As the rest of the world watched the FIFA World Cup final between Spain and The Netherlands on Sunday night, Uganda experienced one of the worst terrorist attacks in its history. At least 74 innocent civilians were killed and a similar number seriously injured as three powerful explosive devices ripped indiscriminately through Kampala's Ethiopian Village Restaurant and Kyadondo Rugby Club at 22h30 local time, minutes before the end of the final match of the 2010 World Cup.
The attacks - thought to be the work of suicide bombers of the al-Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militia from south and central Somalia - served as a grim reminder of the devastating consequences of terrorism. For Ugandans, the attacks represent the tragic reality of the longstanding threat from al Shabaab, which has for two years been promising to attack Uganda as punishment for its support to the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia (AMISOM). For other Africans and the rest of the world, the indiscriminate nature, timing and location of the attacks (which were linked to the World Cup), demonstrate that al Shabaab is prepared to avenge its grievances beyond the borders of Somalia.
An attack from al Shabaab was not entirely unexpected. Two days before the bombings, Somali Sheik Muktar Robow called on militants to target sites in Uganda and Burundi - the two nations that contribute the bulk of the troops to AMISOM. Uganda (regarded by al Shabaab as one of the ‘infidels of Africa', along with Ethiopia) contributes the largest share with an estimated 2,700 peacekeepers in Somalia. Indeed, immediately following the attack, Sheik Yusuf Sheik Issa, an alShabaab commander, indicated that he was happy with the attacks in Uganda. He reportedly told journalists: "Uganda is one of our enemies. Whatever makes them cry, makes us happy. May Allah`s anger be upon those who are against us."
Then came the announcement by Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, al-Shabab`s spokesman on Monday: "We warned Uganda not to deploy troops to Somalia; they ignored us...We warned them to stop massacring our people, and they ignored that. The explosions in Kampala were only a minor message to them. ...We will target them everywhere if Uganda does not withdraw from our land."
Prior to these attacks, most thought that the threat from al Shabaab was contained to Somalia. However, it is now clear that the terror group has greater ambitions and they callously used the World Cup to gain maximum exposure for, and heighten the impact of, their campaign. Their intentions were made clear by Sheikh Muqtar Robow Abu Mansuur on 5 July 2010, when he call on Islamist fighters from around the world to attack the embassies of Burundi and Uganda. He reportedly said: "We tell the Muslim youths and Mujahideens wherever they are in the Muslim world to attack, explode and burn the embassies of Burundi and Uganda in the world."
The Uganda attacks - the first to be executed by al Shabaab outside Somalia - carry a message for the sub-region, Africa, and the international community more broadly. Although the source of the group's grievances derives from circumstances in Somalia, al Shabaab now seem determined to strike at their enemies wherever they can. This was again demonstrated by the recent arrest and conviction of an Australian-based cell linked to al Shabaab that planned attacks against a military base in that country. Another example was the attempt by Mohammed Muhideen Gelle (a Somali national allegedly linked to al-Shabaab) to kill Kurt Westergaard (the cartoonist of the controversial Prophet Muhammad cartoons) in Denmark early this year. Consequently intelligence agencies (including from South Africa in the lead up to the World Cup) became increasingly concerned with the threat posed by a small number of individuals within the Somali expatriate community.
To expand its geographic scope of operations, al Shabaab has gone on a recruitment drive. It is aggressively trying to recruit Somali expatriates from western countries (including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Sweden, The Netherlands), as well as hardened fighters from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has also openly aligned itself with al-Qaeda in an attempt the garner greater legitimacy and more supporters.
Responding effectively to this growing threat emanating from the ongoing strife in Somalia will not be easy. It is hoped that those driving the international and regional responses will learn from mistakes made around the world in preventing and combating terrorism in the past. A short-sighted approach that relies on ‘eliminating' suspected terrorists will not work. Counter-terrorism actors working in the sub-region must also address the broader underlying causes that have fuelled the conflict in Somalia for years. Failure to do so will simply strengthen the appeal of al-Shabaab and introduce a new cycle of terrorism. A more holistic approach, one which relies on building strategic partnerships with key local actors, and that aims to find a lasting road to peace in Somalia, is the only viable solution to this increasingly dangerous situation.
Written by: Anneli Botha, senior researcher, International Crime in Africa Programme, ISS Pretoria