Are Somali Militants Behind the Uganda Blasts?

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Marcv Hoafer / AP

A man attends to an injured woman on July 11, 2010, after a bomb went off in a restaurant in Kampala's Kabalagala district

If, as expected, it turns out to have been Somali Islamic militants who carried out the twin suicide bombing in the Ugandan capital of Kampala on Sunday night — killing 64, many as they watched the World Cup final — that will be lethal confirmation of the group's long-threatened ambition to spread its terrorism beyond Somalia's borders.

Simultaneous explosions tore through crowds watching the Spain-Netherlands game at a rugby club, where 49 people died, and hit patrons at an Ethiopian restaurant, where 15 were killed. A spokesman for the Ugandan government said vests and body parts at the scenes indicated the work of suicide bombers. The U.S. embassy in Kampala confirmed that one American was among the dead at the restaurant. A church group from Pennsylvania was inside at the time, according to the Associated Press, and several Americans were among the scores of wounded.

Kampala police chief Kale Kaihura said he suspected that Somali extremist group al-Shabab was behind the bombings. While al-Shabab is a fragmented organization and no one leader speaks for all its factions, Sheikh Mohammed Ali, spokesman for al-Shabab in Kismayo, the main city in al-Shabab's heartland, in southern Somalia, told TIME, "This is the work of mujahedin. We were happy with those guys who did that. God will reward them." Ali did not confirm that al-Shabab was responsible for the attacks, but he did say the bombings were in response to calls in the region for a stronger international force to intervene in Somalia's ongoing civil war. "Ethiopia and Uganda and Burundi and Kenya are our No. 1 enemies," he continued. "They have surrounded us, and they are planning to attack Somali soil. We assure them that we shall attack them on their soil." He said the group had previously planned an attack on Entebbe airport, outside Kampala, but "unfortunately last year it was unsuccessful."

Al-Shabab's involvement in Sunday's attacks seems likely. Last year, the group announced its alliance with al-Qaeda. Al-Shabab repeatedly threatens death to Americans, Ugandans and Burundians, who make up the bulk of the African Union peacekeeping force in Mogadishu, and Ethiopians, who invaded Somalia in 2006. No other group in East Africa has the capacity to carry out such an attack — and at the start of the World Cup, al-Shabab threatened to execute anyone caught watching a broadcast of the tournament in Mogadishu because it deemed the tournament frivolous Western entertainment. "Al-Shabab has telegraphed their intention to do something like this, and people have been anticipating something of this order for a while," said a Western intelligence operative.

Islamic militants have operated in Somalia for as long as the Taliban has in Afghanistan, and there are broad similarities between the two groups. Both sets of militants say the imposition of strict Shari'a law is the solution to countries beset by lawlessness and feuding warlords. Both welcome al-Qaeda as a guest in their countries and have allowed the group to set up bases from which to launch attacks on the U.S., including the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 — which killed more than 200 — and 9/11.

Al-Shabab, however, is a more recent phenomenon. It was originally the armed wing of a group that called itself the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which briefly ruled Somalia in 2006. The ICU included moderate and extremist members, and after the extremists declared a jihad against neighboring Ethiopia, that country invaded in late 2006, toppling the ICU and helping install in Mogadishu the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Somalia's internationally recognized government, which until then had largely existed only in exile. Al-Shabab became the primary resistance force in Somalia, and the Ethiopians eventually withdrew in 2009 after fighting a bloody insurgency against its soldiers. Since then, lawlessness has prevailed across Somalia, and a deadly stalemate holds in Mogadishu, as al-Shabab and other Islamic groups battle African Union peacekeepers and the TFG.

Al-Shabab has also become more extreme, regularly using suicide bombers. Western intelligence operatives and diplomats in the region say this is related to the group's increasingly international makeup — leadership and strategy is now in the hands of foreign militants, particularly veterans of Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and ethnic Somalis from the U.S. — and ambitions. In October 2008, the group killed about 30 people in a series of bomb blasts in Somaliland. Last September, the U.S. shut down its embassy in Pretoria and three other consulates in South Africa after intercepting a phone call from an al-Shabab figure in Mogadishu to supporters in Cape Town in which an attack on the U.S. in South Africa was discussed.

So what of the international response? Ethiopia's invasion, which after its initial success quickly became a bloody quagmire, cautions against a repeat. Until now, the U.S. has confined itself to attacks against individual leaders of al-Shabab, using missiles fired from battleships offshore or drones and, once, attack helicopters. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, however, proposes far tougher action and, according to Western intelligence operatives, has readied an invasion plan.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said the U.S. was prepared to provide any necessary assistance to Uganda. President Barack Obama was "deeply saddened by the loss of life resulting from these deplorable and cowardly attacks," he said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added, "The United States stands with Uganda. We ... will work with them to bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice." Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed condemned the "evil and ugly nature of the perpetrators" and added, "Neither the region nor the international community will tolerate the spread of insecurity."

However, it could be that al-Shabab is trying to provoke just such an escalation. "It's a risky move on the part of al-Shabab because it most likely will precipitate some kind of a fairly firm response from Museveni. If [Uganda responds] in a robust way, this could be a very significant blow to al-Shabab's military capacity," says E.J. Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group. "But if they respond in an indiscriminate manner, it could actually galvanize a Somali response against AMISOM [the African Union peacekeeping force] and play into the hands of al-Shabab."

A Western intelligence operative says al-Shabab will be hoping for a "disproportionate response." The primary challenges of Somalia, he says, are to create a stable political center and to fight a counterinsurgency against al-Shabab. A stronger display of foreign force — what the analyst calls "going kinetic" — would be a "misreading."

With reporting by Nick Wadhams / Nairobi