Deadly Uganda bombings could indicate new roles for al-Qaeda affiliates

The twin bombings in Kampala killed at least 74 people watching the World Cup final on television, marking the first major international attack by al-Shabab.
Map of Uganda
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

KAMPALA, UGANDA -- The bombings orchestrated by Somalia's al-Shabab militia that killed at least 74 people watching the World Cup finals on television Sunday night are the latest sign of the growing ambitions of al-Qaeda's regional affiliates outside the traditional theaters of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

The attacks, intended to inflict maximum damage on civilian targets, mark the first major international assault by Somali militants in a region where the United States and its allies are attempting to stem the rise of Islamist militancy. At least one American was killed and several were wounded in Sunday's strikes.

The United States has provided millions of dollars in military and economic aid, training, equipment, logistical support and intelligence to regional counterterrorism allies such as Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya. Uganda is a training ground for soldiers for Somalia's transitional government, which al-Shabab is seeking to overthrow, in a program backed by the United States and European nations. Troops from Uganda and Burundi make up a U.S.- and Western-backed African Union peacekeeping force in the Somali capital of Mogadishu that protects the fragile government.

A top spokesman for al-Shabab, speaking from Mogadishu, said the militia carried out the bombings, and he alluded to the group's aspiration to use Somalia as a launching pad for international attacks. Ali Mohamud Raghe, the spokesman, threatened further attacks if Uganda and Burundi continue to supply troops to the African Union force.

A Ugandan military spokesman vowed that his nation's soldiers will not leave Somalia. "It increases our resolve to make sure Somalia is pacified. These criminals cannot have room to expand and grow because they are a threat to regional and international peace," said Felix Kulayige, the spokesman. "If they have hoped this cowardly act will make us leave Somalia, they are totally mistaken."

Importing violent tactics

Al-Shabab's new boldness comes as foreign fighters trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan are gaining influence inside the movement and importing their violent tactics. Suicide bombers, including foreigners of Somali descent, have in recent months staged several attacks in Mogadishu. The militia also continues to attract Americans to the Somali conflict, including two New Jersey men arrested last month by U.S. authorities and charged with intending to join al-Shabab. The United States has deemed al-Shabab a terrorist organization.

Sunday's attacks come seven months after al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen -- al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- showed its global aspirations with its failed Christmas Day attack on a Detroit-bound airliner. Another group with al-Qaeda links, the Pakistani Taliban, helped orchestrate the botched attempt to bomb Times Square in May.

Top al-Shabab leader Mukhtar Abdurahman Abu Zubeyr last week accused the African Union forces of committing "massacres" against Somalis. He warned that his forces would take revenge against the people of Uganda and Burundi.

Banning soccer

The militia, which seeks to create an Islamic emirate and has imposed Taliban-like dictates, has banned soccer in many areas and prohibited broadcasts of the World Cup, describing the sport as "a satanic act" that corrupts Muslims.

The explosions in Kampala tore through the Kyadondo Rugby Club and the Ethiopian Village restaurant, where boisterous soccer fans, including clusters of foreigners, had gathered to watch Spain beat the Netherlands in the World Cup final.

Among the dead at the rugby club was Nate Henn, 25, of Wilmington, Del., a worker for Invisible Children, a California-based aid group that helps child soldiers, the organization said on its Web site. Emily Kerstetter, 16, of Ellicott City was injured, according to WMAR-TV in Baltimore. She was in Kampala with her grandmother's church group from Pennsylvania.

Joanne Lockard, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, said there were no directives for embassy staff members or other U.S. citizens to leave Kampala, which is widely considered one of the safest capitals on the continent. Unlike neighbors Kenya and Tanzania, where al-Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in 1998, Uganda had never been a target of international terrorism.

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