Al Shabaab's First International Strike: Analysis of the July 11 Uganda Bombings
The Somali terror group al Shabaab has taken credit for Sunday’s bombings in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Al Shabaab has become more internationalized since early 2007 and has threatened to attack international targets, but Sunday’s event marks the group’s first successful attack beyond Somalia’s borders.
Al Shabaab seeks al Qaeda’s recognition and, likely, an al Qaeda franchise designation. Currently, only three such franchises exist. The group’s first international attack was likely at least partially driven by that aim.
Al Shabaab seeks to weaken the forces that hinder its expansion in and control of Somalia, the most notable of which is the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Uganda and Burundi are the only two countries that contribute troops to the AMISOM force, making their interests key targets for al Shabaab.
Al Shabaab has proven on multiple occasions its ability to execute on its threats. This capacity was demonstrated again with the Uganda bombings, as al Shabaab had threatened to strike Ugandan targets on numerous occasions.
Al Shabaab’s ambitions are not limited to the continent of Africa. The group has threatened the West, including the U.S., and it has numerous international militants, including Americans and Europeans. The Uganda attack should serve as a wakeup call for the entire international community.
Somalia’s al Qaeda-linked terror group al Shabaab claimed credit for the near-simultaneous twin bombings that ripped through the Ugandan capital of Kampala on Sunday, July 11, killing at least 76 and injuring at least another 85. Three bombings, one at an Ethiopian restaurant and two at a rugby club twenty minutes later, targeted crowds watching the World Cup soccer final. Al Shabaab had made numerous threats against Uganda, and it has targeted Ugandan troops in Somalia, which form much of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force in the Horn of Africa country. Sunday’s operation was the group’s first successful terror attack beyond Somalia’s borders.
The attack demonstrates al Shabaab’s capability to follow up on its threats to strike internationally and its desire to remove barriers to its control of southern and central Somalia. The attack also contributes to al Shabaab’s goal of receiving recognition from al Qaeda.
Al Shabaab, which has set up Islamic administrations to govern nearly all of southern and central Somalia, seeks to topple Somalia’s fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and establish an Islamist state throughout the Horn of Africa. The group has fought TFG and AMISOM forces in Mogadishu since it began operating as an autonomous entity in early 2007 and has managed to relegate the TFG’s authority to only a few neighborhoods inside Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. The group’s rhetoric and previous attacks reflect two objectives for al Shabaab in helping it achieve its long-term goal of establishing an Islamist state. First, it seeks recognition and likely a franchise designation from al Qaeda’s senior leadership. Second, it seeks to weaken and deter the forces in Somalia hindering its expansion. The high-profile, mass casualty bombings in Kampala contributed to both of those objectives.
Earning al Qaeda’s Respect
Al Shabaab has continuously sought to attract the attention of al Qaeda’s central leadership since early 2008, and its first successful strike outside of Somalia was likely partially driven by that aim. The group adheres to the same global Islamist ideology as al Qaeda, and it has made numerous public statements pledging allegiance to al Qaeda and praising its leaders. Al Shabaab’s leader, Mukhtar Abu Zubair, for instance, released a video in June 2008, in which he offered greetings and praise to al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and Abu Yahya al Libi and praised the nineteen 9/11 hijackers. The group also released a video in September 2009 entitled, “At Your Service, Oh Osama.” Voices heard throughout the video pledge loyalty to bin Laden. Al Shabaab reiterated its fidelity to al Qaeda in February 2010, when it released the following statement: “Jihad in the Horn of Africa must be combined with the international jihad led by the al Qaeda network.”
Much of al Shabaab’s leadership trained or fought with al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and today its ranks include roughly 800-1,100 foreign fighters, scores of whom have also fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. The group has made a concerted effort to recruit Westerners by producing English-language propaganda videos and promoting Americans to leadership positions. At least two dozen Americans and 100 Europeans have joined the group to-date. Further, the group has made numerous threats to strike beyond Somalia’s borders, including American and European targets.
