NPR logo Somali Group Says It's Behind Uganda Attacks


Somali Group Says It's Behind Uganda Attacks

People watch the soccer World Cup final at an Ethiopian-owned restaurant in Kampala, Uganda, on Sunday, moments before blasts tore through crowds of fans, killing more than 70 people. The militant al-Shabab group claimed responsibility. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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People watch the soccer World Cup final at an Ethiopian-owned restaurant in Kampala, Uganda, on Sunday, moments before blasts tore through crowds of fans, killing more than 70 people. The militant al-Shabab group claimed responsibility.

AFP/Getty Images

In the Ugandan capital of Kampala on Sunday, suicide bombers killed more than 70 people who had gathered at a rugby club and restaurant to watch the soccer World Cup finals on television. The militant Somali group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attacks, marking the first major international attack it has ever launched.

A top spokesman for the group also said further attacks would target Uganda and Burundi if they continued to supply troops to the African Union-led peacekeeping force in Somalia.

"Al-Shabab was behind the blasts," spokesman Ali Mohamud Raghe told reporters. "Thanks to our martyrs who carried out the attacks."

Al-Shabab, an Islamist militia trying to overthrow the transitional government in Somalia, has threatened targets in Uganda and Burundi because both countries have provided troops to the AU-led peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Ethiopia has also drawn special enmity because it sent troops into Somalia in 2006 to support a weak U.S.-supported government in Somalia. It has since withdrawn its troops.

"I'm startled that they could actually launch an attack outside Somalia," said Robert Rotberg, a Harvard professor who tracks the group and Somalia more generally. "I'm surprised they have done something like this, and it may show just how desperate Shabab has become."

Venues Attracted Ethiopians

The latest bombings were in Kampala at the Kyadondo Rugby Club and at the Ethiopian Village restaurant, where hundreds of soccer fans had gathered to watch Spain beat the Netherlands in the World Cup final in South Africa. The bombs exploded at 10:30 p.m. Sunday, in the middle of the final; there were at least three explosions. Investigators tell NPR they believe there were two suicide bombers and a secondary device timed to go off after the suicide blast.

The Associated Press on Tuesday quoted a Uganda government official as saying investigators found several unexploded suicide vests at another site in Uganda's capital, suggesting that al-Shabab militants planned to carry out more attacks.

The dead include Ugandans, Indians and Ethiopians. Also among the dead was an American who had been working with the Invisible Children aid organization. The group identified him as 25-year-old Nate Henn of Delaware. He had apparently worked for the group for a little over a year doing work for child soldiers in Uganda. There were other Americans injured in the attacks, but Henn was the only U.S. fatality.

Most of the coverage about al-Shabab in the U.S. has centered on some two dozen young Somali-Americans in Minneapolis who have joined ranks with the group over the past two years. They were recruited in the Minneapolis area and left the U.S. to go fight in Somalia. When the recruitment first started, al-Shabab was trying to drive Ethiopian troops from Somalia. When the Ethiopians withdrew, al-Shabab started luring young Americans and foreign fighters into the group by saying it was waging war to make Somalia an Islamic state.

News reports have focused on the fact that foreigners frequented the two Kampala World Cup venues. But sources tell NPR there were a preponderance of Ethiopians there. Given al-Shabab's dislike of Ethiopians since their invasion, it would have made the two venues enticing targets. It would have allowed al-Shabab to send two messages at once — one against the Ethiopians and another against Uganda.

Uganda's Peacekeeping Role

Uganda was in the group's cross hairs because it supplies a good number of the peacekeepers who are in Somalia with the AU force battling al-Shabab's efforts to topple Somalia's transitional government. What's more, Uganda is training many of the transitional government's soldiers, a program backed by the U.S. and Europe.

Investigators also say that al-Shabab's strict, Taliban-like dictates may have played a role in its target selection. The group recently banned soccer playing in the areas of Somalia it controls. It also banned Somalis from watching the World Cup, saying it would corrupt good Muslims. Together, those things go a long way toward explaining why the group chose the targets it did over the weekend.

One of the questions the FBI wants answered is who the suicide bombers were. The bureau is helping Uganda with the investigation because a U.S. citizen was killed and other Americans were injured, and the concern is that one of the missing Minneapolis Somalis was one of the suicide bombers. Two years ago, there was a suicide bombing in Somaliland by al-Shabab. The person who was behind the wheel of the car bomb at that time was a young naturalized American, Shirwa Ahmed — one of the first young Somali-Americans in Minneapolis successfully recruited by al-Shabab.

Ahmed has the dubious distinction of being America's first suicide bomber. The concern is that al-Shabab is trying to send a message to the Americans, too, by using one of their own.