Why this is a dangerous moment: Uganda confirms Shabaab threat, US issues attack warning

Ever since the Shabaab 2010 attack in Kampala, and the Westgate siege of 2013, the AMISOM states have limited militants' actions in their capitals.

UGANDA said Thursday it was boosting security over threats by Somalia’s Al-Shabaab militants, hours after the US embassy in Kampala warned its citizens of a possible imminent terror attack.

In an emergency warning issued late Wednesday, the US mission in Kampala said it had “received information of possible terrorist threats to locations where Westerners, including US citizens, congregate in Kampala, and that an attack may take place soon.”

Ugandan defence spokesman Paddy Ankunda said the warning was “absolutely” linked to the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists, who  carried out  a major attack in Kampala five years ago.

“We’ve always known there’s a threat and we’ve warned the public,” he said, adding the militants appeared to have “have identified vulnerable points” as possible targets and that security had been stepped up in response to the threat.

Uganda is a key contributor to the African Union’s AMISOM force battling the Shabaab inside Somalia.

Ankunda insisted the threat was “low level”, although a Western diplomatic source also described it as “serious” and “based on concrete information”.

“Out of an abundance of caution, the US mission has cancelled some non-essential events scheduled at local hotels in the coming days,” the US embassy warning said, telling US citizens they “should expect increased security sweeps and delays when entering or exiting hotel areas.”

The US embassy in Kampala last issued an emergency warning in September 2014. Ugandan and Western security sources later revealed they had intercepted a transfer of explosive suicide vests by suspected Shebab members.

US officials said at the time that the militants were determined to avenge the killing of their leader Ahmed Abdi Godane in a US airstrike carried out earlier that month.

In 2010 the Shabaab carried out twin bombings in Kampala targeting a restaurant and a club where football fans were watching the World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain, killing 76 people in the region’s worst attacks in more than a decade.

The Islamists were also behind the September 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in neighbouring Kenya’s capital Nairobi which left at least 67 dead, and recently issued a call for fresh attacks against such locations.

The US has continued to strike the militants from the air, and last week announced it had also killed a senior Shabaab figure, Adan Garar, who was linked to the planning of the Westgate mall attack.

Limiting Shabaab

The Shabaab has made no progress in forcing AMISOM contributing troops to leave Somalia. While it has continued to carry out operations in neighbouring Kenya, security forces have successfully limited its ability to carry out anything near the level of the Westgate attacks in the capital Nairobi.

This has forced the militants to launch deadly terror attacks, including beheadings, in northern Kenya and the coastal areas. But the attacks, though striking Kenya tourism a blow, have not dented economic growth with the Word Bank revising upwards the country’s growth to 6% for 2015.

Ever since the July 2010 attack in Kampala, Shabaab has been foiled in Uganda.  That has been a complication for Shabaab since Uganda, which sent troops to Somalia first in 2007, is thus able to keep at bay internal pressure for it to review its role in AMISOM.

Equally, despite several threats to hit AMISOM contributors Burundi and Djibouti, the Somali militants have been constricted. With continuing losses, and its leadership being decimated, Shabaab would be seem to be stretched, with too many adversaries ranged it.

That, however, might be a source of risk as the militants are likely to be feeling the pressure to get back into the headlines with a spectacular attack. That might make the point of Shabaab’s  greatest weakness, also its most desperate and dangerous moment.

-Additional reporting by AFP

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