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Jul 12, 2010 | 17:07 GMT

5 mins read

Uganda: Al Shabaab's First Transnational Strike?

Three coordinated bombings in Kampala, Uganda, occurred the evening of July 11 at two venues showing the World Cup soccer final. The bombings killed 74 people and injured at least 71 more. Somali militant group al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attacks July 12. If al Shabaab did indeed carry out the bombings, it would be the group's first major transnational attack and possibly a breakout moment for the group as a new transnational threat.
Three coordinated explosions occurred July 11 in Kampala, Uganda, at two venues showing the World Cup soccer final. The first blast occurred at 10:25 p.m. local time at the Ethiopian Village restaurant in the Kabalagala district and killed at least 15 people. The explosive device detonated near the end of the match's first half, when the restaurant was full of soccer fans. Then, at approximately 11:15 p.m. local time, two explosions occurred at the Lugogo Rugby Club, killing at least 49 people. The first blast occurred somewhere behind the viewers, though the crowd apparently did not think it was a bomb and simply moved closer to the screen (it is not known if this blast caused any injuries). Within five minutes, a second device detonated near the screen in front of the crowd, causing most if not all of the casualties at the club. In addition to the deaths, which have increased to 74 and included at least one American, the bombings injured at least 71 people at the two venues. A head and a pair of legs believed to belong to a suicide bomber were found at the rugby club. It is unknown which of the two blasts might have been caused by the suicide bomber, though it is presumed to be the second. One report indicated that one or more devices were timed and placed under a table. As with most such incidents, reports thus far are confusing and conflicting. STRATFOR is still trying to gather additional details on the sequence of events and the construction of the explosive devices. However, it is clear that the attacks targeted World Cup viewers at popular venues. The timing of the explosions appears to have been intended to cause maximum casualties, and the first blast at the rugby club seems to have been intended to drive the victims toward the second, much like the first small device employed in an October 2002 attack in Bali. Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, a Mogadishu-based spokesman for Somali Islamist militant group al Shabaab, claimed responsibility for the attacks July 12. If Rage's claim is true, this is the first major attack by al Shabaab outside of Somalia. Al Shabaab has made threats against Uganda and Burundi before, and issued new threats July 9 because Uganda and Burundi are providing African Union troops in Somalia. Al Shabaab — along with Hizbul Islam, a smaller Islamist militant group in Somalia — also threatened World Cup viewers. Despite the almost weekly threats against neighboring countries, Somali militant groups have previously concentrated their attacks inside the country, where they are fighting the Somali Transitional Federal Government, African Union forces and various Somali militias. But as transnational militants from across the Middle East and South Asia — and from the United States — move to Somalia, STRATFOR has been watching for indications of a shift to transnational attacks. The target selection and apparent use of suicide bombers in a coordinated attack are strong indicators of an al Qaeda franchise attack. The July 11 attacks could be al Shabaab's breakout move, much like the attack against Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was the first to draw attention to the international capabilities of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Al Shabaab claims allegiance to al Qaeda but has never used al Qaeda's tactics — at least not outside of Somalia — until this bombing. Al Shabaab has carried out a few suicide attacks each year, mostly against hardened targets, such as a 2008 attack in northern Somalia, but it usually employs more traditional paramilitary tactics. The strategic goal of al Shabaab's guerrilla campaign is to hold territory and eventually take over Mogadishu, which will not be accomplished by suicide attacks. STRATFOR dismissed the possibility of an al Shabaab threat against South Africa during the World Cup, as the Somali group has little operational capability there. However, the Somali militants appear to have extended their range at least to Uganda, and an unnamed al Shabaab member said the group reached their "objective" with the July 11 attacks. Al Shabaab might have made the leap to transnational targets, but it is important to note that Uganda is close to Somalia, has a large Somali population, and there is an ample supply of weapons in the region. The security and law enforcement agencies in Uganda are also overburdened and undertrained. Thus, attacks against soft targets in Kampala were not difficult to conduct for a regional militant organization like al Shabaab. The Ugandan police are reportedly working with the United States' FBI to investigate the attacks, as the United States is concerned about new transnational threats and always gets involved when a U.S. citizen is killed in a militant attack. The July 11 attacks could be the turning point for al Shabaab's strategy, which African governments, the United States and others concerned about the group's transnational potential will watch closely. The next places to watch for an al Shabaab attack are Ethiopia, Kenya and Burundi — particularly Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, which is another major provider of African Union forces. The group has shown the intent to reach beyond Somalia. Their capability to reach beyond Uganda must now be carefully assessed.

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