When the Islamist militant group known as al-Shabab announced its arrival on the world stage on July 11, it stuck to a well-worn script: multiple bombings of civilian targets in a foreign city. The first bomb detonated among a crowd of Ugandans, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Americans watching the Spain-Netherlands World Cup soccer final on a giant open-air projector screen at a popular restaurant in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. Across town, a second device exploded in the midst of another crowd of fans watching the game at a rugby club. The bombs consisted of hundreds of ball bearings taped around plastic explosives. They killed 76 people mostly Ugandans but also Ethiopians, Eritreans, a 25-year-old American aid worker, Nate Henn, of Wilmington, Del., and an Irish missionary, Marie Smith, 51. Around 85 more, among them five Americans, were injured.
Like its timeworn tactics, al-Shabab's backstory feels familiar. Somalia in the mid-1990s was a place of feuding warlords. From that chaos rose an Islamist movement offering strict Shari'a law as an answer. Extreme elements within the movement then took in foreign jihadists who, from their new base, carried out attacks across the world. It was Somalia-based al-Qaeda militants who struck before their brethren in Afghanistan, blowing up U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, killing more than 200.
Al-Shabab, meaning "the Youth" in Arabic, is a more recent manifestation of the same phenomenon and was not formed until 2006. But it has evolved rapidly: alarms went off at the FBI in 2007 when several Somali Americans traveled to East Africa to join the group. The following year, Shirwa Ahmed, a Somali-born U.S. citizen raised in Minneapolis, became the first American suicide bomber during an al-Shabab operation in Somalia. Today, al-Shabab comprises two distinct entities: a local militia fighting Somalia's official rulers, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and several hundred foreigners, including veterans of the wars in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as Americans, Europeans and Australians, organized into autonomous cells and more focused on global jihad. The July 11 attacks are the foreign group's bloody calling card to the world. Congresswoman Jane Harman, chair of the Intelligence Subcommittee on Homeland Security, calls them "chilling evidence that yet another terror group has expanded its attacks to other countries after aligning with al-Qaeda ... I am deeply concerned there will be an attack by a foreign terrorist or foreign-inspired homegrown terrorist on U.S. soil this year."
All this poses a dilemma for those who counter al-Shabab: How to fight it without turning Somalia into another Afghanistan? Al-Shabab clearly wants confrontation on the ground. In 2006, Sheik Hassan al-Turki, one of its senior commanders, gave a speech demanding that President George W. Bush invade Somalia. That is one good reason for resisting the bait. A second is recent history. Neighboring Ethiopia, a U.S. ally, sent thousands of troops into Somalia in 2006. Bloodied, they eventually withdrew last year, leaving al-Shabab strengthened.
Since 2007, the U.S. has launched seven strikes using missiles and, on one occasion, attack helicopters against individual al-Shabab leaders. But for the most part, the burden of fighting al-Shabab is borne by about 5,000 African Union troops, drawn exclusively from Uganda and Burundi, who protect the official government in Mogadishu. Their U.S. and European allies supply some funding, training and logistical and intelligence help. "Our interests overlap," says a senior Western diplomat in Kampala, "but it's an African problem and an African Union mission."