A senior member of the Somali Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab on Monday claimed responsibility for a pair of terrorist attacks in Uganda that left 74 World Cup viewers dead, including one American.
The bombings triggered fears of a new wave of attacks in the region by al-Shabaab, although a U.S. intelligence official told the Washington Times that “this does not move the needle” on concerns about a possible strike in the United States by the group, which has recruited U.S. citizens as fighters.
“We will carry out attacks against our enemy wherever they are,” Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, a senior al-Shabaab official, told the Associated Press in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. “No one will deter us from performing our Islamic duty.”
Ugandan investigators said from the beginning that they had suspected al-Shabaab — which has pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network — was behind Sunday’s blasts. They occurred within 10 minutes of each other at two locations in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, including an Ethiopian restaurant.
A Ugandan police spokesman said 74 people had been killed and scores more injured, and the U.S. State Department said five Americans were among those injured. Invisible Children, an aid group based in San Diego, said one of its American staff in Uganda, Nate Henn, was among the dead.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said a three-member FBI team was on the ground in Kampala collecting evidence and that “an additional FBI team [is] standing by in the United States ready to assist if needed.”
The attacks came days after East African leaders ordered the immediate dispatch of 2,000 reinforcements for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the 6,000-strong peacekeeping force that protects Somalia’s weak U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government from al-Shabaab and other Islamist insurgent groups.
AMISOM, which includes 2,700 Ugandan troops — the largest share of the force — filled the vacuum left by the January 2009 departure of Ethiopia, which intervened militarily in 2006 to reverse the advances of the militant Islamic Courts Union in Somalia’s long-running civil war.
The Kampala strikes followed repeated calls from al-Shabaab commanders for attacks against Uganda and Burundi, AMISOM’s second-largest contributor.
Some observers said the attacks, the first successful strikes by al-Shabaab outside Somalia, might mark the start of a stepped-up campaign against peacekeeping nations and other supporters of the Transitional Federal Government, including Kenya and Ethiopia.
“It is possible they will conduct additional attacks in Africa against countries that support peacekeeping efforts in Somalia,” a U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the decision to strike outside Somalia for the first time likely represents “a political calculation” by the group, that they could pressure African nations to pull out of the peacekeeping mission by attacking them at home.
“If that is correct, we should expect more attacks,” he said.
David Shinn, a former U.S. diplomat in the region who continues to follow events there closely, said the attacks “could be an indication of things to come.”
“If I were in Kenya, I’d be concerned right now,” he said, noting that Kenya has a porous border with Somalia, is home to a large Somali diaspora, has been attacked by Islamic extremists in the past and had been a hub for al Qaeda-linked militants.
A U.S. counterterrorism official told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about security issues that there is “a dangerous terrorist node in the region, one that includes members of al-Shabaab and al Qaeda.”
“It’s hard to tell where one group ends and the other begins,” the counterterrorism official said. “We’re talking about a very bad stew of very bad actors.”
The U.S. intelligence official said there was ongoing concern about possible attacks by al-Shabaab in the United States, where there are several large Somali diaspora communities and where the group has recruited more than a dozen young men to join its insurgency.
But the official added that the attacks in Kampala were linked to a separate dynamic — the campaign against peacekeepers — and did not “move the needle” on concerns about a U.S. strike.
FBI Special Agent E.K. Wilson, a spokesman for the Minneapolis field office, told The Times that the agency’s outreach efforts to the 100,000-strong Somali-American community there, the largest in the country, were continuing.
He said al-Shabaab’s efforts to recruit in that community had led to “kids being radicalized, exploited and in some cases even going back to Somalia to train and fight.”
He said the bureau also is running outreach in a half-dozen other cities with large Somali-American communities, including Washington, D.C.; Columbus, Ohio; Seattle; San Diego; and Boston.