Days after al Shabab bombed two Kampala nightspots in the closing minutes of the World Cup last year, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni vowed to crush the al Qaeda-linked, Somalia-based terror group. One by one, with the exception of tiny Burundi, African nations began to distance themselves from Mr. Museveni's zeal, arguing that greater involvement in the Horn would make the continent less safe. After all, the suicide attacks—one year ago today–were revenge for the 5,000 Ugandan peacekeeping troops that Mr. Museveni already had stationed in Somalia.
The former bush rebel, whose insurgency toppled the brutal regime of Milton Obote in 1986, was widely dismissed as a myopic warmonger who couldn't see past a military solution to the problem. His calls to add 12,000 troops and turn Somalia into a no-fly zone were ignored or rejected.
But Mr. Museveni's resolve since has proved decisive in bringing al Shabab to its knees. He successfully lobbied the U.N. to allow African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops to initiate preemptive strikes rather than just react in self-defense. AMISOM forces, made up of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers, now control 70% of Mogadishu and key towns in the south of the country. Dozens of al Shabab fighters have defected in recent months, while the group's Islamist designs have led its popularity to wane to the point that it is struggling to attract financing and new recruits.
Meanwhile, al Shabab's vows to avenge AMISOM by taking its terror abroad have produced no major attack beyond Somalia's borders. Regional security forces, strengthened through closer resource and intelligence sharing with each other and AMISOM, have rounded up scores of would-be attackers. The last major suspect in last year's blasts, which killed 78 people in Uganda's famously safe capital, was extradited to Uganda last week. Ugandan courts are now set to try 17 people in connection with the bombings.
Mr. Museveni's determination to route al Shabab has also gained him regional and international clout, even as his regime's domestic record suffers. When, for instance, the U.N. pressured Somalia's transitional government to hold elections when its mandate expires in August, Mr. Museveni threatened to pull his 5,000 troops out of AMISOM unless the mandate was extended another year. Mr. Museveni got his way.
Even Washington has softened its calls for Mr. Museveni to reverse Uganda's runaway corruption and undemocratic drift. Since last year's bombings, the two sides have found common cause in stabilizing Africa's Horn. Washington has trained and equipped Mr. Museveni's forces, with the latest boost coming last month in the form of a $50 million military consignment that included drones, surveillance systems and body armor.
One of the drones was used in an airstrike on June 30 that wounded two top al Shabab commanders. This led to at least 12 al Shabab defections and widespread fear among remaining fighters, according to defectors.
To finish the job, Uganda and Burundi recently sent 3,000 additional troops to Somalia. Emboldened by AMISOM's steady gains, other African nations, including South Africa, are reportedly preparing to contribute their own forces.
Several factors threaten to keep al Shabab relevant. Somalia's transitional government is hobbled by massive corruption and political infighting, though Mr. Museveni has convinced key members of the group to sign the Kampala Accord, which regional leaders hailed as a step toward ending political impasses.
Outside Somalia, security has grown lax in certain areas, such as at major shopping areas in Uganda. The region's high youth unemployment, which sits at nearly 80% in Uganda and 65% in Kenya, makes fertile ground for terrorist recruitment. Intelligence reports show that al Shabab is redoubling its efforts to strike abroad in a desperate attempt to remain relevant, and as al Qaeda buckles under effective counterterrorism measures elsewhere, it has sought greater collaboration with the Somali network.
Still, it's hard to imagine the region any safer had Mr. Museveni chosen to withdraw his troops following the World Cup bombings. In defying the conventional wisdom and staying put, Mr. Museveni has shown that finding African solutions to African problems doesn't have to remain an empty slogan. wsj