Reporting from Kampala, Uganda, and Johannesburg, — A powerful Al Qaeda-affiliated militant faction in Somalia claimed responsibility Monday for two bomb attacks in Uganda's capital that killed at least 74 people who had gathered to watch a broadcast of Sunday's World Cup championship game, sparking fears that Somalia's long and bloody conflict may spill into neighboring countries.
The twin bombings in Kampala, within minutes of each other, were the first known attacks Al Shabab, or "The Youth," has mounted outside Somali borders.
The attacks, which tore through a rugby club and an Ethiopian restaurant as fans watched Spain play the Netherlands, were designed to punish Uganda for its part in a United Nations-backed peacekeeping force in Somalia to protect the country's weak transitional government, a spokesman for the group said.
The rise of a militant Islamic force in Somalia linked to Al Qaeda and willing to carry out terrorist attacks beyond its borders is an alarming new threat from Somalia, a country racked by war and chaos since the fall of the Siad Barre dictatorship in 1991.
The internationally backed transitional federal government controls a sliver of the capital, Mogadishu. Al Shabab, which controls more Somali territory than any other opposition faction, has enforced its strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, in the areas it holds, mainly in southern Somalia.
Repeated efforts to establish a government and impose stability have failed. The attempts, backed by the U.S., regional governments and other international players, aimed to curb the rise of Islamic militants and contain a terrorist threat.
Al Shabab spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage said Monday that the militants would attack its enemies wherever they were, according to news reports.
"No one will deter us from performing our Islamic duty," Rage said. "We warned Uganda not to deploy troops to Somalia; they ignored us. We warned them to stop massacring our people, and they ignored that. The explosions in Kampala were only a minor message to them. We will target them everywhere if Uganda does not withdraw from our land."
Al Shabab sees Ethiopia as its enemy and the African Union peacekeeping force, involving forces from Uganda and Burundi, as an Ethiopian proxy.
Analysts said Al Shabab may also have been motivated by the many foreigners watching the World Cup final at the rugby field and the group's opposition to soccer as ungodly.
An American, Nate Henn, who worked for the San Diego-based charity organization Invisible Children, was killed in the blast at the rugby field. Ugandan authorities said the attacks may have involved suicide bombers.
The Obama administration sent an FBI team and two investigators from the State Department's Diplomatic Security Bureau to Kampala.
U.S. officials said they believed support for the African Union mission remained strong. "If this was somehow aimed at punishing or weakening Uganda's resolve, we think that this has backfired," said State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley.
E.J. Hogendoorn, Nairobi-based analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank, said Al Shabab was trying to force Uganda and Burundi to withdraw from the peacekeeping force.
In one of the world's most dangerous, conflict-ridden countries, the extent of Al Shabab's engagement with Al Qaeda and sources of its funds aren't clear, he said.
"Our assumption is that there's a formal link in that the leadership of Al Shabab is communicating with the leadership of Al Qaeda," Hogendoorn said. "It's not in the sense that Al Shabab is taking orders from Al Qaeda. It's that they have the same kind of goals and aspirations that Al Qaeda does, and that justifies their operations."
The blasts sent many people to hospitals searching for missing relatives and friends.
"We were having fun and then I just heard boom," said Steven Kinobe, 30, who had been at the rugby club and sat dazed in a bed at the Mulago Hospital. "I was seated near the projector and then I just felt like I lost my senses. I saw people falling down. Others remained in their seats. They died on the spot.... I saw blood all over my shirt. Then the second blast went off."
Dennis Abong, 17, said he too was at the rugby club. "I thought it was fireworks, but when I saw people running, then I knew it was a bomb. I have never seen such a horror," Abong said
The teenager was unsure of what had happened to a friend. "I pray he is OK," he said, "but I don't know whether he is alive or not."
Special correspondent Gyezaho reported from Kampala and Times staff writer Dixon from Johannesburg. Paul Richter in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.