Al-Shabab Strikes outside of Somalia

Injured man in Kampala Attack


This weekend’s double bombing in Kampala bears all the hallmarks of an al-Shabab attack. It seems that Somalia’s homegrown strain of the Taliban has struck outside its own borders for the very first time.

Evidence pointing to an al-Shabab hand in the Kampala attacks is growing stronger and stronger. Unconfirmed reports from the scene of the blasts have noted the presence of a severed head and the remains of two victims thought to be suicide bombers of Somali origin. While it may take a while to uncover a ‘smoking gun’ through forensics, al-Shabab definitely has a motive for these kinds of attacks and the militant group has threatened to strike within Uganda before. Uganda is a key member of the African Union AMISOM deployment in Mogadishu, and just last week it pledged to boost its troop commitment.  Also, the targeting of an Ethiopian restaurant harkens to old al-Shabab vendettas concerning Ethiopian involvement in the 2006 ouster of the Islamic Courts Union government in Mogadishu.

Although this is the first instance of an al-Shabab attack outside Somali borders, the writing has been on the wall for a long time that al-Shabab would eventually attempt to export violence and fundamentalist ideology to surrounding countries.  In the wake of the abortive Christmas Day bombing, al-Shabab made clear its willingness to join up with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and transpose the conflict in lawless Somalia onto the wider region.

The situation presents somewhat of a ‘catch-22’ for Ugandan authorities. If they respond to the attacks by pushing harder in Somalia and possibly even ‘taking the fight to al-Shabab,’ then the conflict could take on a new intensity. Such an expansion of the size and scope of the AMISOM mission would play into al-Shabab plans insofar that the conflict for Mogadishu could be recast in a nationalist mould with al-Shabab donning the cloak of Somali nationalism in the fight against encroaching Western-backed interests.

As al-Shabab strengthens its hold on southern Somalia and the transitional government in Mogadishu appears less and less likely to ever mount a serious campaign to recover lost ground, all eyes are starting to land on Somaliland; a pseudo-independent and relatively stable territory in northern Somalia. It is looking increasingly likely that it’s merely a matter of time before the transitional government in Mogadishu falls to al-Shabab militants. If this happens, al-Shabab will then bring the struggle towards Somaliland in an effort to establish control over a united Somalia.

At this point, American and African Union support could hypothetically shift to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. If Mogadishu falls, AMISOM stakeholders will be searching for a way to carry on the fight against al-Shabab militancy and stabilize Somalia. On the other side, the government of Somaliland has long sought international recognition as a functioning independent state. There may not even be much choice in the matter, as the militant group has made it clear that it considers Somaliland a part of a united Somalia and that it would fight for it if the need arose.

Al-Shabab efforts to export violent ideology and stage attacks outside Somalia’s borders are particularly troubling due to the fact that the international community’s hands are tied when it comes to staging a response. An ANISOM escalation risks igniting nationalist passions and consequently further imperils security. Similarly, even if the United States was willing to put troops on the ground, the same dynamic would exist. In sum, most military approaches to the problem simply risk intensifying the conflict and dragging it out over a longer period of time.

The situation is somewhat similar to Afghanistan insofar that negotiation between the government and militants seems to be the only real way to defuse the conflict. What remains to be seen is whether or not Somalia will take as long as Afghanistan has to arrive at the same conclusion.

SUMMARY OF EVENTS: July 5th – July 12th, 2010


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