Jul 122010
 




STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • * Al Shabaab emerged in 2005 as militant youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU)
  • * Have waged four-year guerilla war against Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government
  • * Believed to have forged closer ties with al Qaeda terror network
  • * The group claimed resresponsibility for recent Ugandan bomb attacks

Coordinated bombings killed an estimated 76 people in Uganda late Sunday and underscored the ambitions of a shadowy Somali militant group that is torn between toppling Somalia’s government and hitting out at other African targets in the same way as its al Qaeda allies have sought to destabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The two violent objectives appear to have converged in Uganda. On a mild Sunday night, three separate blasts, targeting crowds that gathered to watch the final World Cup soccer match, dealt a blow to a Somali government ally, Uganda, which has contributed troops to a regional peacekeeping force in Somalia.

The attack also raised the regional profile of the group, al Shabaab, which analysts say hasn’t previously struck outside Somalia.

“This is really an unpleasant confluence of goals between the nationalist and international wing of al Shabaab,” said Roger Middleton, a Somalia analyst at London-based think tank Chatham House.

Al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said Monday the group was responsible.

“We have carried out the holy blasts that massacred many Christians last night” he told reporters. He said the attacks would continue until African Union peacekeeper troops are pulled out of Somalia.

The attack poses a challenge to a continent that has struggled to police and pacify its own hotspots. The U.S. pulled out of Somalia in 1994, after encountering fierce resistance that was depicted in the movie “Black Hawk Down.” United Nations peacekeepers followed.

Africa’s own peacekeepers have had their own struggles stabilizing the war-torn and clan-riven country. The Somali government controls only a section of the capital, with most of the rest of the country under the sway of al Shabaab, clans, other militants and pirates.

The Uganda attack could signal a tide turning against them as well, say analysts.

< Three bombs hit Uganda’s capital, killing at least 64 people, in an attack targeting crowds watching the World Cup final match. Peter Wonacott discusses. Also, Jacob Schlesinger reports from Japan about the fallout from Sunday’s elections, in which the ruling DPJ party lost critical support.

“It’s sending a message: Don’t come here propping up the Somalia government,” said Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa analyst in Nairobi for the International Crisis Group. “It’s a message of deterrence.”

Uganda’s deputy foreign affairs minister, Okello Oryema, said the attack wouldn’t force his government to withdraw troops from Somalia. “It would be a cowardly act to withdraw and we won’t do that,” he said.

With the support of African peacekeepers, Somalia’s government has gone on the offensive against militants in the capital of Mogadishu, although progress is hard to determine. President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who has been on the front lines of the offensive, has been trying to maintain support of neighboring countries to help buttress what remains a fragile government protected by a weak and poorly paid collection of security forces.

“Somalia mourns with the brotherly people of Uganda,” he said. “Neither the region, nor the international community, will tolerate the spread of insecurity.”

Uganda, buoyed by an emerging middle-class, newly discovered oil reserves and flows of foreign tourists, has carefully stepped into a broader regional role.

Uganda is scheduled to host a summit of African Union leaders in Kampala this month, a meeting that—if it goes forward—will likely touch on ways to curb the threats coming from Somalia.

For these efforts, Uganda has also drawn ire from al Shabaab. For weeks, al Shabaab had threatened the Uganda government to force it to withdraw peacekeeping troops from Somalia. The militants renewed those threats last week, after East African nations, including Uganda, pledged to send 2,000 more troops to Somalia.

POINT COUNTERPOINT

On Sunday, tourist-heavy crowds had gathered in front of televisions to watch the World Cup finals. Around 10:30 pm local time, explosions hit an Ethiopian restaurant, a rugby club and a packed pub, killing scores of locals and 11 foreigners, including one American.

“Most people who died were just in front of me. The blast was so loud—the next thing I saw were body parts flying over,” says Ugandan musician Bebe Cool who was performing at the rugby club but escaped with minor injuries.

At least 70 people were injured, among them six members of a Pennsylvania church group who were at the Ethiopian restaurant. Dr. Ian Clarke, the director of International Hospital Kampala, said a number of the victims from the Ethiopian Restaurant sustained head injuries; some were in a critical condition.

Uganda’s deputy foreign affairs minister, Okello Oryema, said the attack wouldn’t force his government to withdraw troops from Somalia. “It would be a cowardly act to withdraw and we won’t do that,” he said.

With the support of African peacekeepers, Somalia’s government has gone on the offensive against militants in the capital of Mogadishu, although progress is hard to determine. President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who has been on the front lines of the offensive, has been trying to maintain support of neighboring countries to help buttress what remains a fragile government protected by a weak and poorly paid collection of security forces.

“Somalia mourns with the brotherly people of Uganda,” he said. “Neither the region, nor the international community, will tolerate the spread of insecurity.”

Uganda is scheduled to host a summit of African Union leaders in Kampala this month, a meeting that—if it goes forward—will likely touch on ways to curb the threats coming from Somalia.

For these efforts, Uganda has also drawn ire from al Shabaab. For weeks, al Shabaab had threatened the Uganda government to force it to withdraw peacekeeping troops from Somalia. The militants renewed those threats last week, after East African nations, including Uganda, pledged to send 2,000 more troops to Somalia.

On Sunday, tourist-heavy crowds had gathered in front of televisions to watch the World Cup finals. Around 10:30 pm local time, explosions hit an Ethiopian restaurant, a rugby club and a packed pub, killing scores of locals and 11 foreigners, including one American.

“Most people who died were just in front of me. The blast was so loud—the next thing I saw were body parts flying over,” says Ugandan musician Bebe Cool who was performing at the rugby club but escaped with minor injuries.

