Why did a band of Somali Islamists bomb World Cup viewing parties in Uganda?

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July 12 2010 3:01 PM

Payback in Kampala

Why did a band of Somali Islamists bomb World Cup viewing parties in Uganda?

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Bombing survivors in Kampala

Blood supplies were running low at Mulago Hospital in the Ugandan capital of Kampala Monday morning; oxygen tanks were, too. The emergency ward was full, its hallways lined with the broken victims of twin bomb attacks at a sports club and a restaurant where patrons had crowded to watch the World Cup final.

Meanwhile, in Somalia, a world away from the bars and cafes of Kampala, Sheik Yusuf Isse celebrated the bombings as if his team had just vanquished the Dutch at Johannesburg's Soccer City Stadium. "That is the best news we ever heard," he told Reuters after the blasts.

"Uganda is a major infidel country supporting the so-called government of Somalia," said Isse, a commander of the Taliban-like Somali militia known as al-Shabaab. "We know Uganda is against Islam and so we are very happy at what has happened in Kampala."

Isse knows nothing about Uganda, a struggling democracy perched on the northern shore of Lake Victoria, with one critical exception: Around 2,700 Ugandan troops are in Somalia, defending the weak U.S.-backed central government in Mogadishu against the forces of al-Shabaab and its foreign jihadist allies.

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On Sunday night, Ugandans were made to pay for their country's muscular and at times adventurous foreign policy, with at least 74 people dead and many more wounded.

President Yoweri Museveni has long sought to project Uganda's influence beyond the borders of his Minnesota-sized country. I've dined in mess tents with Ugandan troops and police officers serving as peacekeepers in Darfur, and I've crossed Ugandan checkpoints in the hinterlands of southern Sudan, where the Ugandan People's Defense Force is pursuing the last murderous elements of the Lord's Resistance Army into the remote Central African Republic.

In 1997, rebels and irregulars backed by Uganda and Rwanda, including numerous children, walked more than 1,200 miles across the continent to depose aging dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. Just a year later, Ugandan and Rwandan forces again stormed the country, now renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in a failed bid to remove Mobutu's successor (and Museveni's erstwhile ally), Laurent Kabila. Over the next several years, Ugandan and Rwandan forces looted billions of dollars' worth of the Congo's diamonds and timber.

None of these interventions had much to do with the majority of Ugandans.

Even the two-decade reign of terror by the predatory shaman Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army was something of an abstraction to all but the few northern tribes who bore the brunt of the LRA's mad violence. After 20-plus years of fighting and more than 20,000 children kidnapped by the LRA, most Ugandan legislators still have never visited the affected northern region, even though it's just a 20-minute flight from Kampala.

It was only in Somalia that Museveni found opponents with the means, motivation, and opportunity to strike back at Uganda's relatively prosperous capital—and they did so with a keen sense of the symbolic.

The first explosion Sunday night was at the Ethiopian Village, a restaurant popular with Ugandans and expatriates (the food is great) who'd been flocking to its big-screen World Cup telecasts. It was Ethiopia that, in 2007, invaded Somalia to remove from power the Union of Islamic Courts, of which al-Shabaab was a part.

The second attack took place at a World Cup party co-sponsored by Vision Voice FM, the radio station of the New Vision newspaper, a parastatal entity controlled by the government and Museveni's ruling National Resistance Movement. It was there, as hundreds of people watched the match from lawn chairs on the crowded pitch of the Kyadondo Rugby Club, that most of the casualties took place.

"We will carry out attacks against our enemy wherever they are," Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, an al-Shabaab spokesman, told the Associated Press.

Museveni has for years supported U.S., European, and African efforts to prevent Somalia from falling completely to radical Islamist forces. After a U.S.-backed coalition of warlords was pushed out of Mogadishu by the Union of Islamic Courts in 2005, he took part in an aborted plan to use American mercenaries to retake the capital for Somalia's internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government.

Today it's Ugandan lives on the line in Somalia. Twenty-two Ugandan soldiers have been killed there since 2007, and more than 50 have been wounded or brought down by disease. By taking part in the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, the Ugandans are helping to prevent Somalia's takeover by al-Shabaab and its friends in al-Qaida. But AMISOM forces have also engaged in heavy shelling of the capital that has killed many of the civilians the peacekeepers are sworn to protect.

By sunset on Monday, shells were again falling on Mogadishu, collective punishment for a population that has endured nearly 20 years of pillage and chaos. (More than 3.2 million Somalis rely on emergency humanitarian aid to survive.)

Back in Uganda, Museveni swore revenge. "We shall look for them and get them, wherever they are," he told reporters.

The Kampala blasts will surely be used to bolster a crackdown on the Ugandan opposition—a quadrennial election-year squeeze that has helped keep the president in power since 1987. Terrorism and security will, more than ever, be used as justification for the arrest of activists and reporters.

Museveni is a Western favorite. The United States and Europe seem content to look past his authoritarian streak in exchange for Uganda's contribution to operations in Sudan and Somalia.

Uganda is also home to more than 4,000 Somali refugees. These migrants will find themselves the objects of intense suspicion and hatred in a country that woke up this morning to the realization that punching above your weight doesn't mean you can't still be bloodied.

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Dan Morrison is the author of The Black Nile. He writes at danmorrison.net and tweets at @dmsouthasia and @theblacknile.

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