A suicide bombing at a Somali student graduation ceremony which killed three government ministers and at least 16 other civilians on Thursday bore Al Qaeda's hallmark and further endangered the future of the country's wobbling administration, analysts says.
A man strapped with explosives and disguised as a woman apparently gained free access to what was supposed to be one of the few parts of Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, that was safe for the country's government.
But Thursday's strike appears to be the latest in a fresh offensive by Al Shabab, deploying tactics that Somalia-watchers say have been imported directly from Al Qaeda.
US government officials are convinced that Osama bin Laden's terror organization is strengthening its links to its Somali proxy – in part by by sending trainers to the Horn of Africa to instruct new jihadists there.
Three ministers killed
Hundreds of medical students and their families had gathered for only the second graduation ceremony from the city's Benadir University in two decades.
"It was a very loud explosion, very big, and afterwards there was dust and smoke everywhere and people screaming," says one Somali graduate reached by phone, who gave his name only as Mohamed. "Two of my classmates were killed .... Everybody is in a lot of shock."
Qamar Aden Ali, the health minister, Ahmed Abdulahi Waayeel, the education minister, and Ibrahim Hassan Addow, the higher education minister, all died in the explosion. The sports minister, Saleban Olad Roble, was reported as critically injured.
Al Shabab links to Al Qaeda?
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing. But at a news conference, Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh blamed Al Shabab, an Islamist insurgent group, which some analysts say has growing links to Al Qaeda and which is battling Somalia's Western-backed government.
Al Shabab controls almost all of the seaside capital following two years of fighting. Until recently, the group has relied on a campaign of mortar and small-arms attacks to cow the population and hold its territory. But its methods and targets have changed lately.
Recent attacks have been better planned, and have taken place against targets claiming to be immune to Al Shabab's fighters. In September, five African Union peacekeepers died after twin suicide bombings against their base in Mogadishu.
"This is the third in a series of strikes on supposedly secure locations and shows both the very difficult security situation for the government, and the fact that Al Shabab has very good intelligence," says EJ Hogendoorn, the International Crisis Group's project director for the Horn of Africa.
That intelligence is what should worry the West the most. "It is a foregone conclusion", says Mr. Hogendoorn, that Al Shabab has sympathizers within the transitional federal government (TFG).
"The TFG is just too large and dispersed, with too many marriages of convenience holding it together, for it to be able to guard against leaks of information," he says.
There were also reports that the government was planning a new, large offensive against Al Shabab in Mogadishu, and Thursday's bombing was likely to have been a preemptive strike.
"It's just going to cut back any confidence anyone – civilians, the government, its international supporters – may have had that anything can be done by the Somalis themselves against Al Shabab," says a Western diplomat in Kenya who specializes in Somalia.