Al Shabaab’s statements of allegiance to al Qaeda, its efforts to internationalize, and success in fighting TFG forces in Somalia have elicited valuable statements of support from al Qaeda’s leadership. Praise from leaders such as bin Laden and Zawahiri help establish credibility among Islamists and serve as a valuable recruiting tool. Al Shabaab’s successful international attack will certainly earn the group praise throughout jihadi web forums, and it will likely elicit some recognition from al Qaeda leadership as well.
More importantly, al Shabaab appears eager to earn a franchise designation from al Qaeda. Currently, only three al Qaeda franchises exist: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Islamist groups “bid” through both actions and words to earn the franchise designation, generally bestowed on a group by Zawahiri. A franchise designation serves as a valuable recruiting tool, giving credibility and a known brand name to groups seeking to attract aspiring Islamist militants. It also gives the groups access to al Qaeda resources, including fundraising and financial support (however limited that may be at the present time).
No publicly available official criteria exists detailing the requirements to become an al Qaeda franchise, but contributing to al Qaeda’s overall goals, including the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, the expulsion of perceived infidels from Islamic lands, and the targeting of U.S. interests appear to have helped the three current franchises receive their designations. The ISI, for instance earned its designation for fighting American forces in Iraq, which al Qaeda then perceived to be the primary front against the West. AQIM gained its status in part by providing militants to the ISI, was led by veterans of the fighting in Afghanistan, and grew out of militant Islamist groups that had maintained an active insurgency against the Algerian government for over a decade at the time of its receipt of franchise status. AQAP’s top leadership had all fought in Afghanistan or Iraq; its leader was even the personal assistant to bin Laden. Further, AQAP had launched attacks to destabilize the perceived infidel Yemeni (and later Saudi) regime.
Al Shabaab’s “bid” for a franchise designation has included numerous statements of allegiance to al Qaeda, the establishment of Islamic administrations (which is only one step shy of the establishment of an Islamist state), and a sustained effort to drive perceived infidel invaders out of Somalia. Al Shabaab has enhanced its “bid” by proving its ability to conduct a mass casualty attack outside of Somalia, thus increasing the confidence al Qaeda’s central leadership may have in the group’s capabilities. Moreover, the attack targeted an ally of the United States and a government with troops in a Muslim country. The importance of Somalia as a central front for the fight against the West has not been lost on bin Laden. The al Qaeda leader released only five statements in 2009, and he dedicated one of them entirely to the situation in Somalia, saying: “The war taking place [in Somalia]…is a war between Islam and the international Crusade.”
Al Shabaab has long indentified Uganda as a target. The group has killed at least a dozen Ugandan soldiers in Mogadishu since the start of 2010 using suicide bombs, roadside improvised explosive devices, and mortar attacks. Uganda initially deployed 1,700 troops to Somalia in March 2007 to support the new AMISOM mission there. Currently, Uganda contributes about half of the 6,100-soldier strong AMISOM force (Burundi supplies the remainder), and a Ugandan officer, Major General Nathan Mugisha, commands the force. Uganda also serves as a training site for Somali TFG troops. The European Union has already trained at least 600 Somali troops in western Uganda, and it plans on training at least another 1,400 there. Additionally, Uganda’s AMISOM forces receive training, equipment and logistical support from the United States.
The current AMISOM mandate stipulates that its forces support the TFG and defend important government infrastructure, allowing its troops to only engage in defensive, peacekeeping operations. Ugandan and Burundi troops do not have the mandate to go on the offensive against al Shabaab and therefore remain stationary at their strategic posts throughout Mogadishu, including near the Presidential Villa, the airport, and seaport, while al Shabaab fires on them at will. AMISOM forces have a history of responding to such attacks by returning fire indiscriminately, occasionally leading to civilian casualties. Ugandan military officials have attempted to remedy this situation by lobbying to expand the AMISOM mandate and calling for a significant increase in the number of AMISOM troops on the ground in Mogadishu. The Ugandan AMISOM commander, for instance, has said that he needs 20,000 troops to maintain peace in Somalia, and Uganda’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Okello Oryem, said as recently as last week that Uganda will send more troops to Somalia but only if the AMISOM mandate changes so that the troops can go on the offensive against al Shabaab. The Ugandans’ efforts, however, have been to no avail.
