Somalia’s Shabab fighters go international with Uganda blasts

The streets of Mogadishu echo with the footsteps of Shabab fighters, the rattle of their rifles and their recitations of a medieval version of Islamic law that espouses public beheadings and the stoning of adulterers.

The militant group has loomed as a dangerous and fanatical curiosity contained from the outside world by war and the cruel designs of a failed state. But Shabab expanded its battlefield by hundreds of miles Sunday when it reached across porous borders and claimed responsibility for twin bombings that killed 76 people in Uganda.

The attacks indicated that yet another Al Qaeda-linked network was capable of merging its homegrown struggle — in Shabab’s case, against the Western-backed Somali government — with the brutal aims of international terrorism.

African and U.S. intelligence officials worry Shabab could further roil the Horn of Africa and neighboring countries to the south and west. Somalia is also just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, has been ambushing government institutions while launching such international attacks as the attempted assassination of a Saudi prince and the failed bombing of a U.S. airliner in December.

Two active Al Qaeda-connected organizations at the cross-currents of Africa and the Middle East complicate security matters for Washington at a time the U.S. is fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, targeting followers of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and drawing down troops in Iraq. It is not clear how closely Shabab and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are cooperating but both have praised one another’s tactics and reportedly have shared fighters and weapons. A senior U.S. administration official said there have been “interactions” between the two groups and “somewhat of a blending together” of their leaders.

The official suggested that some younger Somali cadres may be redeployed to serve Al Qaeda’s wider interests. Shabab has between 3,000 to 6,000 fighters, including a number of Americans of Somali descent and hundreds of foreigners who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Shabab has confirmed they are working with Al Qaeda and they are giving bases to many foreign criminals. If we fail to eradicate them here they will strengthen their bases in Somalia,” said Abdirahman Omar Osman, the Somali minister of information. “If the international community ignores taking quick action against Shabab, this escalating violence will endanger neighboring countries.”

The bloodshed Sunday in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, targeted fans watching a broadcast of the World Cup soccer final at an Ethiopian restaurant and a rugby club. The blasts were a direct consequence of Shabab’s war against the Somali government, since soldiers from Uganda and Burundi are part of an African Union peacekeeping force that is bolstering Somali troops against the Islamic insurgency. Hours after taking responsibility for the Kampala attacks, Shabab vowed to retaliate against Burundi too.

“The Kampala bombings are a clear sign of the growing ambition of Al Qaeda-affiliated movements,” said Ahmed Ibrahim Mahmoud, an African expert at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “Uganda is not Afghanistan or Iraq or even Yemen, but these are the kinds of areas that Al Qaeda is determined to breach, especially because countries like Uganda and Burundi don’t have enough security barriers to defend themselves.”

There are concerns Shabab may also strike in Ethiopia and in Kenya, where in 1998 an Al Qaeda bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi killed 213 people. Both countries have trained Somali government troops and Ethiopia is particularly despised for its U.S.-backed 2006 military incursion against Islamic insurgents in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. Speaking to the Associated Press days before the Ugandan bombings, Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses M. Wetangula described the growing numbers of foreign fighters in Shabab’s ranks as “very, very dire.”

Regional unrest could add volatility to a fractious Sudan where, after two decades of civil war that ended in 2005, the largely Christian south is set to vote in January on whether to secede from the mostly Muslim north. Such tensions are unfolding in a swath of Africa known for gunrunning, smuggling, tribal conflicts and famine. It is uncertain, however, whether Shabab has the means or desire to orchestrate sustained terrorist attacks on other countries while battling government and African Union troops at home in its attempt to turn Somalia into an Islamic caliphate.

The ranks of Shabab, or “the Youth,” are an outgrowth of a militant faction in the former Islamic Courts Union. It has killed dozens of aid workers in recent years and controls much of southern Somalia and large sections of Mogadishu. It operates amid a confusing array of warlords in a country of shattered cities and hundreds of thousands of displaced families.

Shabab’s harsh brand of Islamic justice is increasingly despised by Somalis, but the U.S.-backed transition government of President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed controls only a sliver of the capital and has yet to take on the rebels effectively. The government and the African Union force, which together have about 15,000 troops, have been preparing an offensive against Shabab and other militants. So far, though, Mogadishu remains an eerie landscape of pitched battles and graves.

Times staff writer Fleishman reported from Cairo and special correspondent Mohammed from Mogadishu. Amro Hassan in The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.