A hard-line Islamist group in Somalia claimed responsibility on Monday for bombings in Uganda that killed 74 people, adding new evidence that an influx of foreign fighters linked to al-Qaeda have made them a major international threat in the Horn of Africa.
Al-Shabaab has professed allegiance to al-Qaeda and is trained by operatives sent by the group, according to Western security experts. Sunday's bombing was emphatic and bloody proof of how sophisticated the group has become in the years since it split from more moderate Islamic groups in Somalia and came to take control of much of the country.
It had long threatened to attack countries such as Uganda that have allied themselves with Washington's plan for the region and are involved in a peacekeeping effort in Mogadishu. Until now, those threats were seen as bluster.
Not any more. The bombs exploded at an Ethiopian restaurant and a rugby field where people were watching the World Cup final on Sunday night. By late Monday, Ugandan officials said 74 people had been killed, including at least one American, and dozens more were wounded. Ugandan officials said there was evidence that at least one of the attacks was a suicide bombing because the remains of a Somali national had been found at the scene.
"These are our enemies. We have warned them, told them to move out of Somali soil but they have refused," said al-Shabaab spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage in a telephone interview from Mogadishu. "We have made the government to feel the same pain that they are causing us in Mogadishu."
The attacks, timed together and staged in a foreign country, seem to fit with the growing sophistication that al-Shabaab has shown in recent months. Intelligence officials say foreign fighters have travelled to the country to help the group train. The increased skill is believed to be a result of the influence from those foreign fighters.
Still, al-Shabaab is a fractured, scattered group with numerous cells and leaders acting independently of each other. It has not been able to oust the transitional government, which is extremely weak. Experts believe that the bombers who carried out the attack may have been members of al-Shabaab, but the operation was not planned, or even sanctioned, by the group's leaders.
"Do I think it was a decision made by the upper levels of the Shabaab command structure? I'm hesitant to say that. I suspect not," a Western security expert said on condition of anonymity. "That bombing was not planned or given approval or agreed upon by senior leadership. It was just carried out by a couple of cells pretty much driven by the foreign fighters that were there leading them."
There is still no indication the group has the resources to match al-Qaeda, which pulled off massive bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 200 people. Intelligence experts and even al-Shabaab militants acknowledge that Uganda has far more lax security than Ethiopia, which is turning into a police state, or even Kenya, where the intelligence services are believed to receive millions of dollars each year in Western aid.
Al-Shabaab had threatened to attack Uganda because of its involvement in a largely ineffective African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia. The mission's main goal has been to shore up the Transitional Federal Government, a weak, fractious group of leaders who have the backing of Western countries but only control a few city blocks in downtown Mogadishu. On July 5, the East African regional grouping known as IGAD pledged an additional 2,000 troops for Somalia. Uganda has committed about half of the 6,000 troops now in Somalia.
The bombing will renew fears that Somalia is becoming an al-Qaeda breeding ground like Afghanistan, though that's no sure thing. A recent study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, N.Y., for example, found that Somalia might be too chaotic even for al-Qaeda, which would need some semblance of state structure, reliable supply routes, some semblance of infrastructure and military forces that could be bribed for protection to operate successfully.
"Right now, these al-Qaeda guys are being tolerated," said Bronwyn Bruton, author of a recent report on Somalia for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "I think that's different from them being welcomed with open arms. The task for the international community is persuading Somalis that they have to oust these guys, that it's in their interest."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Who are Somalia's al-Shabaab rebels? A primer on al-Qaeda-inspired al-Shabaab militants in Somalia.
- Al-Shabaab, which means "the youth" in Arabic, has taken control of large areas of south and central Somalia. The Horn of Africa nation has been mired in anarchy since warlords toppled military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The militants are trying to overthrow Somalia's government.
- The group's interpretation of Islamic law has shocked many Somalis, who are traditionally more moderate Muslims. In June, 2009, al-Shabaab officials in one of the group's Mogadishu strongholds ordered four teenagers to each have a hand and a leg cut off as punishments for robbery. However, some residents give the insurgents credit for restoring order to the regions under their control.
- Al-Shabaab has repeatedly threatened to attack Uganda as punishment for it leading the African Union peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu.
- Al-Shabaab also loathes Ethiopia, which sent troops into Somalia in 2006 to oust a broad-based Islamist coalition that has taken control of much of the country.
- The United Nations' World Food Program suspended its work in much of southern Somalia in January due to threats against its staff and unacceptable demands by al-Shabaab rebels controlling the area.