Al Shabaab’s selection of its first international target was well-thought out and meticulously timed. The group’s primary objective was to influence the Ugandan policy of support for AMISOM and to provoke Uganda to withdraw its troops. An al Shabaab spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, took credit for the attack by stating: “We thank the Mujahideen that carried out the attack. We are sending a message to Uganda and Burundi, if they do not take out their AMISOM troops from Somalia, blasts will continue.”
The current government of Uganda, led by President Yoweri Museveni, has remained steadfast in its dedication to AMISOM. Museveni, for instance, called on the international community to support an expanded AMISOM mandate just one week after the September 2009 al Shabaab bombing of the AMISOM headquarters. Ugandan military officials have likewise pledged on several occasions since then that Ugandan troops would remain in Somalia until militants are eradicated and peace is restored. Deputy Foreign Minister Oryem reiterated that pledge just hours after Sunday’s bombings: “Ugandans are not cowards and we are not going to run away from Mogadishu just because of this cowardly act.”
Uganda, however, is scheduled to hold a presidential election in 2011, and the leading opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye, has long called for the withdrawal of Ugandan troops from Somalia. A high-profile terror attack has the potential to alter public opinion. Al Shabaab may have sought to capitalize on such an opportunity in an effort to influence the upcoming Ugandan elections in a way that may help it achieve its long-term goals.
The upcoming annual African Union Summit, which Kampala will host from July 19 to July 27, likely played a role in al Shabaab’s timing and target of the attack, as well. The expansion of the AMISOM mandate will almost certainly be on the summit’s agenda. Notably, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a bloc of six East African countries, decided on July 5 that it would seek to deploy an additional 2,000 troops to support AMISOM, which would bring the total number of troops in the force to the 8,100-troop level called for in the mandate. Further, IGAD agreed to work with the African Union and the UN Security Council to increase the total number of troops in Somalia to 20,000.
Al Shabaab ideologically opposes soccer and has banned the playing and watching of the sport, so its decision to specifically target World Cup fans may have reinforced that ideology, but the potential for mass casualties was likely the driving force for selecting the specific targets inside Uganda. Ugandan police, in fact, have announced that they discovered an unexploded suicide vest at a local discotheque, suggesting that the group’s opposition to soccer had a minimal impact on the selection of targets. The bombings took place at venues reportedly frequented by expatriates, and at least one American died in the attack. Al Shabaab, however, seemed more concerned with killing Ugandans than Westerners, as revealed by its statement released the day after the attack: “These attacks have killed close to 100 people - mostly Ugandans - who were having fun at those locations…The Ugandan people are experiencing the beginning of what they have been warned about.”
Executing on Threats
Al Shabaab issued a string of threats against Uganda and Burundi in the days leading up to Sunday’s attacks. The group’s spiritual leader and main spokesman, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Ali, who is believed to have trained in Afghanistan and set up the first militant training camps in Somalia, reportedly called on followers at Friday prayers last week to attack sites in Uganda and Burundi. He also told a group of supporters on July 5, "We tell the Muslim youths and Mujahideen, wherever they are in the Muslim world, to attack, explode and burn the embassies of Burundi and Uganda." Al Shabaab’s leader, Mukhtar Abu Zubair, issued a similar statement on Somali airwaves on July 5 threatening the people of Uganda and Burundi:
You should know that the massacres against the children, women and the elderly of Mogadishu will be revenged against you. Keep in mind that [revenge for] the aggressions being committed by your leaders and soldiers is awaiting you. We have to carry out an all-out Jihad campaign against the enemy and everyone should take part, both young and old. That is the only way to end the massacres being carried out by the infidels in our country against the weak among us.
