Sunday’s terror attacks in Kampala, Uganda are now known to be the work of Somalia’s Al-Shabab [the Youth], a self-declared ally of Osama bin Laden and operating arm of al-Qaeda in the Horn of Africa. Al-Shabab is increasingly being run by foreign fighters trained in Afghanistan. The group is also closely linked to Islamists in Yemen and to Yemini-American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, the spiritual adviser to the Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Hasan.
The venomous religious-ideological core of al-Shabab is readily apparent. As an Islamist organization, al-Shabab’s aims are to drive out or intimidate moderate Muslims in Somalia, impose strict sharia law, and eliminate infidels. While al-Shabab cast aspects of its radical views in nationalist and tribal terms, its core message is war against “Christian invaders.” As Francois Grignon of the International Crisis Group warns, “If the foreign jihadis fend off their local challengers, al-Shabab’s rapid transformation into a wholly al-Qaida franchise might become irreversible.”
The attacks were also a warning signal for the U.S., since al-Shabab continues to perfect its suicide bombing techniques and recruits extensively in the Somali diaspora. Terrorism expert Peter Bergen, notes that al-Shabab’s efforts to recruit Somali-Americans, and other Muslims from the United States, creates the potential for attacks against the U.S. Terror expert and former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel and The Washington Post agree. “Given the U.S. passport holders known to have joined al-Shabab,” observes the Post, “an attempt to attack the U.S. homeland—such as that attempted by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen last Christmas—is entirely plausible.”
Observers on the front lines, like Kenya’s foreign minister, Moses Wetangula, say the Obama Administration is not doing enough to combat the al-Shabab threat in East Africa.
Crafting a response to the Uganda bombings will test the Obama Administration’s ability to produce a tough but coherent Somalia/East Africa strategy. Current options range from doing little more than condemning the act and lending FBI support to the Ugandan investigation to launching drone and special operations strikes against al-Shabab terrorist leaders, augmenting support for the AMISOM mission and the TGA in Somalia, as well as developing a comprehensive networked approach that targets terrorists and their financial and political backers.
The future policy must render judgments regarding the ability of the TFG to isolate the Islamist extremists of al-Shabab and pursue a “divide and conquer” approach in fragmented and tribal Somalia. Steps are also needed to address the continuing challenge of Somali piracy and its links al-Shabab.
Eyes are on the Obama White House as it shapes its response to this latest escalation in the war of Islamist terror against Somalia’s neighbors, the U.S. and the West.