One of the suicide bombers who took part in Tuesday's deadly attack against Somali lawmakers in a Mogadishu hotel has been identified as a young man recruited by an al-Shabab senior leader, who is believed to be playing a major role in transforming the extremist group into a proxy for al-Qaida.
Michael Leiter is head of the National Counterterrorism Center. He spoke with VOA Senior News Analyst Gary Thomas about al-Shabab and the tragedy in Somalia.
VOA sources in Somalia have identified one of the two suicide bombers in Tuesday's attack as 16-year-old Aden Hussein, who had been working as a body guard for senior al-Shabab leader Muktar Robow, also known as Abu Mansur.
Hussein's identity was confirmed through photographs taken of the attackers in the aftermath of the bombings at Muna Hotel, which killed more than 30 people, including several Somali members of parliament.
Who is he?
The second suicide bomber has not yet been identified. But the sources say Aden Hussein was from the southwestern town of Baidoa in Somalia's Bay region, an al-Shabab stronghold. Muktar Robow is from Bay and members of his Rahanweyn clan are well-represented in the Baidoa area.
There is speculation that Robow may have hand-picked Hussein and other boys to groom them for suicide missions. Another young suicide bomber, who took part in the February 2009 attack on Burundian peacekeepers in Mogadishu, is also said to have worked as a body guard for Muktar Robow.
Robow spent several months in Afghanistan in 2000 training with the Taliban and al-Qaida and emerged as a radical Islamist leader in Somalia during the brief rule of the Islamic Courts Union in 2006.
After its collapse following Ethiopia's military intervention in Somalia, Robow helped reconstitute al-Shabab and became its spokesman and eventually the group's deputy commander.
In 2007, Robow portrayed al-Shabab as an Islamist nationalist movement and denied the group had any links to al-Qaida. But in January, he openly declared the group's allegiance to the terrorist group and offered to send fighters to Yemen to help al-Qaida there in its fight against government forces.
U.S. intelligence officials believe Robow has been instrumental in attracting foreign, al-Qaida-trained fighters to Somalia in recent years. Hundreds of fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, Chechnya, among others, have joined al-Shabab ranks. Many brought with them the know-how and experience of conducting roadside bombings and suicide attacks.
Ugandan and Burundian troops working as peacekeepers in an African Union mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, have been al-Shabab's main target. In July, the extremist group claimed responsibility for double suicide bombings in Kampala as punishment for Uganda's participation in AMISOM.
Many observers say al-Shabab is trying to pressure an AMISOM withdrawal because the peacekeeping force is the only obstacle in the way of al-Shabab taking over the country.
The attack on Muna Hotel demonstrated that al-Shabab's reach is growing in the capital. Somali parliament member Mohamed Amin Osman says many of the 550 lawmakers do not feel safe in Somalia and have left or are leaving the country.
"The United Nations never planned any protection of the Somali MPs," AMISOM never planned any protection of Somali MPs. They protect only three people - the speaker, the president and the prime minister. That is it. Even ministers do not have any protection. And 95 percent of the town is under the control of al-Shabab. So, this is the problem."
The African Union considers the Somalia peacekeeping mission critical to stabilizing the country. But critics of AMISOM say the presence of foreign troops in Somalia is allowing al-Shabab to pose as nationalists and gives extremists an excuse to carry out deadly attacks.