MOGADISHU, Somalia, Dec. 21 (UPI) -- A recent surge of suicide bombings in Somalia underlines the growing influence of al-Qaida in the Horn of Africa as the war-ravaged country's Islamist forces keep up pressure on the U.S.-backed transitional federal government holed up in the capital Mogadishu.
In the worst suicide attack, three government ministers were killed along with 16 other people at a graduation ceremony for medical students at Benadir University held in a Mogadishu hotel on Dec. 3. Two other ministers were wounded.
The attack was a punishing blow to the beleaguered transitional government, whose writ barely covers a few blocks of the city and its airport.
Several weeks earlier two suicide cars bombers attacked the main military base of the African Union peacekeeping force in Mogadishu, killing 17 soldiers, including their deputy commander.
The bombings underlined the government's weakness and the ease with which the jihadists are able to strike more or less at will. They are spearheaded by the Harakat al-Shebaab al-Mujahedin, universally known as al-Shebaab, or Youth, that is linked to al-Qaida.
The only real obstacle to al-Shebaab overwhelming the TFG is divisions that plague the Islamists.
Al-Shebaab has been locked in a power struggle with its main rival, Hizbul Islam, in the south since May.
Al-Shebaab has been making some gains there against the alliance of clan-based militias. But until it can secure unfettered domination it appears that the TFG, propped up by U.S. arms and money, will be able to hold on even though it has no popular mandate.
"It is likely that President Sharif Ahmed and the TFG are actively supporting the clan-based organizations that make up the various parts of Hizbul Islam in the south," according to Texas-based security consultancy Stratfor.
The TFG, aided by Ethiopia, has another ally in the Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, a Somali militia backed by Addis Ababa.
Mainly Christian Ethiopia, which sent its army into Somalia in December 2006 to prop up the TFG, does not want to see an Islamist regime installed in its northern Muslim neighbor.
An AU peacekeeping force that deployed when the Ethiopian troops withdrew in 2008 is supposed to bolster the TFG. But the 5,250-strong force is woefully inadequate, poorly trained and under-armed.
It is also widely despised by the inhabitants of Mogadishu, whom its troops regularly slaughter indiscriminately when their bases come under fire from the jihadists.
Many of al-Shebaab's leaders are Somali veterans of the wars in Afghanistan. Their current commander, Ahmed Abdi Godane, aka Abu Zubehr, is believed to have fought the Soviets in the 1980s alongside Osama bin Laden and his Arab jihadists.
He took over the leadership in the fall of 2008 after his predecessor, Aden Hashi Ayro, was killed in a U.S. airstrike on May 1 with another important leader, Sheik Muhyadin Omar.
Ayro, aka Eyrow, is believed to have trained in Afghanistan with al-Qaida and returned to Somalia in 2003.
Another senior commander is Ibrahim Hajji Jaama, known as "al Afghani" because he spent years fighting in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
There are reported to be scores of "foreign fighters" in the ranks of al-Shebaab who have carried with them a radical ideology of global jihad as espoused by Osama bin Laden.
Their influence is spreading among the Islamist forces, changing their outlook from a localized insurgency to a wider battle against the West. The foreign element in the leadership is exercising increasing control over the organization.
"There's a serious struggle within al-Shebaab between nationalists and the foreign jihadis who want to take the fight to another level," says Abdi Rashid, a Somali analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
The Americans are increasingly concerned that the jihadists are extending their influence across the Horn of Africa, infiltrating East Africa and the Red Sea.
The jihadists recently threatened to attack African states that have contributed troops to the peacekeeping force in Somalia.
Al-Qaida's resurgence in Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, is also causing concern, although the Yemeni government unleashed airstrikes against the jihadists on Dec. 17.
There have been reports that al-Qaida is sending veteran fighters to Yemen and Somalia.