Published: July 12, 2010 By MARK LANDLER
“This was a localized cancer, but the cancer has metastasized into a regional crisis,” said Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs. “It is a crisis that has bled across borders and is now infecting the international community.”The Shabab have been in the cross hairs of intelligence and counterterrorism officials for years. But the group’s growing force and alliances with a shifting array of Somali warlords has posed a constant, vexing challenge for the Obama administration’s efforts to bolster Somalia’s weak government and stabilize the country. Last year, after what a senior administration official described as a fierce internal debate, President Obama halted American food aid to Somalia after evidence mounted that the Shabab was siphoning some of the aid for its operations.The group has also recruited young fighters from the frustrated ranks of Somali immigrants in the United States. In October 2008, a Minneapolis teenager, Shirwa Ahmed, became the first confirmed American suicide bomber, when he drove a car laden with explosives into a compound in northern Somalia. He had traveled to Somalia and was apparently trained as a fighter by the Shabab.Despite the group’s foreign recruits, a senior intelligence official said the United States believes it is still mainly focused on fighting the Somali government and those who support it, rather than the West. On Monday, a spokesman for the Shabab threatened to single out another African country, Burundi, which, like Uganda, has sent troops to Somalia to help shore up the weak federal government.In drawing up a list of potential terrorist targets during the World Cup, the intelligence official said, an attack somewhere in Africa was high on the list. Given the continent’s often porous borders and haphazard security, he said, it would have been relatively easy for the Shabab to send suicide bombers to Uganda. The group has conducted cross-border raids into Kenya with impunity for some time.But other terrorism experts said that running a clandestine operation in Uganda, which lies hundreds of miles away, on Kenya’s western border, requires sophistication, as does pulling off simultaneous bombings, at a rugby field and an Ethiopian restaurant.The Shabab appears to relish its membership in the international brotherhood of jihadi groups. In 2008, it traded messages on militant Web sites with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric now in hiding in Yemen, whom intelligence officials say had had a role in the attempt to blow up the Northwest Airlines plane to Detroit on Dec. 25.“We would like to congratulate you on your victories and achievements,” Mr. Awlaki wrote to the group, saying it provided “a living example of how we as Muslims should proceed to change our situation.” In a response, the group thanked “Sheikh Anwar” for his recommendations and noted that the “enemies of Islam” were directing more of their efforts to the battle for “hearts and minds” through the media.
“Al Shabab is emerging as one of these archetypal 21st-century terrorist groups,” said Bruce Hoffman, an expert in counterterrorism at Georgetown University. “Ten years ago, no one would ever have heard of them. These are not the kinds of groups that would have had the ability to operate across borders.”
Mr. Hoffman said the Shabab had the ingredients to turn itself into even more of an international threat: a savvy communications operation; an expatriate Somali population from which to recruit; charismatic figures it could send out to attract followers; and a proven capacity, after this weekend, to operate in foreign countries. The Kampala attack, he said, might represent a bid by more ambitious members of the group to ally it more closely with Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda’s affiliates.There are cracks in the group’s armor, however. The Somali population has grown increasingly fed up with the Shabab’s harsh brand of Islam, and the group’s efforts to recruit in the United States seem to have faltered after it lured several young men from the Minneapolis area two years ago. Reports about life on the battlefield apparently chilled the appetite of some potential fighters, while officials said the F.B.I. warned the Somali-American community to keep an eye on its youth.On Sunday, Mr. Carson spoke to Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, and said he was confident that the president would not allow the attack to bully Uganda’s government into withdrawing its troops from Somalia. A few members of the Ugandan Parliament have demanded a review of the peacekeeping force.The United States sent three agents from the F.B.I. to help the Ugandans collect evidence, as well as two Diplomatic Security agents to help in the investigation. There is a further F.B.I. team on call in Washington. “The United States stands shoulder to shoulder with Uganda in the fight against terrorism,” said the State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley.He declined to say whether the United States planned any other response. Despite the death of the aid worker, and five other Americans who hospitalized with injuries, officials said they did not believe the attacks were aimed at Americans.The United States helps with counterterrorism operations in the countries that border Somalia, officials said. But the root causes of the problem are much larger: widespread poverty, hunger, a crippled economy and the absence of a functioning central government for almost 20 years.Mr. Crowley said the United States would work with Uganda, Kenya, and other African countries to help stabilize the Somali government. But American officials said the Shabab were an outgrowth of a daunting array of other issues, including refugees, illegal trade in arms and other goods, and piracy on the seas off Somalia.