Bad as the twin blasts that rocked the Ugandan capital of Kampala on Sunday were—and with a death toll of at least 74, they represent a considerable tragedy—the overall carnage could have been worse. Indeed, authorities seem to have disrupted two planned follow-up attacks.
One of the disrupted attacks was meant for a Kampala nightclub. The New York Times reports that an explosives-laden vest was found in a bag in the middle of the club. The bag came to the attention of witnesses when they heard a cell phone ringing inside it; after seeing what the bag held, they called the police, who subsequently found that the vest was rigged to a cell phone detonator.
That there was another planned follow-up attack is suggested by the arrest of suspects in Kampala, during which police found “an unexploded suicide belt and explosives.”
The Uganda attacks represent the first time the jihadi group Al Shabaab has carried out an attack outside of Somalia. Doing so represents a political calculation on the group’s part: Uganda is one of only two countries (the other being Burundi) that have devoted troops to the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), a U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping mission. AMISOM is meant to stabilize Somalia’s transitional federal government, which Shabaab is fighting to overthrow.
Shabaab leaders have made that political calculation clear. Prior to the attacks, Shabaab’s emir Sheikh Muqtar Abdelrahman Abu Zubeyr warned that the people of Uganda and Burundi would be targeted because of their countries’ role in AMISOM. “You should know that the massacres against the children, women and the elderly of Mogadishu will be revenged against you,” he proclaimed.
And after bombers struck Uganda, Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamoud Rage confirmed the political calculus. “We are sending a message to every country who is willing to send troops to Somalia that they will face attacks on their territory,” he said. “We will continue to retaliate against Ugandan and Burundian forces if they continue to stay here.”
The attacks make sense from Shabaab’s perspective. They threaten to impose a cost on Uganda’s citizens so long as their government participates in the Somali peacekeeping mission (and Shabaab has warned Burundians of a similar fate).
The threat of continued bombings can make AMISOM participation unpopular with the Ugandan people, and in that way pressure the government to withdraw its troops. Moreover, the attacks send a warning to other countries that may try to pick up slack in the AMISOM mission that they too will become targets.
Of course, Uganda immediately announced that it remains committed to AMISOM. But such resolve can waver over time, especially if Shabaab is able to carry out a sustained campaign.
A relevant question that has not yet been answered is what kind of logistical support network was involved in these attacks. Did the attackers use safe houses? Where were their bombs constructed? Did members of an attack team case the various targets in advance? The answers may tell us about the international reach of Shabaab’s network—or else its working relationship with Al Qaeda.
Over time, key Shabaab leaders have made the group’s commitment to Al Qaeda’s transnational jihadist vision clear. Indeed, its public split with the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS) insurgent faction came in late 2007, after a conference of opposition factions in the Eritrean capital of Asmara. Shabaab boycotted the conference, and its leaders launched vitriolic attacks on the ARS for failing to adopt a global jihadist ideology, arguing that cooperation with a secular power would dim their zeal for jihad.
Thereafter, Shabaab’s ideology was expressed in such documents as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki’s January 2008 “A Message to the Mujaahideen in Particular and Muslims in General.” In it, Amriki proclaimed that Shabaab’s manhaj, or religious methodology, was “same manhaj repeatedly heard from the mouth of the mujaahid shaykh Usaamah Bin Laden … the doctor Ayman ath-Thawaahiri [bin Laden’s deputy] … and the hero, Abu Mus’ab az-Zarqaawi [the late head of al-Qaeda in Iraq].”
Shabaab leaders have also been explicit in their desire to ally militarily with Al Qaeda. This was expressed, for example, in the August 2008 video “March Forth” released by Al Shabaab’s late military strategist Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, and more recently in a February 2010 statement in which Al Shabaab said that it had agreed “to connect the horn of Africa jihad to the one led by al-Qaeda and its leader Sheikh Osama Bin Laden.”
Shabaab and Al Qaeda in East Africa now have interlocking leadership. As one counterterrorism official told The Washington Times, “it’s hard to tell where one group ends and the other begins.” So it is not inconceivable that Shabaab might have used Al Qaeda’s support network to execute the Uganda attacks.
Another official (or perhaps the same one; it can be hard to tell with the prevalence of anonymous sources) told The Times that the attack in Uganda “does not move the needle” in terms of concerns about a possible Shabaab strike against the U.S. That may well be correct, but the Uganda attacks are nonetheless a significant milestone: Shabaab has finally struck outside Somalia, and swears that it will do so again.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a Ph.D. candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America. He is currently writing a book about the history of the war in Somalia.
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