Somali soldier
A Somali soldier stands guard next to the site where al-Shabab militants carried out a suicide attack against a military intelligence base in Mogadishu, June 21, 2015. Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

A suicide bomber detonated while hugging a local official Thursday in Somalia’s autonomous Puntland region. The blast that followed his lethal embrace blew both of them up, officials said. Islamic militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack, Reuters reported.

“We killed Saeed Ali, the treasurer of Galkayo, and several police officers that were guarding him,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al-Shabaab’s military operation spokesman, told the news agency.

Police Maj. Nur Ahmed said the suicide bomber targeted Ali and the guards as they were about to get into a car. Witnesses said two onlookers also died in the explosion, but officials could not immediately confirm additional deaths, Reuters reported.

Al-Shabab regularly targets officials in its efforts to topple Somalia’s Western-backed government. The terrorist organization also frequently strikes civilians and non-Muslims. Although it’s based in Somalia, al-Shabab also has launched deadly attacks in neighboring Kenya and reportedly has killed more than 400 people in the East African nation in the past two years.

Al-Shabab, whose name means “the youth,” emerged in 2006 from the now-defunct Islamic Courts Union, which once commanded Mogadishu. The Sunni extremist group launched its own insurgency on major Somali cities in 2009, taking control of Mogadishu and southern Somalia until it was pushed out by domestic and international forces around 2012.

Many areas of south-central Somalia are still under al-Shabab’s control, and the militants have increased efforts in recent months to recapture lost territories. Most recently, al-Shabab fighters recaptured the southern port city of Merca last month, making it the largest city under the group’s control, BBC News reported.

The loss of the coastal city was a major setback for the African Union Mission to Somalia, or Amisom, the continental bloc’s peacekeeping mission in the country, in its decadelong fight against al-Shabab. Regaining control of Merca, which faces the Indian Ocean, grants the Islamic militant group access to a port again and will provide a financial boost to the group’s operations.