Al Shabaab also released an English-language video through its media arm, al Kataib, on June 27 that called on the Ugandan and Burundi “Crusaders” to leave Somalia and advised the “Mujahideen to make the Ugandans their top priority.”
The volume of al Shabaab threats directed at Uganda increased in the past two weeks, but the group has been threatening to strike Ugandan interests, including inside Uganda, for over two years. Al Shabaab issued a lengthy statement on January 3, 2008, in which it warned that the same destruction caused by “the alliance of Ethiopia, Uganda, and Burundi” in Mogadishu would be reciprocated by al Shabaab in those countries’ capitals. The group also specifically threatened the capitals of Burundi and Uganda in an October 2009 statement by a senior commander: “We shall make their people cry. We’ll attack Bujumbura and Kampala; we will move our fighting to those two cities and we shall destroy them.”
It should come as no surprise that al Shabaab managed to follow through on its threats against Uganda. The group is perhaps more adept than any terror group in the world at executing on its threats. It conducted twin suicide bombings on September 17, 2009 at the African Union headquarters in Mogadishu, for instance, less than a week after it vowed to avenge the death of al Qaeda in East Africa leader Saleh Ali Nabhan. Similarly, the group attacked a college graduation ceremony in December 2009, killing around 20 graduates and the Minister of Education, just three months after it warned the Ministry of Education about using un-Islamic textbooks. Al Shabaab has also followed through on several threats made against non-governmental organizations operating inside Somalia, including the World Food Program and the UN Mine Action Service.
Significance and Conclusion
Abu Mansour al Amriki, an American commander in al Shabaab, stated in January 2008 that “al Shabaab had a global goal including the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate in all parts of the world.” The group has steadily become more internationalized since then, increasing the number of foreign fighters in its ranks, making international threats, and even establishing a brigade whose sole purpose is to liberate Islamic holy places around the world. The bombings in Uganda confirmed al Shabaab’s desire to strike its enemies beyond Somalia’s borders and proved its ability to do so.
Sunday’s attacks must serve as a warning to the West. Al Shabaab controls vast swaths of territory – more than any Islamist group in the world – where it can plan and train for attacks. It has many militants with experience fighting in war zones and dozens with American and European passports. Uganda is separated by one country from Somalia, and Kampala sits nearly 600 miles from Somalia’s closest border. Sunday’s attack was not merely a cross-border raid, but rather a highly coordinated and sophisticated international attack.
Al Shabaab’s ambitions are not limited to the African continent, and western policymakers cannot afford to make the costly mistake of dismissing the group as merely a regional threat. The group has made clear on several occasions its desire to strike the United States, perhaps most boldly in a June 2008 message from its leader:
So wait, oh cursed America, for the events of the coming September [i.e. the next major attacks]. For it is not a strike, but strikes!!! They conspired against us and made us retarded economically and politically and [sic] and technologically and religiously and morally and even mentally!!! And all of these tragedies are caused by the mother of [all evil] America!!! It continues, and [America] did not learn sufficiently from the previous strikes!! The curses of Allah [are] upon America and those who are loyal to it or protect it or love it!!!
Al Shabaab has proven time and time again its ability to execute on threats in Somalia, and now it has also proven its ability to execute on threats internationally. The group will continue to seek recognition and support from al Qaeda and will attempt to ascend to a position of prominence within the Islamist community.
Al Shabaab operates with relative impunity in southern and central Somalia. Uganda’s decision in the coming year, along with that of other African nations, on whether or not to fight al Shabaab will be significant for the peace and stability of the region. Perhaps more important, though, will be the West’s decision on whether or not it will develop a strategy to hinder and weaken the growing global threat posed by al Shabaab.