Monday, July 12, 2010

Al-Shabaab's deadly strike

It was only a matter of time.

Some 74 innocent people are now dead in the Ugandan capital of Kampala in the wake of two vicious suicide bombing attacks by the al-Shabaab militia, which controls almost all of southern Somalia.

This is the kind of deadly disaster that I feared would happen in my forthcoming book, Pirate State: Inside Somalia's Terrorism at Sea. Sadly, it won't be the last.

Although Pirate State is ostensibly about Somalia's pirate horde, the pirates and the al-Shabaab militia have emerged from the smoldering chaos that has gripped Somalia for the past two decades.

Remember Black Hawk Down? Al-Shabaab does. But they're not waiting for another invasion of U.S. marines. They've exported their war. Expect it to get worse.

That al-Shabaab attacked two locations in Kampala, Uganda, is no surprise. Uganda provides the bulk of the African Union's 4,000 or so troops now hunkered down in the Somali capital of Mogadishu.

These Ugandan soldiers, accompanied by a much smaller contingent of soldiers from Burundi, are all that prevents a complete take-over of southern Somalia by the fundamentalist al-Shabaab militia.

The Ugandan soldiers are kept alive by a life-line of military and logistical support from the U.S. and protect the fragile and pro-western Transitional Federal Government that is holed up in corner of Mogadishu.

This is not the first time that Uganda has been hit by al-Shabaab. On September 17, 2009, al-Shabaab militants, some of whom were reportedly American converts, drove a couple of stolen UN vehicles into the Ugandan's compound and detonated themselves, killing more than 20 people.

Because of the notorious Black Hawk Down debacle, the U.S. has been more than happy to let the Ugandans hold out as the final bulwark of defence for the teetering transitional government.

But clearly there is a price to pay, while Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni relishes his role as the pro-western posterboy for the few African governments that still claim to be "democratic."

After altering the constitution to allow himself unlimited terms, Museveni faces yet another re-election bid in early 2012. Uganda's presence in Somalia has already been challenged, and this bloody tragedy will certainly rouse Museveni's opposition.

The suicide bombing at the private club in Kampala where hundreds had gathered to watch the World Cup final only underscores al-Shabaab's fundamentalist doctrine, which has forbidden such entertainment as anti-Islam.

The attack on an Ethiopian restaurant was also a reprisal, since Ethiopian forces, with U.S. help, defeated the Islamic Courts Union and occupied much of southern Somalia for a couple of years after.

Al-Shabaab, which means "the youth," grew out of the former Islamic Courts Union, which controlled southern Somalia for most of 2006 and at the time was the only law and order the country had known in 15 years.

Al-Shabaab was the ICU's militia. When the ICU was defeated in the opening weeks of 2007, the al-Shabaab scattered, licked its wounds, and regrouped.

Despite the defeat, the militia had established strong ties with the militant and deeply fundamentalist Islamic network that grips the region, including Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Using suspected links with the Somali pirate clans that control the coasts, al-Shabaab has been supplied and staffed by a cadre of seasoned militants who serve as instructors and mentors for the al-Shabaab recruits.

These recruits have included disenchanted American converts, some from the Minneapolis area, but also many from Nairobi, Kenya's sprawling Somali neighborhoods.

I spoke at length with a former al-Shabaab soldier in September of last year. The man had volunteered, been trained by al-Qaeda- and Taliban-linked commanders, then fought for more than a year against the Ugandans in Mogadishu and other towns in Somalia.

Seeing the futility of the killing, he had left, and was on the run in Kenya, convinced that al-Shabaab agents, bent on revenge, would soon kill him.

He told me that al-Shabaab militants permeated Kenyan society and it was only a matter of time before the would begin to strike.

At the time, it was widely rumored that Kenyan authorities has barely been able to foil an al-Shabaab plot to strike hotels in downtown Nairobi during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit in August 2009.

The attack on Uganda shows that al-Shabaab has a long reach that extends through Kenya, Uganda's strongest ally and neighbor. Is Burundi next? Or is Kenya?

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