May 1, 2010 | FDD’s Long War Journal

Top Shabaab commander targeted in Mogadishu mosque bombings

Forty Shabaab fighters and supporters were killed in a pair of bombings today that targeted a top Shabaab military commander at a mosque in the Bakara market in Mogadishu.

The first bomb was detonated as Sheik Fuad Mohammed Khalaf, a top military commander of al Qaeda-linked Shabaab, was speaking to worshipers at the mosque in the terrorist stronghold in Mogadishu. The second blast took place shortly afterward as people attempted to escape the mosque, Shabelle reported. Shabaab fighters immediately surrounded the mosque after the blasts.

Khalaf, who is also known as Fuad Mohammed Shonghole, survived the blast but was reported wounded. Khalaf is a Swedish citizen who serves as a senior Shabaab field commander in Mogadishu. In a Shabaab propaganda video, Khalaf declared war on Ugandan peacekeepers serving in Mogadishu. Khalaf is also an imam, or prayer leader, for Shabaab.

Shabaab immediately issued a statement on the attack at the mosque. Sheikh Ali Mohammed Rage, the top Shabaab spokesman, claimed that “foreign companies” were responsible for the bombings and and that they were designed to kill as many Muslims as possible.

While no group has claimed credit for the bombings, Hizbul Islam is suspected of carrying out the attack. Shabaab has been feuding with Hizbul Islam, a rival Islamist terror group that also seeks to overthrow the Somali government and impose Islamic rule in the country.

Hizbul Islam's top leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, has ties to al Qaeda. Aweys is wanted by the US for his links to al Qaeda. He is also on the United Nations terrorist sanctions list, again for his ties to al Qaeda. Aweys co-led the Islamic Courts in 2006 until the group was ousted from power during the Ethiopian invasion in December 2006.

Hizbul Islam, like Shabaab, has courted al Qaeda and mirrored its tactics. In September 2009, Aweys advocated for more suicide attacks in the country, just days after suicide bombers struck an African Union base in Mogadishu. In April 2010, a top Hizbul Islam spokesman said his group welcomes Osama bin Laden and other foreign fighters to come to Somalia and fight with his group.

Hizbul Islam was created in January 2009 with the merger of four separate Islamic groups: Aweys' Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia-Eritrea; the Ras Kamboni Brigade; Jabhatul Islamiya (the Islamic Front); and Anole. The Ras Kamboni Brigade defected from Hizbul Islam earlier this year and joined Shabaab, further strengthening the latter in southern Somalia.

Although Shabaab and Hizbul Islam sought to merge forces during the summer of 2009, the alliance was frayed by local disputes between factions of the two organizations. Relations between Shabaab and Hizbul Islam worsened after the groups began to battle in Kismayo over control of the southern port city.

Clashes between Shabaab and Hizbul Islam have persisted in southern Somalia, but Shabaab has had the upper hand. Despite the intra-Islamist fighting, the weak Transitional Federal Government, backed by thousands of African Union peacekeepers, controls only small enclaves within the capital of Mogadishu, and little else. A pro-government Sufi Islamist militia called Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama'a controls some regions in central Somalia and often clashes with Shabaab and Hizbul Islam. Meanwhile, Shabaab continues to expand its control. This week, Shabaab took control of the pirate haven of Harardhere on the coast of central Somalia.

On multiple occasions this year, the Somali government has claimed it is preparing to retake Mogadishu, but it has yet to launch an offensive. Meanwhile, a top Shabaab leader has said that his group is ready to take control of the capital to preempt an expected surge of Somali troops who have been trained in Kenya.

But the capacity of the Somali military has recently been called into question after hundreds of Somali troops either defected to Shabaab or quit the force after the government failed to pay their $100-a-month salaries. The United States has donated $6.8 million over the past two years to train and pay Somali forces.