Shabab Bombings May Be a Sign of Weakness

Members of al-Shabaab Islamist rebel group in Mogadishu in January Feisal Omar / Reuters-Corbis

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. In December last year, a suicide bomber killed dozens of Somalis at a graduation ceremony for medical and engineering students in Mogadishu, a cynical act of terrorism that infuriated many Somalis.

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Al-Shabab's decision to bomb foreign targets was probably taken reluctantly. Somalis depend heavily on more than 1 million expats to send home remittances, which are estimated at roughly $1 billion a year. The militants, too, rely on expats in Africa and elsewhere to funnel money and weapons to Al-Shabab fighters inside the country. Attacks like those in Uganda, which killed more than 70 civilians, are likely to result in xenophobic retaliation against Somalis living abroad, perhaps alienating those people from Al-Shabab's radical cause. The bombings could also spur Somalia's neighbors to crack down on Al-Shabab's supply lines.

But Al-Shabab must have calculated that the potential benefits outweighed the risks. On the surface, last week's attacks seemed to be an attempt to frighten Ugandans into pulling their peacekeeping troops out of Somalia. (Ugandan soldiers are part of the African Union force that helps protect the transitional government.) But Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College, says the opposite may be true. The militants may be aiming to provoke wider international involvement in Somalia that "could inadvertently drive Somalis back into the Shabab's arms." In the view of the militants, the "best opportunity to regain popularity locally" may be to "regionalize the conflict," says Menkhaus.

Pinpoint strikes targeting Al-Shabab's leadership could be an effective way to hit back. Yet Menkhaus and other analysts believe it's important for Somalia's neighbors—and U.S. policymakers—to avoid overreacting. Al-Shabab "will benefit from an indiscriminate response," says one Western observer with long experience in Somalia who did not want to be named discussing the volatile political situation.

A better approach may be to encourage the transitional government, led by Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, to broaden its support. Ahmed and his backers could use this opportunity to quietly reach out to Al-Shabab's erstwhile allies among other Somali opposition groups. Many street fighters are just teenagers who could be bought off, and even some old-guard commanders are probably resentful of Al Qaeda–linked foreigners who have become more influential.

Unfortunately, Ahmed is not popular either. He is widely viewed as a stooge of foreign powers, and his government is "deeply incompetent and corrupt," says Abdi Samatar, a professor at the University of Minnesota. "The Somalis have lost faith in it." Moreover, the president's troops control little territory outside his own palace. In this sense, anyway, Somalia's tragedy is a familiar story after all.

With Mark Hosenball in Washington