- - Sunday, July 10, 2011

KAMPALA, Uganda — A Somali-based terrorist group sent an unmistakable message a year ago Monday when it bombed two nightclubs here: It had the ability and determination to strike outside Somalia, the failed, violent nation on the Horn of Africa.

Al-Shabab operatives reached across neighboring Kenya to hit Uganda, targeted because it had 5,000 peacekeeping troops stationed in Somalia to help stabilize a country that last had a functioning government 20 years ago.

The region braced for more attacks from al-Shabab, as analysts predicted sub-Saharan Africa would become the world’s new battlefront of terrorism.

A year later, however, al-Shabab has scored only one follow-up attack outside Somalia, when a grenade detonated prematurely and killed three people beside a Kampala Coach bus in Nairobi, Kenya, in December. Its goal of turning Somalia into an Islamic state looks ever more improbable.

Within the last month alone, African Union peacekeepers have wrested control of key supply routes in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. Peacekeeping troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have encircled Bakara Market, al-Shabab’s last major stronghold in the city.

On June 8, the Somalian military picked off Abdullah Fazul, al Qaeda’s East African leader, who masterminded the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and was suspected of having ties to al-Shabab.

Dozens of al-Shabab fighters have defected. AMISOM now controls 13 of 16 districts in and around Mogadishu, as well as key towns in southern Somalia, according to Felix Kulaigye, a spokesman for the Ugandan People’s Defense Force.

“They turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” said Mr. Kulaigye of the 2010 bombings that detonated in the closing minutes of the World Cup soccer finals and left 78 dead, including one American.

The terrorist attacks led to an expanding role for AMISOM troops, allowing them to initiate pre-emptive strikes rather than just react in self-defense.

“Before that, we were sitting ducks,” Mr. Kulaigye explained.

Some observers feared that Uganda’s new peacekeeping role, along with President Yoweri Museveni’s resolve to keep his troops on the ground in Somalia, would become a recruitment tool for al-Shabab. Uganda and Burundi account for nearly all of AMISOM’s troops in Somalia.

However, al-Shabab has lost popular support over the past year, as it has grown more militant and fragmented along clan lines.

The ragtag group, numbering around 3,000, rode to prominence on a nationalist wave in 2009, when it was seen as the only force capable of beating back occupying Ethiopian forces.

But its ruthless tactics have alienated most Somalis. In its strongholds, al-Shabab banned viewing of the World Cup and publicly beheaded accused criminals.

Now, judging from the amount of ammunition the group has been dispensing, al-Shabab is facing a shortage of funding. The Ugandan government, meanwhile, recently announced it will soon deploy 3,000 additional troops to Somalia.

With prospects dimming domestically, the al-Shabab appears to be turning its attention toward civilian targets abroad.

In May, Ugandan authorities arrested four Somalis suspected of having links to al-Shabab, as they were caught entering Uganda through Sudan. In April, Kenyan police arrested eight terrorism suspects in connection with planned Easter attacks in Nairobi.

On June 16, Kenyan officials nabbed two suspected terrorist financiers in the coastal town of Mombasa — one of them, Mark Ture Somerville, an American.

Andrew Mwangura, maritime editor of Somalia Report, said al-Shabab poses a serious threat regionally because of poor intelligence gathering and cooperation among East African governments, corrupt law enforcement agencies and the lure of deviant teachings of Islam.

Al-Shabab could also find recruits among jobless youth. Unemployment among young people sits at nearly 80 percent in Uganda and 65 percent in Kenya.

Those factors have plagued the region at least since the July 2010 bombings. However, the past year has seen stronger collaboration among regional and international partners in intelligence sharing, military equipment, training and funding.

The European Union announced a $92 million contribution to AMISOM in March, bringing its total contribution since 2007 to $291 million. The U.S. government has delivered $274 million in equipment, logistics and training to AMISOM since 2007 and $85 million to Somalia’s U.N.-backed transitional federal government since 2009.

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