Snap Analysis: Uganda blasts point to possible Islamist link

By Richard Lough

NAIROBI (BestGrowthStock) – Two bombings that killed at least 23 people in Uganda as they watched the World Cup on Sunday seem certain to raise suspicions of an Islamist link to the attacks because of the country’s troop presence in Somalia. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But Ugandan peacekeepers have been propping up a Western-backed government in Somalia that is struggling to overcome an al Qaeda-inspired Islamist insurgency led by al Shabaab rebels.

SIGNS

Coordinated attacks targeting areas packed with civilians are a hallmark of al Qaeda and groups linked to Osama bin Laden’s network. Somalia’s al Shabaab Islamists have claimed links to al Qaeda and Western security officials have said previously that Somalia could be used as a launch pad for attacks across its borders and further afield in the region.

Uganda is a soccer-mad nation. Striking during the World Cup final guaranteed crowds to create the maximum casualties and publicity, being the only major incident to mar Africa’s first hosting of the tournament.

Security forces in South Africa had been on alert to prevent any attack on the competition itself.

The name of one of the targets — the Ethiopian Village restaurant — adds to suspicions.

Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia in late 2006 to oust an Islamist movement from the capital Mogadishu. The Ethiopian incursion sparked the ongoing insurgency and although Ethiopia withdrew its troops, it remains a bitter enemy of the Islamists.

REGIONAL INSTABILITY

Violence has been largely confined to Somalia in recent years rather than spreading to the rest of east Africa. Al Shabaab, however, has threatened attacks on both Uganda and Burundi because they have troops in Somalia. Uganda forms the backbone of the 6,000-strong Africa Union force. Kenya and Ethiopia have also been threatened.

Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed told Reuters on Saturday that he was concerned at the growing number of foreign jihadists joining the Islamist insurgents and said they posed an increasing danger to regional security.

East Africa has been targeted by Islamic hardliners before. Bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224 people in 1998. The United States blamed al Qaeda for the attacks. Four years later, a bomber struck a hotel on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast, killing 15 people.

OTHER SUSPECTS?

Uganda fought a two-decade war with rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who had a reputation for abducting children, murder, mutilation and rape in their battle to establish a theocracy.

But the LRA, pursued by Ugandan troops and with its leaders wanted by the International Criminal Court, has scattered to remote and unstable regions of neighboring states and has less apparent motive or ability to carry out such an attack as would an Islamist group.

There have also been intelligence reports the Allied Democratic Force rebel group is re-grouping inside the Democratic Republic of Congo. But most analysts consider the group a spent force.

Political tensions are growing in Uganda, where the start of oil production scheduled for next year has raised the stakes. But while the opposition has threatened to block elections next year if the electoral commission is not revamped, it would gain little from blasts such as these.

RESPONSE

In the short term, the blasts are unlikely to dissuade Uganda from its role in Somalia. If they do turn out to be linked to al Shabaab, it could draw a tough response in Mogadishu where Ugandan troops have routinely shelled insurgent strongholds in the past.

In the longer term, it might raise more questions about exactly what Uganda is doing in Somalia and why it is taking the risks there to prop up a government that controls barely a few city blocks.

Ultimately it is Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni who calls the shots. He has been in power since 1986 and is expected to win another presidential term next year despite increasingly vocal and unified opposition.

(Editing by Ralph Gowling)

Snap Analysis: Uganda blasts point to possible Islamist link