MOGADISHU, Somalia — One of al-Shabab's senior leaders lashed out at the group's brutality against civilians over the weekend, exposing the deep divides inside the terror group, but a government spokesman on Monday dismissed the outburst and called the leader a "murderer."
Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys and his Islamist group Hizbul Islam merged with al-Shabab in 2010. But the two groups apparently do not see eye-to-eye.
"Killing civilians in the name of Islam is wrong and had nothing to do with Islam," Aweys said during a meeting late Saturday. "Jihad is obligatory but coercing people into it is inappropriate" he told a group of long-bearded fighters.
Al-Shabab declared earlier this year that it had formally joined al-Qaida. It is trying to apply an austere version of Islam that has caused the group's popularity to plunge. Most Somalis have long practiced a more moderate Sufi Islam before the militant group tried to enforce a conservative Wahabi style.
Somali civilians have been beheaded, stoned and lashed for violating the militants' code of conduct.
Aweys, a firebrand elderly Islamist, has received a series of warnings from al-Shabab leaders after forming plans for a new, separate jihadist group. He said that al-Shabab members should not consider their approach the only valid approach to Islam.
"Neither al-Qaida and al-Shabab don't represent the whole Islamic nation. They are merely a faction within" the Islamic community, he said.
Despite Aweys' words against al-Shabab, Somali government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman did not welcome them.
"He himself is also a murderer. He deceives children and kills them," Osman said. "We are calling for him to lay down arms and stop killing people and work on peace. If he doesn't receive that call willingly he'll end up in the same way that other terrorists ended their lives. He must take peace before it's too late."
Al-Shabab uses ad-hoc courts and assassins to execute opponents. The group also forces young men and children into war. Farmers and other businessmen are forced to pay taxes to support the militant group.
Al-Shabab's internal divisions are increasingly getting a public airing. American-born fighter Omar Hammami said in a video last month that he fears members of al-Shabab may kill him over differences of opinion.
Hammami, known as Abu Mansur al-Amriki, or "the American," appeared in a video saying he disagreed with his comrades over Sharia law and strategy. Al-Shabab denied that Hammami's life was in danger.
Al-Shabab has been under increasing military pressure over the last year, pressure that may be ramping up internal divisions. African Union forces in Mogadishu largely pushed al-Shabab out of the capital. Kenyan troops in the south and Ethiopian troops in the west are also moving against al-Shabab.