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The Kampala bombings

Photo: AP Photo/Marc Hofer

Two bombs exploded in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, last night, killing upwards of 64 people including at least one American. Uganda, in Central Africa, is not normally considered a hotbed of instability, despite its decades-long civil war with the Lord’s Resistance army and its shared borders with Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. So why were bombs set off in its capital? Here are five things you need to know about why this matters.

So far, all the information we have indicates an Islamist group called Al-Shabab are most likely responsible for the bombings. Al-Shabab (The Youth) is a militant group in Somalia that unabashedly brags of its ties to Al Qaeda. During the mid-2000s, a group of Islamist militants known as the Islamic Courts Union slowly gained control of vast swaths of Somalia. When Ethiopia invaded Somalia in December of 2006, the ICU shattered into smaller factions (a more moderate militant faction now operates under the name). Al-Shabab emerged from that chaos more radicalized, and more militant, than the ICU ever was. Over the last three years, it has fought viciously to impose a harsh version of Shari’a akin to the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. There are rampant rumors of foreign jihadists traveling to Somalia to fight for Al-Shabab. The group’s spokesman, an American from Alabama named Omar Hammami, releases video, press statements, and radio broadcasts under his nom de guerre, Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki.

The bombs targeted sports spots—one a well known rugby club and the other an Ethiopian restaurant where patrons had gathered to watch the World Cup Final. Both locations have some symbolic significance: Al-Shabab has banned soccer (and presumably other sports as well) in the areas it controls, labeling them un-Islamic. By going after sports clubs where lots of foreigners gathered to socialize and watch unIslamic things on TV, Al-Shabab was sending a social, as well as a political message: you are not safe.

It is significant that Al-Shabab targeted Uganda for bombings: they’ve been threatening to terrorize the country ever since it joined the African Union force in 2007 called AMISON that was trying to impose a peace process on Somalia. It also makes sense for the militant group to target an Ethiopian establishment within Uganda, since Ethiopia has spearheaded the invasion force inside Somalia, propping up the unpopular and ineffective Transitional Government and participating in some nasty gun fights in Mogadishu. Ugandans make up a large proportion of the AMISOM troops, and rather than neutral arbiters many Somalis seem the force as a proxy for Ethiopian designs on the country.

If the bombings do turn out to be the work of Al-Shabab, it would be the first time the Islamist group has struck targets outside of Somalia. Al-Shabab has never been shy about its desire to expand its jihad to the rest of the Horn of Africa, but for several years it has lacked the capability of doing so. Now that it’s proven it can strike targets in countries it doesn’t border, the security calculus of the entire region has changed: previously, the only really international reach of Somali instability was piracy out at sea, which seemed to trouble Western naval powers much more than its African neighbors. If Somali militants are now going to make a habit of bombing the capitals of AMISON contributors, it makes the international response to Somalia’s civil war a much more urgent matter.

Back in May, the International Crisis Group (ICG) released a report on Somalia’s Islamic militants that indicated Al-Shabab has steadily radicalized Somalis within Somalia, in the region as a whole, and in the disapora community. This hits very close to home: in July of 2009, a federal grand jury indicted two Minnesota men, Salah Osman Ahmed and Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, for recruiting Somali immigrants to fight for Islamist factions in Somalia. The influx of foreign militants, generally a hodgepodge of jihadist types one would find fighting in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and other areas of instability, has, according to the ICG, pushed Al-Shabab’s ideology “to the far extreme.” Knowing Al-Shabab is willing and capable of striking throughout the region suddenly makes the Horn of Africa a vastly more dangerous place.