It is easy to dismiss suicide bombings such a those in Uganda on Sunday night as "mindless violence." It is even more facile to categorise them as the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and the US President, Barack Obama, did yesterday as "deplorable and cowardly."
"Deplorable" such attacks certainly are, aimed as they are at causing the maximum death and injury to civilians – in this case football fans watching the World Cup final at two separate locations in the Ugandan capital on Sunday evening. Calling them "cowardly" and "mindless" misses the point, however. Terrorism on this scale has a specific purpose. It is to demonstrate the power and reach of insurgent groups. And in this case, what is so worrying is that the massacres have been carried out well outside the boundaries of the country primarily concerned, Somalia, to punish other states held to have meddled in their affairs.
Final culpability for the two bombings has yet to be fully established. But all the early indications are that they were ordered by an Islamist Somali group, very probably al-Shabab, which has for some weeks now been warning not only that it was prepared to take its war against the government across the border to those countries such as Uganda that have sent peacekeepers into Somalia, but also to target those whom it accuses of secular, pro-western behaviour in watching the World Cup.
No one should confuse its aggressive statements, or its actions, with any religious belief. These are political gestures with a political aim in mind, which is both to show the group's greater strength against competitive Islamist organisations within Somalia and to deter outsiders from getting involved in Somalia's internal conflicts. Violence in the form of suicide attacks on civilian gatherings has become not just an effective publicity gambit but also a cheap means of raising your profile in the region. Blood, ambulances, the screams of victims, onlookers and relatives and the arrival of cameras are the weapons of today's warfare, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as much as Africa.
That does not make such outrages acceptable or defensible. The experience of Iraq, and other countries, is that the public at large have little sympathy with the terrorists or any admiration for groups which in the name of Islam would kill fellow Muslims for the sake of public display. Terrorism on this scale does not generate public support. But it should cause those on the outside, and particularly in the West, to be careful in defining exactly what they are doing in intervening in regional situations. The reality of east Africa is that Somalia has now, as we know from its piracy, become a hotbed of violence in the continent, in which central government has virtually ceased to be operable and local gangs and tribes have taken over most of the countryside.
Outside intervention has only made matters worse, if indeed it has not been a major cause of the problems in the first place. Efforts to send in peacekeepers to shore up the government under the United Nations aegis and to overthrow Islamic insurgents in 2006 made matters worse. The introduction of Ethiopian troops, withdrawn in 2009, came as a bitterly resented occupation by a hostile neighbour. The attempt to make this an African issue, with forces from the Organisation of African Unity, including Uganda, has fared no better.
"Let them fight it out amongst themselves" is hardly an ennobling cry. Nor is it a necessary one. But treating Somalia as simply part of the war against terror and al-Qa'ida is proving self-defeating. The world, through the UN and the regional states, needs to start from the specifics within Somalia and build peace and reconciliation from the ground up rather than imposing solutions from the outside.