Uganda attack shows strength of al-Qaeda's Somali branch

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

THE HORRIFIC bombings in Uganda of soccer fans watching the World Cup final marked a breakthrough for the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab. The movement began as an insurgency against a Western-backed government in lawless Mogadishu. In the course of the past year it has become a subsidiary of al-Qaeda, led by foreign militants. The despicable suicide attacks Sunday in Kampala, which killed 74 civilians, marked al-Shabab's first operation outside of Somalia. It's not likely to be the last.

The danger posed by the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist network in Somalia has been growing for some time, just as it has in nearby Yemen. What were once local groups of militants are now commanded by veteran lieutenants of Osama bin Laden. In the case of Somalia, that is Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a native of the Comoros islands who was one of the architects of the 1998 bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Hundreds of militants have moved to Somalia to join his organization, including veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and at least 20 U.S. citizens.

Al-Shabab has not quite managed to wipe out Somalia's current internationally recognized government, which hangs on to a few blocks of Mogadishu, thanks to an African Union peacekeeping force of troops from Uganda and Burundi. But neither has the government delivered on its promises to use the Western aid and training it has been receiving to retake ground from the extremists. The attacks in Uganda look like the beginning of a new campaign by al-Shabab to punish the government's foreign supporters.

Such a campaign poses, at the least, a serious risk to the stability of Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, which all have tried to prevent an al-Shabab takeover in Somalia. Given the U.S. passport holders known to have joined al-Shabab, an attempt to attack the U.S. homeland -- such as that attempted by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen last Christmas -- is entirely plausible. The Obama administration hasn't ignored the danger: In addition to providing aid to the Somali government and army, it has ordered raids by U.S. forces on terrorist targets in Somalia.

But Kenya's foreign minister, Moses Wetangula, was right when he said last week -- before the Uganda bombings -- that the United States was not doing enough to combat the threat. The Somali government and army need more help, and ideally, more foreign forces; more should be done to stop the flow of weapons into the country. More U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Shabab leaders should be undertaken. The situation in Somalia, Mr. Wetangula told the Associated Press, is "very, very dire." It is time for the United States to recognize that -- and to respond before al-Shabab can escalate its foreign attacks.

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