Will the blasts in Kampala herald a new wave of terror in East Africa? No.
Somali militant group Al Shabaab has claimed responsibility for twin blasts in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. 74 people were killed while watching the end of the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands, and dozens were injured. An unexploded suicide vest laden with ball bearings was also found in a disco hall, suggesting that militants planned another attack. Four “foreign” suspects were arrested in connection with the find.
No doubt, this is a significant event. It represents the first time that Al Shabaab, a rebel group attempting to gain control of Somalia, has struck outside the country’s borders. However, it doesn’t warrant the descriptions of the group that have since been presented by certain members of the media. Several outlets are reporting that Al Shabaab has “links to Al Qaeda” and the Washington Post has led its editorial calling Al Shabaab an “al-Qaeda’s Somali branch.” This is pure, unabashed sensationalism bordering on the hysterical.
Al Shabaab’s supposed links to Al Qaeda are tenuous at best, apart from the group once pledging allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri once praising Al Shabaab for its efforts in Somalia, there is no evidence of any real collaboration between the two on any organisational level.
According to the US think tank, The Council for Foreign Relations:
Experts say there are links between individual Shabaab leaders and individual members of al-Qaeda, but any organizational linkage between the two groups is weak, if it exists at all (many experts note that al-Qaeda operates in a disaggregated manner–so linking self-proclaimed members of Shabaab to self-proclaimed members of al-Qaeda would not necessarily indicate that the two groups are coordinating with one another in a systemic way).
However, if we disregard these tenuous links, that does not mean that Al Shabaab are not dangerous. Their reasons for targeting Uganda are clear, I’ll let Michael Wilkerson explain:
It’s clear why al-Shabab would have picked Uganda: It is the largest supplier of peacekeepers in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), sharing with Burundi the burden of defending Somalia’s weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG). In recent months, al-Shabab has publicly threatened to attack Uganda and Burundi for defending the fledgling Mogadishu-based government, and most analysts agree that without the African Union troops, al-Shabab could quickly capture control of the capital. [FP]
What’s not clear is exactly what al-Shabab hopes to gain with this attack. Max Fisher has a great post up about this on the Atlantic:
There are two likely tactical explanations for the attack. The first is that al-Shabaab is feeling increasingly threatened by the African Union force and is desperate to forestall or prevent the planned addition of 2,000 peacekeepers. In that case, this attack was a defensive act. Insurgents typically turn to terrorism when they are no longer able to challenge their opponents on the battlefield. While this may appear to be good news because it would mean that the group is weaker, a threatened al-Shabaab would become a threat to not just southern Somalia but all of East Africa.
The other possibility is that al-Shabaab is stronger than we think and that this attack is the beginning of a push to expand its reach. Al-Shabaab only operates in Somalia’s south. If it feels confident in its control there, it may be planning to assault north into the contested horn of the country or even into the relatively calm Somaliland region in the north, which has been called an “oasis of stability.” This act of terrorism would be al-Shabaab way of opening a new front in a campaign to expel the peacekeepers from the regions al-Shabaab does not yet control. If the insurgency is indeed growing stronger, this would help explain why the African Union felt the need to increase its force strength by one third.
Personally, I think that Fisher hits the nail on the head with his first explanation. I think it’s unlikely that Al Shabaab are stronger than we think, I think what’s more likely is that they feel increasingly threatened by AMICOM and frustrated by their inability to take Mogadishu. Innocent civilians watching the football in Kampala can thus be seen as a soft target, an easy way to exact revenge, send a message and gain publicity for Al Shabaab’s cause. Indeed, the timing of the blasts with the World Cup final seems to have been aimed primarily at gaining maximum publicity. And if the hysterics I mentioned above are anything to go by, it’s worked
Al Shabaab has long planned to strike outside its borders, but the general consensus has been that it has not had the means to do so. Until now. I do think that this is a significant event and that it will embolden the movement and be a possible precursor to new attacks. However, I do not think that it is a precursor to a massive wave of Islamist violence and terror that will sweep over East Africa crushing all in its wake. One thing is clear, this is hopefully enough of a game-changer to get the international community to rethink its strategy on Somalia.