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

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; A01

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.

During a visit to the rugby club Monday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni vowed to pursue those responsible. "If you want to fight, go and look for soldiers. Don't bomb people watching football," he told reporters.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the attacks and offered their condolences.

"The United States stands with Uganda," Clinton said. "We have a long-standing, close friendship with the people and government of Uganda and will work with them to bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice."

At the rugby club, witnesses and police said two explosions killed at least 43 people who had gathered on the rugby field to watch the soccer final on a large-screen television. As people went to help the victims of the first blast, a second, more powerful bomb detonated, witnesses said.

"It sounded like a massive tire blowout. There was dust and smoke everywhere," said Simon Peter Lubagasa, 28, who operates a motorcycle taxi and was at the club. "People were on the ground crying. Some had cracks on their heads. I saw one person with his ear blown off."

Police said they suspect that a suicide bomber set off the second blast. A police official said investigators found the head of a man who appeared to have Somali features.

As of Monday afternoon, cars belonging to the victims were still parked on the field, where organizers had set out rows of white plastic chairs.

"I was picking up bodies until 7 a.m.," said Alphonse Motebasi, a police commander whose pants were splattered with blood.

At the Ethiopian Village restaurant, crowds of Ugandans gathered Monday, peering over the walls at the carnage inside as police stood guard and investigators combed through debris that looked like the aftermath of a tornado. Onlookers shook their heads at the overturned tables on the restaurant's patio, the shattered glass and shreds of clothing.

"How can someone kill innocent Ugandans?" demanded Godfrey Ivimba, 34, the owner of a printing business. Residents said the restaurant was popular with Ethiopians and Eritreans, as well as other foreigners.

At Mulago Hospital, Betty Nbagire, 37, lay on a bed, eyes closed, tubes attached to her body, struggling to survive. She was at the rugby club. Her sister Salome sat next to her. She said Uganda's soldiers should pull out of Somalia.

"If that was the cause of this attack, our soldiers should come home," she said, her voice almost a whisper. "They should be here to protect us and not to protect those people in Somalia."

Special correspondent Yusuf Hagi Hussein in Mogadishu contributed to this report.

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