Uganda, Africa And The Al-Shabab Backlash

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On the day that television viewers around the world were watching the final game of Africa’s World Cup, in South Africa, successive bombings hit the Ugandan capital, Kampala, leading to the death of more than 60 people and three suspected suicide bombers, from al-Shabab, the Islamic organization fighting in Somalia. There were foreigners amongst the casualties of the bombing. The bombings took place at the Ethiopian Village restaurant as well as a rugby club, each of which hosted several people watching the game between Spain and Holland. As the CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR newspaper put, the bombing turned “joyful World Cup viewing events into horrific scenes of violence before the tournament finished”. And by extension, it would cast a shadow on the African Union summit scheduled for Uganda, from July 19 to the 27th. Witnesses at the rugby club said the two bombs detonated there exploded right in front of the giant screen which was showing the football game from South Africa.

In the aftermath of the bombings, the Islamist movement, al-Shabab, which is fighting the interim administration in Somalia, was immediately fingered for the bombings; it had previously threatened to attack Uganda for sending troops to Somalia.  The following day, the Islamist group claimed responsibility. In Mogadishu, Somalia, Sheik Yusuf Sheik Issa, an al-Shabab commander told the Associated Press, AP, that “Uganda is one of our enemies. Whatever makes them cry makes us happy. May Allah’s anger be upon those who are against us”. Similarly, Sheik Ali Mohammed Rage, a spokesperson for al-Shabab in Mogadishu, said they would carry out attacks against “our enemies”, wherever they are, adding further that “no one will deter us from performing our Islamic duty”. Al-Shabab had issued a threat against Uganda two days before the attacks as well as Burundi, another troops-contributing country to the peacekeeping effort instituted to shore up the interim administration in Somalia. These two countries host very sizeable Somali refugee communities, where, as CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR puts it, “terrorists could potentially find a haven”.

The Ugandan military is said to already know the “brutal power” of al-Shabab, because in mid-September 2007, two suicide bombers had killed four Ugandan troops and 12 Burundian soldiers, in revenge for an American killing of a senior Al Qaeda operative in Somalia. In the days that followed, people within the Somali refugee community became worried about the possibilities of retaliatory attacks against the 10,000 strong community in Uganda. While residents of Kampala were said to be jittery about the security situation, the Somali Diaspora was on a knife edge.  And in an interview with Aljazeera, President Yoweri Museveni admitted that his country was not properly prepared to thwart an attack by the Islamist group. He then vowed to take the war to the group on the ground in Somalia. Security experts had been assessing the abilities of the Somali group to carry out its threats, including those issued, to launch Jihad against Ethiopia and the threatened attack on Kenya.

Paula Roque, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, said that al-Shabab does “have the capacity to carry out attacks against Uganda and Burundi, and this threat should be taken seriously”. Ms. Roque went on that the key to any attack on foreign soil is the support of radicalized supporters in the Somali Diaspora, who are able to get around, identify targets and handle logistics. “You have to do a lot of reconnaissance; you have to do indoctrination and recruitment. It’s not an easy thing to pull off. But just because nothing is not happening right now, doesn’t mean that it can’t happen in the future”; Roque had warned on the eve of the attacks in Uganda. In realization, Ugandan authorities began to watch members of the Somali Diaspora in the country more closely; they discussed plans to register the Somali community and even deployed extra security officers. But the attack eventually came, and as President Yoweri Museveni admitted, they had not prepared enough. But he then vowed that “We shall go for them wherever they are coming from; we will look for them and get them as we always do”.

President Museveni’s vows to get the Islamists came in the wake of a claim of responsibility for the Kampala attacks by the leader of al-Shabab, Sheik Muktar Abu Zubayr, in an audio message released last Thursday. The message was relayed on radio stations in Mogadishu; and the Sheik told the Ugandan president that more attacks will be carried out. “I say to the Ugandan president what happened in Kampala was only the beginning. We will keep revenging what your soldiers remorselessly did to our people. Your tanks destroyed the remains of our buildings in Mogadishu and we will also revenge that”. The group linked its attack to Ugandan  deployment in Somalia with the African Union mission known by the acronym AMISOM. Al-Shabab battles these troops almost on a daily basis in the Somali capital, as it intensifies efforts to overthrow the interim government backed by the UN and the AU. Abu Zubair added that “what is called AMISOM has committed a nasty massacre in Mogadishu, worse than the ones committed before by the Ethiopians and Americans : constant shelling at poor civilian populations, tanks leveling what remained of Mogadishu buildings and machine guns shot at public vehicles. All those were the habits of AMISOM”.

President Museveni told the media in the days following the Kampala attacks that his country was committed to sending 2,000 more troops to Somalia, if IGAD, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, agrees to the proposal. He similarly urged other African countries to deploy up to 20,000 new troops in Somalia, “as soon as possible”, a development which will significantly increase the African commitment which currently stands at 5,000; these are from Burundi and Uganda. It is clear that the attacks on Uganda and the implications for security, not only in Somalia but in the entire East African region, is likely to be a major point of discussion at this week’s gathering of African leaders in Kampala. By attacking the Uganda capital, al-Shabab threw down the gauntlet to the African Union. IGAD eventually accepted the Ugandan proposal to deploy 2,000 new troops on the eve of the AU summit. Uganda wants a more aggressive mandate for the troops deployed in Somalia, beyond the defence of the weak transitional administration in Mogadishu. Uganda is seeking a “licence to kill” for the AMISOM troops in Somalia. If that is conceded by the AU, it will be a major change of policy, and it is one which will have very serious consequences for Somalia and the East African region. Al-Shabab is a guerilla movement which knows the terrain very well and engages in hit and run tactics; these are far more effective in the settings of a sprawling urban centre such as Mogadishu, than the conventional fighting methods which the AMISOM troops deploy. A more robust mandate is likely to see a spike in the killings of civilians which might endanger the entire peace keeping process. Then there is Somali nationalism that might rally people under the banner of al-Shabab, if the robust mandate which Uganda courts now, goes wrong. During the 1990s, the United States was at receiving end of Somali indignation with dire consequences! African leaders meeting in Kampala this week will need a lot of wisdom to deal with the complications of Somalia. The attacks on innocent people in Kampala must be condemned by all, but the Somali impasse must be disentangled with African cool-headedness. Getting sucked into the agenda of the imperialist superpowers, and the “War on Terror”, has been one of the reasons why the Somali crisis has continued till date. Unfortunately, it is the Somali and other African peoples that have suffered the terrible consequences of that short-sighted policy.

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