With twin bombings in Uganda, a new Al Qaeda threat emerges
KAMPALA, Uganda — East Africa saw the emergence of a new international terrorist group yesterday, as Somalia’s most dangerous Al Qaeda-linked militia claimed responsibility for the twin bombings in Uganda that killed 74 people during the World Cup.
The claim by al-Shabab, whose fighters are trained by militant veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, resets the security equation in East Africa and has broader implications worldwide. The group in the past has recruited Somali-Americans to carry out suicide bombings in Mogadishu.
A California aid group said yesterday that one of its American workers was among the dead. Ugandan officials said 60 Ugandans, nine Ethiopians or Eritreans, one Irish woman, and one Asian were also killed. Two people could not be identified.
Eighty-five people were wounded, including at least three Americans.
Al-Shabab, an ultraconservative Islamic group that has drawn comparisons to the Taliban, has long threatened to attack outside of Somalia’s borders, but the bombings late Sunday are the first time the group has done so.
“We warned Uganda not to deploy troops to Somalia; they ignored us,’’ said Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, al-Shabab’s spokesman. “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.’’
Rage said a second country with peacekeeping forces in Mogadishu — Burundi — could soon face attacks. Fighting in Mogadishu between militants and Somali troops or African Union peacekeepers frequently kills civilians.
The attacks outside Somalia represent a dangerous new step in al-Shabab’s increasingly militant path and raise questions about its future plans.
The US State Department has declared al-Shabab a terrorist organization. Other neighboring nations — Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia, along with Burundi — may also face new attacks, analysts say.
Despite the threats, the army spokesman for Uganda, an overwhelmingly Christian nation, said the county would not withdraw.
“Al-Shabab is the reason why we should stay in Somalia,’’ said Lieutenant Colonel Felix Kulaigye. “We have to pacify Somalia.’’
In Washington, President Obama spoke with President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda yesterday to express his condolences for the loss of life in the bombings. Obama offered to provide any support or assistance needed in Uganda, said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Gibbs said that, while the FBI is assisting in the ongoing investigation, the US believes that there is “no clearer signal of the hateful motives of terrorists than was sent yesterday.’’
As the death toll rose to 74, investigators yesterday combed through the blast sites: an outdoor screening at a rugby club and an Ethiopian restaurant. Ethiopia is a nation despised by al-Shabab.
Invisible Children, a San Diego-based aid group that helps child soldiers, identified the dead American as one of its workers, Nate Henn, who was killed on the rugby field when he was hit by shrapnel. Henn, 25, was a native of Wilmington, Del.
Analysts have long feared that al-Shabab was turning increasingly violent. The International Crisis Group, an independent organization that works to prevent conflict, said in May that if foreign fighters’ influence grew inside al-Shabab, the group’s “rapid transformation into a wholly Al Qaeda franchise might become irreversible. That could cause havoc even well beyond Somalia’s borders, and the [Somali government] and the international community cannot choose to be bystanders.’’