Somalia Strikes Out

Article excerpt

Byline: Kevin Peraino; With Mark Hosenball in Washington

Horrific bombings in the Ugandan capital seemed to mark the arrival of a new player in global jihad. But the world shouldn't overreact: the killings are also a sign of splits within the Somali militant community.

At first glance, the images of overturned tables and blood-soaked walls seemed to tell a familiar story. The setting--Kampala, the laid-back capital of Uganda, during the World Cup championship last week--was new, but the lesson of the latest global terrorist bombings was by now routine: jihadi groups are ruthless, unpredictable, and prone to metastasize. Chaotic backwaters in the Horn of Africa can spawn threats just as dangerous as those in the Middle East and South Asia. The newest addition to the global most-wanted list: Al-Shabab ("the Youth"), a murderous clique of Somali militants who claimed last week's bombings as their first act of terrorism outside their own country's borders.

American policymakers have long been following the growth of Al-Shabab. The State Department designated the group a terrorist organization in 2008, and in recent years U.S. investigators have watched with alarm as a stream of Somali-American youngsters have gone missing, apparently to fight alongside the militants in Mogadishu. Yet a paradox lies at the heart of Al-Shabab's newfound notoriety. Even as the group's global profile has risen, the militants are less popular and less effective at home than they've ever been. "The local jihad is no longer working in their favor," says Rashid Abdi of the International Crisis Group. "They have lost the political momentum." The Uganda attacks, he says, "are probably a sign of desperation."

The organization wasn't always so isolated inside Somalia. Its leadership initially emerged from the ranks of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a popular network of local Islamists that tried to restore some measure of order to Somalia after years of warlord rule. The ICU ran schools and other social services, winning the affections of impoverished Somalis. The group's stature rose further in the eyes of locals in late 2006, when Ethiopian troops, encouraged by the Bush administration, invaded Somalia in an effort to oust the Islamists. Al-Shabab and a number of other fundamentalist factions were hailed by ordinary Somalis as freedom fighters as they battled the invading Ethiopians.

But when the Ethiopian military finally pulled out last year, Al-Shabab's support waned and Islamist factions began to quarrel among themselves. More moderate elements of the former ICU grew wary of the group's hardline positions. As Al-Shabab extremists carved out enclaves of control south of Mogadishu, they imposed their own harsh--and wildly unpopular--brand of justice. Adulterers were stoned to death. Other Somalis had their limbs hacked off. Hardline commanders--some of them Arabs and other foreigners--began calling the shots. …