi says his sources inform him that Shongole was wounded in the arm and in the chest, and that he was taken to Mogadishu’s Daynile Hospital for treatment.
Other senior Shabab commanders, including Mohamed Aden, were among 80 wounded in the blast, and top Shabab officers Abdikafi Ahmed Abu Maryan and Abdulbaasid were killed, he writes.
The bomb attack comes at a time when the United-Nations’-supported transitional government has been receiving substantial military support and training from Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti in advance of an expected major offensive.
The UN’s special representative to the Somali government, Ahmedullah Ould-Abdallah said last month, that in terms of increased security measures around Mogadishu and reinforcement of the Somali forces, the offensive has “already begun.”
Islamists take pirate port
But the threat of a government offensive doesn’t seem to have stopped Islamist militias from expanding their own territory.
On Sunday, 200 fighters from the Al Shabab ally, Hizbul Islam, reportedly took control of the city of Haradhere, Somalia’s largest port for piracy.
Dozens of captured ships and hundreds of merchant marines are being held in Haradhere, awaiting ransom payments, and it remains unclear what effect the Islamists will have on piracy in the city or on the lives of the sailors, some of whom are Westerners.
“The one thing we know is that the ICU (the Islamist Court Union) ended piracy in South Central Somalia,” says Mr. Hogendoorn. Al Shabab and Hizbul Islam are offshoots of that Islamist government that took control of Somalia for six months, before being ousted by an Ethiopian military occupation force in December 2006. “If Al Shabab wanted to stop piracy, it could. Now the question is what they want to do. It depends on how desperate they are for money.”
Increased scrutiny of financial transfers from the Somali expatriate community living in Europe and the United States has sharply diminished Al Shabab’s outside support.
Local news reports say that pirate leaders on land were seen fleeing Haradhere a few hours before the Hizbul Islam troops arrived.
Experts say that pirates out at sea may simply set up their operations somewhere else such as the port of Eyl in the semiautonomous Somali region of Puntland, where the government seems to have been unable or unwilling to shut down pirate operations.