MOGADISHU, Somalia, May 5 (UPI) -- The Iraq-style double bombing of a Mogadishu mosque, an apparent bid to assassinate jihadist leaders praying there, marks a dangerous escalation of the Somali conflict at a time when foreign veterans appear to be playing a greater role.
It is still not clear who was behind last Friday's attack on the Abdala Shideye mosque in the city's Bakara Market district, which is dominated by the Islamist al-Shebab militia and its ally, Hizb-ul Islam.
But relief agency officials in Mogadishu, who have good intelligence on the insurgent groups fighting the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government, suspect it probably stemmed from factional feuding within al-Shebab, which is linked to al-Qaida.
"This really does take the tit-for-tat attacks up another level," said E.J. Hogendoorn who heads the Nairobi, Kenya, office of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict resolution organization.
"Mosques were considered out of bounds for bomb attacks."
Thirty-nine people were killed in the attack on the Abdala Shideye mosque, including senior al-Shebab officers Abdikafi Ahmed Abu Maryan and Abdulbaasid.
The presumed main target, Fuad Mohammed Qalaf, aka Fuad Shongole, a senior al-Shebab commander, was wounded in the hands. Other commanders, including Mohammed Aden, were among the 80 wounded.
Qalaf blamed "foreign security companies" he didn't identify for the attack, the second mosque bombing in Bakara in a week.
There could be more than a grain of truth in that contention since the TFG, supported by the United States and the European Union, is preparing for a long-awaited offensive against the Islamists.
Eliminating much of al-Shebab's leadership beforehand would give the TFG's ill-equipped and poorly led forces an edge in the beleaguered government's bid to extend its control of Mogadishu and then the southern and central regions where al-Shebab and its allies are well entrenched.
U.S. forces, including SEAL teams operating aboard warships patrolling the Indian Ocean coastline, have repeatedly attacked al-Shehab leadership cadres over the last two years and killed several top figures.
On Sept. 14, 2009, helicopter-borne SEALs assassinated Salih Nabhan, al-Shebab's military commander, in southern Somalia.
There is growing evidence that the jihadists have been reinforced in recent months by battle-seasoned operatives of al-Qaida, from Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, and from the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of operations.
In late 2009, al-Qaida's veteran field commander in East Africa, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, indicted by the United States for the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was reported to have arrived in Somalia to take over from the slain Nabhan, a longtime associate.
On March 2, Kenyan authorities reported the arrest of another experienced al-Qaida operative, Hashi Hussein Farah, as he tried to enter Kenya from Uganda en route to Somalia.
Farah, who has an Australian passport, escaped by apparently bribing his guards and reportedly returned to Uganda. He may have succeeded in getting into Somalia to bolster al-Shebab.
On Sunday, The Observer weekly in London reported that a growing number of Britons, including men of Somali and Pakistani origin, were going to Somalia to join al-Shehab in advance of the anticipated RFG offensive as the Americans seek to shore up the fragile government.
U.S. sources said they had also detected an influx of "foreign fighters" arriving in Somalia, many of them through Kenya and the former French colony of Djibouti where U.S. counter-insurgency forces are based.
The abortive al-Qaida attempt to assassinate the British ambassador in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, in April is seen as a disturbing pattern of escalating jihadist activity in the region around the Horn of Africa.
Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, universally known as MI6, has said that the escape from Kenyan custody by Farah underlines the growing danger of seasoned foreign fighters infiltrating into Somalia at this time to swell al-Shebab's ranks.
Meantime, the TFG's forces appear to be deserting by the hundreds because they are not being paid their $100 monthly salaries and diplomatic sources in the region say many have defected to al-Qaida.
The mass desertion by these troops, on which the United States has spent an estimated $6.8 million training over recent months, bodes ill for the TFG.