Minutes before the final whistle blew on Africa’s first World Cup, twin bombs claimed by Somalia's Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab Islamists ripped through crowds watching the tournament’s finale in Uganda’s capital, Kampala.
By Monday, 74 people were confirmed dead, including a 25-year-old American children’s charity staffer, and doctors were still treating more than 70 wounded.
The first explosion killed 15 people watching the match in an Ethiopian restaurant popular with expatriates, and the second left at least 49 dead at a rugby club where hundreds of people had gathered for the Spain vs Netherlands match.
"We thank the mujahideen that carried out the attack," said Al Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage on Monday, confirming the attack from Somalia's rubble-strewn capital, Mogadishu, and threatening more attacks.
Al Shabab had long threatened to attack Uganda for sending troops to the African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission to prop up the weak, Western-backed government. But the twin bombings – just weeks before the AU is set to hold a summit in Uganda – would mark the first time that the group has made good on its threats to attack outside of Somalia.
One American dead, more wounded
One of those who did not survive the attack was Nate Henn, 25, from Wilmington, Del., who worked with the San Diego-based aid group Invisible Children. He was killed in the explosion at the rugby field.
"He sacrificed his comfort to live in the humble service of God and of a better world," the group said in a statement on its website.
Three of Mr. Henn’s American colleagues were wounded, and three of his Ugandan friends were killed.
“We thought we would be celebrating our last day in Kampala and having a farewell dinner with our friends today,” said American Kris Sledge, sitting wounded in a hospital bed in International Hospital Kampala. Mr. Sledge was part of a group of six from a Methodist Church missionary group that was watching the World Cup final at the Ethiopian Village restaurant when the bomb went off at half time. “Instead we are just lying here trying to be brave, it is all we can do.”
Now three of the Ugandan friends he was watching the soccer match with have been confirmed dead and five of the six Americans have been hospitalized.
Ugandan relatives of those missing began a frantic search for their loved ones. Edith Nasuga and her two sisters trekked around International Hospital Kampala looking for their cousin Magaret Kiberu, a primary school teacher.
“She was a [soccer] fan and went out to watch the match,” says Nasuga. “We are praying so much that we will find her.”
One grateful survivor was Emma Ruhinda. Sitting in the International Hospital Kampala with a large bandage over his head, Ruhinda recounted the moment of the blast as he sat watching soccer on the large screen at the Kyadondo rugby club. “The bomb went off and it felt like I had been hit over the head with a hammer. People were crying, there was a lot of smoke and there were a lot of injuries.”
“It has become really insecure here. It is a big threat,” says Ruhinda’s former girlfriend, Fiona Karambe, who had rushed over the hospital after being shocked to see Ruhinda on local TV. “People are scared and will be fearing to go out. It has really scared the population.”
The coordinated attacks – apparently by suicide bombers, 20 minutes apart, in separate locations, aimed at soft targets including Westerners – bore the hallmarks of Somalia’s increasingly radicalized Al Shabab group, analysts say.
"The reason people suspect Al Shabab is that it has the motivation and the opportunity," says E.J. Hogendoorn, director of the Horn of Africa program at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi.
Al Shabab's motive for attacking Kampala springs from Uganda’s support of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia, which Al Shabab is fighting in Mogadishu.
Uganda provides most of the 6,100 peacekeepers in the African Union force called the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Burundi has also sent soldiers, and has been also been threatened by Al Shabab.
The AMISOM deployment is in Somalia protecting Mogadishu's seaport, its airport, and the TFG government itself.
Al Shabab has been active in attacking AMISOM troops, and its leaders last week made threats against Ugandan diplomatic missions and called for attacks inside Uganda. It is unclear whether bombers traveled from Somalia, or were recruited in Uganda, where 12 percent of the population are Muslim, and where a significant Somali immigrant population has settled.
First Al Shabab attack outside Somalia
If Al Shabab's involvement is confirmed, it would be the first time that the group, which claims connections to Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Yemen, has exported its fight outside of Somalia’s borders.
This has raised fears among regional neighbors that Sunday’s attacks may not be the last.
“To be honest, it was a shock,” says a European diplomat in Kampala who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Everyone knew that Shabab had threatened something here, but there was a level of skepticism, which has now tragically been proven to have been too much positive thinking. The question colleagues in other capitals around the region will be asking is, 'Are we too complacent too?'”
Focus on World Cup
Attacking a crowd during a World Cup final match would also not have been coincidental, Mr. Hogendoorn adds.
"This is a double warning," he says. "As you know, Al Shabab has been watching the World Cup as an event, and they have killed people in Mogadishu for watching matches. But these attacks were in Kampala, they were attacks where there were a lot of expatriates, and they were attacks during the World Cup final, which would have required a certain amount of planning. I suspect it was done during the World Cup for a reason."
President Obama was "deeply saddened by the loss of life resulting from these deplorable and cowardly attacks," Mr. Vietor said.