Al Shabaab’s first international strike: Analysis of the July 11 Uganda bombings

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Key Points

  • The Somali terror group al Shabaab has taken credit for Sunday’s bombings in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.  Al Shabaab has become more internationalized since early 2007 and has threatened to attack international targets, but Sunday’s event marks the group’s first successful attack beyond Somalia’s borders.
  • Al Shabaab seeks al Qaeda’s recognition and, likely, an al Qaeda franchise designation. Currently, only three such franchises exist.  The group’s first international attack was likely at least partially driven by that aim.
  • Al Shabaab seeks to weaken the forces that hinder its expansion in and control of Somalia, the most notable of which is the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).  Uganda and Burundi are the only two countries that contribute troops to the AMISOM force, making their interests key targets for al Shabaab.
  • Al Shabaab has proven on multiple occasions its ability to execute on its threats.  This capacity was demonstrated again with the Uganda bombings, as al Shabaab had threatened to strike Ugandan targets on numerous occasions.
  • Al Shabaab’s ambitions are not limited to the continent of Africa.  The group has threatened the West, including the U.S., and it has numerous international militants, including Americans and Europeans.  The Uganda attack should serve as a wakeup call for the entire international community.

Somalia’s al Qaeda-linked terror group al Shabaab claimed credit for the near-simultaneous twin bombings that ripped through the Ugandan capital of Kampala on Sunday, July 11, killing at least 76 and injuring at least another 85.[1] Three bombings, one at an Ethiopian restaurant and two at a rugby club twenty minutes later, targeted crowds watching the World Cup soccer final.[2] Al Shabaab had made numerous threats against Uganda, and it has targeted Ugandan troops in Somalia, which form much of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force in the Horn of Africa country.  Sunday’s operation was the group’s first successful terror attack beyond Somalia’s borders.

The attack demonstrates al Shabaab’s capability to follow up on its threats to strike internationally and its desire to remove barriers to its control of southern and central Somalia.  The attack also contributes to al Shabaab’s goal of receiving recognition from al Qaeda.

Al Shabaab, which has set up Islamic administrations to govern nearly all of southern and central Somalia, seeks to topple Somalia’s fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and establish an Islamist state throughout the Horn of Africa.  The group has fought TFG and AMISOM forces in Mogadishu since it began operating as an autonomous entity in early 2007 and has managed to relegate the TFG’s authority to only a few neighborhoods inside Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.  The group’s rhetoric and previous attacks reflect two objectives for al Shabaab in helping it achieve its long-term goal of establishing an Islamist state.  First, it seeks recognition and likely a franchise designation from al Qaeda’s senior leadership.  Second, it seeks to weaken and deter the forces in Somalia hindering its expansion.  The high-profile, mass casualty bombings in Kampala contributed to both of those objectives.

Chris Harnisch is a Research Assistant focusing on al-Qaeda and its associated movements. He graduated with high honors from Middlebury College with a degree in International Studies, concentrating on the Middle East and Arabic. Most recently, Chris served on the staff of Vice President Dick Cheney. Chris has lived and studied in Yemen and Egypt. Read the full report here.