The Islamic State claimed responsibility for twin bombings in Uganda on Tuesday, the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group said, a sign that the extremist group is keen to prove that it still has an active presence in sub-Saharan Africa.
The blasts took place hours after a National Resistance Army, a rebel group, released a video in which a militant identified himself as Isnilon Hapilon, the head of the Islamic State in the Horn of Africa. The video also declared that the Islamic State, which is commonly known as ISIS, has set up a branch in Somalia, which has been mired in civil war since 1991.
Those twin attacks in Uganda – some of the most deadly terrorist attacks carried out in Africa in recent years – targeted the Christian-majority city of Kampala and minority Muslim neighborhoods.
The attack in Uganda’s capital killed at least seven people and injured more than 130 others, most of them passers-by who were just arriving home for lunch at the time of the blasts.
Officials said there was no evidence that the attackers belonged to a Somali terrorist organization, al-Shabab, which is not listed by the United States as a terror group. Uganda has a large Muslim minority.
Hapilon, whose real name is Said Atef, is known to have fought alongside al-Shabab against the Ugandan government, which is widely suspected of supporting the group.
The video released Tuesday by the rebels in Uganda and in Somalia vowed that the Islamic State, which now controls large swaths of Syrian and Iraq, would expand its influence in Africa.
It featured the 10-minute excerpt of Hapilon’s video, in which he directly claims responsibility for the Uganda bombings, said Ray Walser, a retired ambassador in Kampala. Walser and other analysts believe the Islamic State sent Hapilon to Somalia in 2014 to lead an insurgency there.
It was unclear how the Islamic State, which considers itself to be a caliphate, could expand its activities in Uganda, an independent nation, with a weak army, strained economy and vulnerable population. But SITE Intelligence analyst Rita Katz said the Islamic State was committed to showing the extent of its reach in Africa.
“The emphasis on Africa to show the strength of their ideology shows the strength of their commitment to establish a presence in Africa,” Katz said.
Kampala was targeted because of a disagreement over a planned diplomatic visit by President Yoweri Museveni to Saudi Arabia, which was canceled last year by the Ugandan government. Last May, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the country’s embassy in Jeddah, which is home to large Muslim communities.
Several Somalis living in Uganda and around the country have been arrested in connection with the Uganda bombings, which were widely condemned by government officials and the country’s religious leaders.
Officials are hunting for two suspects at large, and has offered a reward of up to $50,000 for information leading to their capture.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni vowed to destroy “the evil that masquerades itself as terrorism” and said the government would help Somalia stem the tide of extremism.
“The terrorist carnage that will be unleashed in Africa will end. That is our position. Terror and terrorist acts will be stamped out. Uganda will play her part,” Museveni said.