al-Shabaab, the Somali allies of al-Qaeda have taken their bloody push for power onto the international stage for the first time with a deadly bombing in Uganda that displays a well practised, publicity-savvy sense of timing and targeting.
The Sunday night attacks that killed 74 soccer fans watching the World Cup final may point to weaknesses in security in Uganda, and perhaps other regional states also seen as enemies by al Shabaab, the group that claimed the attack, analysts say.
al-Shabaab’s change of tactics to strike beyond the borders of the failed state appears to have been decided to press home in the most dramatic way its opposition to an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission that it sees as Western-inspired, reuters reports. The attack, among sub-Saharan Africa’s worst militant bombings and the group’s first foreign strike, is likely to test nerves in Kampala in the run-up to an AU summit in Uganda set for July 19-27. “This is clear evidence that the group has the intent and capability to stage international terror attacks,” said Henry Wilkinson, of Janusian Security consultants in London.
“Its threats should be taken seriously. There is a concern about how adequately the region is prepared for this challenge, since al-Shabaab has repeatedly warned Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Ethiopia about their support for the (AU) mission” he said. The change of tactics mirrors a similar shift by al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian peninsula, which in the past year has started to strike beyond its base in Yemen.
An al-Shabaab spokesman in Mogadishu said the bombings would continue until Uganda and Burundi withdrew troops from the AU force, which is trying to help Somalia end two decades of chaos. The prospect of an al Shabaab campaign is especially worrying since the group contains several al-Qaeda men who have contributed to the global network’s anti-Western campaign.
These include high-profile suspects such as Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, indicted for an alleged role in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 240 people. Anna Murison of Exclusive Analysis said the attack’s targeting appeared consistent with al-Shabaab’s methods and aims, one of which is resolute opposition to Ethiopia, Somalia’s large neighbour and perennial foe.
“The targeting of an Ethiopian restaurant full of foreigners also reinforces this idea — three targets in one, really: Ethiopia, Uganda and the United States,” she said. Murison added corruption among regional officials was a serious concern as it made it relatively easy for practised militants to buy the false papers needed to operate in the region. The bombings may complicate efforts to strengthen the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, AMISOM. “You’re not going to see countries rushing to volunteer for AMISON after this,” said Gus Selassie, an analyst with IHS Global Insight in London.
al-Shabaab had been warning Uganda and Burundi to desist from involvement in Somalia, and Uganda had sometimes appeared dismissive of the threat, he said. Somalia expert Sally Healy, an associate fellow at Britain’s Chatham House think tank, said she expected the attack to increase anxiety about al Shabaab and the situation in Somalia, both in the region and in the international community.
Experts will now be trying to determine to what extent the apparent change of tactics in striking abroad reflects the influence of foreign militants in al Shabaab’s ranks. An International Crisis Group (ICG) report on al Shabaab issued in May said foreign jihadists were the driving force “behind al Shabaab’s ideological drift to the far extreme”, and a key driver of the Somali conflict: “Their belligerence, fanatical attachment to an uncompromising brand of politics and extremist theology is seriously undermining, if not thwarting, any potential chances for finding a political settlement.”
The report named the following individuals as the most important foreign militants in al Shabaab.
— Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (Comoros Islands), described by ICG as “commander in chief of al-Shabaab”.
— Sheikh Mohamed Abu Faid (Saudi-born), financier and manager of al-Shabaab.
— Abu Suleiman Al-Banadiri (Somali of Yemeni descent), an adviser to al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane.
— Abu Musa Mombasa (Pakistan), recently arrived to replace Saleh Ali Nabhan, killed in a US military operation in September 2009, in al-Shabaab security and training;
— Abu Mansur Al-Amriki (US), finance of foreign fighters;
— Mohamoud Mujajir (Sudan), recruitment of suicide bombers;
— Abdifatah Aweys Abu Hamsa (Somali national trained in Afghanistan), commander of the Mujahidin of Al-Quds.