ISA ALI SENKUMBI, 19, was recruited into al Shabaab group and trained as a suicide bomber. Born to Abdullah Muyingo and Khadija Nakayiza of Mengo, Uganda, Senkumbi studied at Nakivubo Blue Primary School till Primary 6. He told Petride Mudoola of New Vision his story.
What led you into terrorism?
It was my childhood friend, Hassan Hussein. We regularly converged at Makindye mosque for prayers. One afternoon, in 2007, he requested me to accompany him to Nairobi for Islamic training but asked me not to inform my parents about it. We left Kampala aboard a Kampala coach bus, on a Wednesday at about 3pm.
Little did I know Hassan was recruiting me into al Shabaab. We reached Nairobi at about midnight and spent two hours in Eastleigh, a Somali-dominated suburb, before heading to Mombasa. There, we stayed at Sakina Mosque for a month attending Jihad Hafsi (spiritual training). Later we headed to Somalia.
When did you realise you had joined al Shabaab?
When I reached Somalia and we were put in a camp. Our leader, Sheikh Abdullah Zaki, warned all fighters about the costs of deserting the group.
What was your experience in the camp?
Sheikh Zaki, the man responsible for the southwestern strategic town of Baidoa, was so receptive; he even offered me a room to sleep during my one week stay.
He told me to call him uncle since I was 13 years old then and the youngest fighter. I gained his favour and I was always by his side as my colleagues were deployed for missions.
What training did you get?
I was recruited as a suicide bomber and later moved to another region for a month's training on how to handle firearms. Thereafter, I was assigned to a nine-month preparation course to acquire skills in manufacturing bombs and various weapons.
One time, we escaped from the camp with colleagues to hang out. While heading to Gawitha, we met foreign troops. They asked us to identify ourselves and we refused. A scuffle ensued and we started exchanging fire.
They fled and escaped, but unfortunately, many innocent people died in the crossfire. Yet al Shabaab regulations restrict fighters from killing children, women and the elderly. We panicked! We carried the casualties to the nearest medical centre for treatment.
But, unfortunately, some of the children who survived the attack had recognised us and they reported to Sheikh Zaki that we had killed their parents.
The Sheikh asked the children to lead him to the scene of our fight and he found the five bodies. He ordered us to surrender the guns and put us into detention.
But you never carried out any suicide mission?
I started with setting bombs. In 2007, I was assigned to attack Ethiopia with seven explosives. I accomplished it successfully and several people lost their lives, while others were injured.
It was my first job and I was very scared, but I later got used. My second mission was in 2008. I was given eight bombs to carry out a task in Sudan. I narrowly missed being killed by the army but I managed to escape back to our base in Somalia.
How were you arrested?
It was around 2009. Eight of us were captured by our rivals, the Hezbollah in Ethiopia, while on assignment. We were detained in Doro Prison for a year. We had to kill a prison guard to escape. There was a big stone up at the control tower.
A colleague ordered me to scale the wall as the guards were not paying attention. I reached the control tower but the stone was too heavy.
Eventually, it gave way and tumbled down on the guard below, killing him instantly. In that chaos, we disarmed the other guards and escaped from the prison.
We fled into Kenya but were arrested by the Kenyan army and detained. During interrogation, they realised I was a Ugandan and handed me over to the Anti-Terrorism Task Force in Kampala. Brigadier James Mugira received me and bundled me with the group of the July 11 twin bombings in Kampala.
I was then taken to Jinja Road Police Station and later Kampala High Court from where I was remanded at Luzira Prison. In 2010, I was released by the High Court but was re-arrested by unknown men and taken back to Luzira. In 2011, I was again released together with other 17 suspects of July 11, after the DPP dropped charges against us.
Why did you denounce terrorism?
There was too much pressure from security organisations all over Africa. But worse still, my mother disowned me and my father succumbed to depression after learning that I was with the al Shabaab. There was no life in being a security threat both to my country and relatives. I have been detained in 20 prisons in Africa.
After my release, I had nowhere to go. My parents and relatives could not take me back. I sought refuge at Mission After Custody, an NGO that resettles ex-convicts.
The executive director, Morris Kizito, received me well and enrolled me in a driving school. Currently, they provide me with shelter and basic needs. Considering my level of education, I can only be a driver.
Any achievements from al Shabaab?
Besides manufacturing bombs and various weapons, I did not benefit. I dropped out of school and now I am in a mess. For security reasons I cannot explain how crude explosives are made.