Not in the mood for an intro post, let’s get down the business…
Over the weekend the Ugandan capital of Kampala, terrorists detonated several bombs at a rugby club and restaurant which had been showing the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands. At least 74 people were killed (including and American aid worker) and more than 100 injured. Since the attacks, the Somali terrorist group Harakat al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility and an unexploded suicide vest was found at a disco in a nearby suburb.
Prior to these attacks, al-Shabaab has come up in American media coverage as part of several narratives. First, they are known as the group which has recruited young Somali immigrants from the Twin Cities and other places to go fight in a jihad against the provisional government in Somalia. Second, al-Shabaab gets mixed in as part of many stories about Somali piracy and where ransom payments may go (in a “if you buy pot from that guy down the street you’re actually funding al-Qaeda” kind of way). And third, al-Shabaab gets thrown around with the likes of AQAP and AQIM (two groups who have at least some actual ties to al-Qaeda), despite the lack of any official ties between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda.
Response to the attack has focused mostly on a potential shift in this third narrative. The theory being floated at the moment is that al-Shabaab is now a defacto “al-Qaeda in East Africa” and should be treated the same as the other regional al-Qaeda affiliates.
There is something to be said for this change. The attack certainly fit the bill as a traditional al-Qaeda attack: multiple targets, simultaneity, targets popular with Westerners or symbols of modernity. These attacks may be an aspirational attempt to win the favor of the AQ bigwigs and show that al-Shabaab is capable of handling a complex attack such as the one perpetrated on Sunday. Even in a region as unstable as East Africa, it is still orders of magnitude more difficult to pull off an attack across borders than it is to take potshots at AU peacekeepers in Mogadishu. Such an attack likely took months of research, operational planning, acquisition, and dry runs.
Considering this complexity, it could also be possible that the attack may not be aspirational but rather a coming-out party of sorts for al-Shabaab as a full-blown regional affiliate of al-Qaeda. That certainly would explain where the technical know-how to pull off the bombings came from.
These explanations, however, assume that the West and al-Qaeda were the audience al-Shabaab were playing to. But at a regional level, these attacks could be aimed squarely at Uganda and the African Union. Ugandan troops make up a substantial part of the AU peacekeeping forces protecting the provisional government in Mogadishu. They also represent the main obstacle keeping al-Shabaab from becoming the Taliban of the 1990’s in Somalia. As such, the bombings may be an attempt to compel President Museveni (who is facing reelection next year) to pull his troops out of Somalia. Although a withdrawal is highly unlikely, it would not be unprecedented. Many credit the 2004 train bombings by homegrown-but-al-Qaeada-inspired terrorists with precipitating a change in government and the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq.
Certainly, no matter what single or combination of storylines you choose, all of these issues will be on the table when the annual summit of the African Union meets next weekend in, of all places, Kampala.