Reports say a dispute has been simmering for months between the Mogadishu-based ultra-hardline al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Abu Zubayr, and Muktar Robow Abu Mansour, a leader based in the Bay region, southwest of Mogadishu.
Godane, who came to power after the death of al-Shabab founder Aden Hashi Ayro in a U.S. missile strike in May 2008, is firmly committed to the idea of using al-Qaida-trained foreign fighters to help al-Shabab violently overthrow Somalia's U.N.-backed transitional government and establish an Islamic caliphate in Somalia. Robow is reported to be in favor of engaging in talks with al-Shabab rivals and maintaining a popular backing for the militant group.
International Crisis Group, Horn of Africa analyst Rashid Abdi says al-Shabab has a decentralized leadership structure that has been vulnerable to dissent.
"It has serious trouble in the sense that those who are wedded to the idea of a permanent global jihad with Somalia as a staging post are now in the driver's seat," he said. "Foreign jihadis are the ones who are calling the shots. They are the ones who are behind the waves of suicide bombings, which have caused horrific civilian casualties. And increasingly, they are alienating those people who have a local agenda."
The exact number of foreigners in Somalia is not known. But in June, the president of Somalia's transitional federal government, Sharif Sheik Ahmed, said hundreds had arrived in the country to support al-Shabab. According to VOA sources in Somalia, many foreigners are based at al-Shabab training camps in the towns of Marka, Barawe, and Kismayo, teaching thousands of recruits bomb-making skills and guerrilla fighting tactics.
Officials in Somalia say one of these recruits, a Somali man who had grown up in Denmark, carried out the December 3 suicide bombing at a graduation ceremony for medical students attended by several government ministers. The blast killed four ministers, but also killed and wounded at least 60 bystanders.
Amid a public outcry, al-Shabab's Mogadishu-based spokesman Ali Mohamed Rage denied his group had carried out the bombing. The denial prompted some observers to speculate that foreign al-Shabab commanders may have planned the mission without consulting some of their key Somali counterparts or receiving their endorsement.
Rashid Abdi says the bombing has convinced many ordinary Somalis that al-Shabab is increasingly being controlled by foreign fighters, who have no regard for Somali lives.
Abdi says that public perception could now give Somalia's beleaguered president an opportunity to erase the humiliation his government suffered six months ago, when it was forced to beg for troops from neighboring countries to keep the government from being toppled.
"We have to be cautious. Anger against al-Shabab does not necessarily translate into support for Sharif. But Sharif has to get out there and try to regain the political territory lost to al-Shabab," he added.
On Monday, President Sharif attended the opening session of the Somali transitional parliament in Mogadishu, dressed in a military uniform. He said the time had come to re-take the country from al-Shabab and urged parliament members and Somali citizens to assist the government in efforts to defeat the militants.