Global Policy Forum

Uganda Bombings: Who Was Behind Them?

Two explosions in a Kampala rugby club killed dozens as they watched the World Cup championship match.  This author suggests that the attacks were linked to Uganda's support of an African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.  An Islamist group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for planning the attacks.  This group has been leading an insurgency against the western-backed government of Somalia, which is supported by an AU peacekeeping mission.  Was the bombing motivated by a desire to end the peacekeeping operation in Somalia?

By Jeevan Vasagar

July 12, 2010


The Uganda bombs were cruelly targeted to cause maximum casualties and publicity, most likely for the al-Shabab group

This is a grim epilogue to Africa's joyful first World Cup. As a beaming Nelson Mandela was hailed by a Soccer City crowd ahead of Spain's victory, bombers were preparing to take scores of lives in Uganda. The co-ordinated explosions that ripped through a restaurant and a rugby club in the closing moments of the game hint at an al-Qaida role, reminiscent of the twin attacks on east African embassies in 1998 and the assault on a hotel and aeroplane in Mombasa four years later.

So too does the cruel eye for publicity, attacking bars crowded with people in a football-loving nation like Uganda during a World Cup final was guaranteed both to cause casualties and win publicity. But for what? The name of one of the targets - the Ethiopian Village restaurant - may be a clue. Ethiopian forces swept into Somalia in 2006 and ousted the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Some thought the Islamists had brought stability to a stateless nation - curbing the warlords who had made their people's lives a misery and the pirates who menaced international shipping - but Washington feared it was becoming a haven for al-Qaida. Ethiopia, which has a Somali-speaking minority, was concerned by the irredentist tendencies of some of the courts union's leaders.

After the fall of the ICU, the Islamist group al-Shabab emerged as leaders of an insurgency against the western-backed government. Uganda is the key contributor to a 6,000 strong African Union peacekeeping force which props up this government. Ugandan police have said they fear al-Shabab are behind the explosions. The militants have threatened both Uganda and Burundi - which also supplies troops for the peacekeeping effort.

There are a handful of other possibilities; Uganda has been fighting a civil war with a Christian fundamentalist group, the Lord's Resistance Army, but this is scattered and on the run with little ability to mount such an attack. There is also, some say, a chance the violence may be linked to next year's elections. Uganda's opposition last month held a demonstration against the election commission, who they say presided over a flawed 2006 election. But they have focused on legitimate public protests and have nothing to gain from attacking ordinary Ugandans.

The International Crisis Group has urged Somalia's government to engage with dissidents among the country's Islamists. It says some of the Islamist factions are disenchanted with the influence of foreign jihadis, and their leadership's al-Qaida sympathies.

The Brussels-based thinktank says that Somalis have historically accepted many interpretations of Islam, most of them moderate. But the country's instability has allowed extremists to gain ground. It warned that a failure to reach out to dissidents strengthened hardliners in their attacks on a fragile government. That government is currently led by a moderate Islamist, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad, a former secondary school teacher who has vowed to bring peace and unity to Somalia. At present, however, his "transitional federal government" controls only a small slice of the battered capital Mogadishu - and the presidential villa is within mortar range of al-Shabab.

In a warning in May which now appears prescient: François Grignon, the ICG's Africa project director, said: "If the foreign jihadis fend off their local challengers, al-Shabab's rapid transformation into a wholly al-Qaida franchise might become irreversible. That could cause havoc even well beyond Somalia's borders, and the TFG and the international community cannot choose to be bystanders."


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