A senior Somali cleric has escaped an assassination bid amid reports of internal divisions in Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda-allied militant group suspected of carrying out the attempt.
Sheikh Bashir Ahmed Salad, the chairman of the Supreme Religious Council (SRC), was targeted in the Somali capital Mogadishu on Monday.
An explosive device that had been planted under the seat of his car went off while Sheikh Salad was not in the car.
SRC spokesman Nur Baroud Gurhan confirmed the incident to the media, saying that the blast occurred when the cleric left the car.
"It was Allah’s choice to save Sheikh Bashir (Ahmed Salad)," said Sheikh Gurhan, who accused Al-Shabaab of being behind the assassination attempt.
"We (the moderate religious leaders) are subject to hunting (by Al-Shabaab militants),” said Sheikh Gurhan. "We are being targeted because of our advocacy of propagating the right message of Islam.
"Al-Shabaab strives to eliminate all the religiously knowledgeable persons so that its extremist ideals mislead innocent people," he added.
The assassination attempt against Sheikh Salad comes just two days after a senior Al-Shabaab official, Sheikh Abubakar Al-Zayla’i, criticised the movement’s Emir (Supreme leader) Sheikh Abdurahman Abu Zubayr.
On Sunday, many realised there were serious differences within Al-Shabaab ranks when an open letter was published in a number of websites that support the jihadist cause.
By introduction, Sheikh Al-Zayla’i, seen as the number two in the Al-Shabaab hierarchy, addressed Al-Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri, reaffirming that the group remained engaged in a holy war, fully representing the ideals of Al-Qaeda in the region.
Employing verses of the Holy Koran, Al-Zayla’i also known as Ibrahim Afghan, cited serious internal differences that were affecting affected the unity of fellow Muslims within Al-Shabaab.
"We tried to sort out differences (within the Islamist movement) but largely in vain," said Sheikh Al-Zayla’I in a 15-page report to al-Zawahiri.
He indicated that rifts had also emerged between the local fighters and the foreign holy warriors who joined the jihad in Somalia.
The leader painted a picture of turbulent times ahead. “In recent times, there have neither been successful operations nor pretty plans to pave the way ahead,” he said, addressing the Al-Qaeda boss.
Sheikh Al-Zayla’i, a hardliner, suggested that a review of the situation was necessary, while blaming the failure to comply with Sharia (Islamic laws) by the migrant jihadists for the group's setbacks.
The senior militant said that current problems were the result of able leaders being replaced and the sidelining of knowledgeable sheikhs who had initiated the movement’s fundamentalist goals.
Al-Zayla’i’s message to al-Zawahiri further elaborated: "People close to the leader (Emir of Al-Shabaab) have the privileges of replacing the officials or naming religious personalities.”
He also criticised Al-Shabaab's operation of a two-tier court system. "While we cannot talk of the lower court, the upper court is dominated by the Emir," he said, suggesting poor justice ideals.
He also named weaknesses that required Ayman al-Zawahiri’s attention, which included the prison systems, the movement’s leadership and lack of religious guidance.
In reaction to the letter by Abubakar Al-Zayla’i, the SRC issued a statement Sunday calling Al-Shabaab’s extremist doctrine as one based on erroneous principles.
Since Al-Shabaab started an assassination campaign against moderate religious leaders in late 2012, SRC moderates have been issuing declarations discrediting the extremist positions held by the fanatical group.
Pressure has been mounting on the Al-Shabaab since AMISOM peacekeepers together with Somalia's army pushed its fighters out of its strategic positions including almost all regional capitals in southern and central Somalia.
Al-Shabaab fortunes have been further battered by the countering of its proclamations by moderate religious leaders, including the SRC.