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

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
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.