WASHINGTON – If the Somali terror group al-Shabab is responsible for the deadly attacks in Uganda, it could mean the group is capable of carrying out successful attacks in Africa and beyond, according to an intelligence assessment by the FBI and Homeland Security Department.
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the explosions that killed 76 people watching the World Cup final in Uganda on Sunday. Intelligence officials have long warned that sporting events and large gatherings are attractive targets for terrorists.
President Barack Obama, in an interview with South Africa Broadcasting Corp., said the statements indicate that al-Shabab and other terrorist organizations see Africa "as a potential place where you can carry out ideological battles that kill innocents without regard to long-term consequences for their short-term tactical gains."
The attack would be al-Shabab's first successful strike outside of Somalia, according to the July 12 intelligence analysis obtained by The Associated Press. The document is marked for official use only and was distributed to law enforcement officials across the country.
U.S. officials have yet to comment publicly on the significance of the attacks. A senior Obama administration official said there are indications that al-Shabab is responsible for the attacks and that the U.S. had no warning of them. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Obama said the attacks were "tragic and ironic", coming as Africans celebrated and watched the World Cup in South Africa.
"On the one hand, you have a vision of an Africa on the move, an Africa that is unified, an Africa that is modernizing and creating opportunities; and on the other hand, you<ve got a vision of al Qaeda and Al Shabaab that is about destruction and death," Obama told South Africa television.
Intelligence officials have previously considered the al-Qaida-affiliated group a threat to the U.S. In 2007 and 2008, about 20 Somali-American men were recruited and left the Minneapolis area to join forces with al-Shabab.
Omar Hammami, a U.S. citizen based in Somalia, has appeared in the terror group's media productions and urged people to travel to Somalia for terror training, according to a May 21 Homeland Security intelligence assessment about the evolution of terror threats to the U.S.
"We cannot exclude the possibility that U.S. persons aligned with al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa may return to the U.S., possibly to carry out acts of violence," said the assessment, also obtained by the AP.
In June, two New Jersey men were arrested as they tried to fly from the U.S. to Egypt with plans to continue on to Somalia to join al-Shabab.
Shortly before President Barack Obama's inauguration, U.S. officials were concerned about intelligence they received regarding a potential threat from al-Shabab to the event. By the time Obama was sworn in, the threat had been debunked.
Al-Shabab, which means "The Youth," has been gaining ground as Somalia's Western-backed government crumbles. The group's goal is to establish an Islamic state in Somalia.
The FBI's New York office and the New York Police Department said Tuesday that a team of investigators, including forensic experts, from the city's Joint Terrorism Task Force was en route to Uganda to assist authorities with the probe.
The senior administration official said the U.S. will look at what is needed to support the Ugandan government.
The bulk of U.S. aid that has recently been sent to Somalia has been delivered to Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti. Several African nations have pledged forces to the African Union's peacekeeping force in Somalia, known as AMISOM, and there are now more than 5,000 troops stationed in the country.
In several previous operations the U.S. has provided intelligence and surveillance information and as recently as last September delivered a surgical strike against a convoy that reportedly killed powerful insurgent Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan.
Associated Press writer Tom Hays in New York contributed to this report.