At least 70 people were injured, among them six members of a Pennsylvania church group who were at the Ethiopian restaurant. Dr. Ian Clarke, the director of International Hospital Kampala, said a number of the victims from the Ethiopian Restaurant sustained head injuries; some were in a critical condition.

Uganda security forces said they suspected al Shabaab suicide bombers carried out the attacks. At the Kyadondo Rugby Club, security personnel said they had identified a severed body of a suspected bomber.

A police spokeswoman said the Ugandan police requested assistance from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and other foreign intelligence agencies. The police haven’t yet made any arrests.

The U.S. State Department offered U.S. assistance on the investigation, spokesman P.J. Crowley said. “We’ll be helping them in coming days,” he said.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, vowed to fight back. “We shall defeat them as we have done in the past,” he said. “This is a cowardly act of terrorists. If they want to fight, why don’t they go for the army?”

On Monday, al Shabaab leaders addressed mosques, describing “successful attacks” to avenge what they called “civilians’ killings.”

Al Shabaab and other militants want to overthrow the state and establish countrywide Islamic law. Punishments for transgressions can include amputations and beheadings. In the past month, militants have also thrown grenades at crowds watching World Cup matches in Somalia.

The lack of any central authority in Somalia has proven attractive to foreign militants fleeing hotspots such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

The foreign fighters are estimated to number in the hundreds, supplementing al Shabaab’s force of a few thousand, say analysts.





The Somali al-Shabab group has claimed responsibility for two explosions that rocked the Ugandan capital Kampala, targeting innocent people watching the World Cup final.

The attacks, which left at least 74 people dead, were the first by al-Shabab outside of Somalia.

Uganda and Burundi have, in the past, dismissed threats by the group, which vowed to avenge what it called “massacres” committed by Ugandan and Burundian troops as part of the 6,000-strong African Union force propping up the weak Somali government.

National vs. global agenda

Contrary to popular perception, al-Shabab is not a monolithic movement. It is comprised of several wings that espouse different worldviews. Some – perhaps the majority – have a domestic agenda. But a small minority in the upper echelons of the group, and a significant number of foreign fighters, advocate global jihad as a guiding principle.

This diversity makes for multiple objectives and motives within the movement and among its leaders.

Those with a national agenda would certainly like to force foreign peacekeepers out of Somalia so that they can replace the government. But, if this was the objective of the Kampala attacks, the group made a strategic mistake.

For those who espouse the global jihadist agenda and seem to dominate the movement, this may have been a calculated move designed to invite additional intervention in Somalia in order to justify and legitimise their war on religious grounds. If so, they may be prepared for such an outcome.

Whatever the motives, the attack will certainly invoke an interventionist mood within the international community and among Somalia’s neighbours. Many countries in the region will now intervene in Somalia arguing that al-Shabab poses an existential threat to their national security.

Pre-emption will be the name of the game: let us fight extremist elements in Somalia rather than waiting for them to come to our own backyards. And the chances are that regional governments will find support for such an approach among their citizens.

Somali hearts and minds

However, addressing extremism and insecurity in Somalia needs a sober approach and, like al-Shabab, the international community must not make another blunder in order to mitigate the situation.

Any military intervention involving Somalia’s neighbouring states will exacerbate the security situation in the region.

In 2006, the US and much of the international community endorsed the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. As a result of the conditions created by that invasion, al-Shabab was empowered at the expense of more moderate factions of the Islamic Courts Union, of which al-Shabab was a member.

Repeating the same mistake will not only fail to defeat extremism in Somalia but will likely empower it further.

Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, understands the sensitivities of this issue and the potential consequences of sending Ethiopian forces to Somalia. He, therefore, offered a public assurance in an interview with the AFP news agency that Ethiopian troops will not return to the country. This is prudent decision and we must hope that he honours this pledge.

The United Nations Security Council understood this fact as early as 2006 when it passed resolution 1725, which prohibited Somalia’s neighbours – known as frontline states – from intervening militarily in the country, although this was not implemented.

Any successful Somalia strategy will require winning the hearts and minds of the Somali people as their support is indispensable. Most Somalis – inside and outside of the country – do not support or condone extremism. They should, therefore, be considered the most important ally in the struggle to re-establish a Somali state and to defeat extremism.

There are two important issues that must be dealt with. Firstly, many innocent Somalis are victims of the atrocities committed by the Somali government and the African Union forces. This must end. Secondly, regional governments and the international community, particularly law enforcement agencies, must therefore do all they can to protect innocent Somalis who have fled their country’s civil war while apprehending criminals. This may be easier said than done, but it is necessary.

Creating Somali security forces

We must also understand that sending peacekeeping forces from Muslim countries and African states, excluding Somalia’s neighbours, is a temporary solution that cannot be sustained in the long-term. The best way to address extremism is, therefore, to help create professional and disciplined Somali security forces.

Since 2000, Somalia has had a number of transitional governments – created and supported by the international community. Military experts say it takes approximately one to two years to prepare a combat-ready army. But, after 10 years, Somalia does not have security forces that can protect the country and its people.

A lack of will from Somalia’s leaders has contributed to the current stalemate. The international community must pressure the government to make substantive changes if it wants it to face the pertinent challenges Somalia poses.

Finally, disuading Somali youngsters from joining extremist groups requires more than the presence of a strong military. Fortunately, most of Somalia’s religious scholars have begun to challenge extremism on the ideological front. This is a welcome development.

In sum, the Kampala attacks will have far-reaching implications for al-Shabab, Somalia and the whole region. Caution is now desperately needed.

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