Uganda: How Security Lapses Let Terror Cells Thrive in Uganda

(file photo)
analysis

Uganda police failed to stop three terror attacks in 24 days - including the twin blasts that killed four people in Kampala on November 16 - but sprang into action, killing seven and arresting 106 suspects linked to the explosions.

Police spokesperson Fred Enanga says the counterterrorism agencies have foiled about 150 terror attacks on Uganda, but warn that the terrorists were not easy to uproot because of their ideological leaning in religion, and active recruitment of Ugandans, including children and women, into its ranks.

In a November 20 televised address, President Yoweri Museveni confirmed the same and defended the killing of the suspects, including Muslim cleric Sheikh Muhamad Kirevu, who he said was part of a terrorist network that carried out a series of attacks in Uganda since the June 1 assassination attempt on Works and Transport minister Gen Katumba Wamala.

"I have heard people say Kirevu was a good man... I am a reader of intelligence briefs. Let the public wait for the courts," Mr Museveni said, justifying the killing of the cleric and other suspects.

Mr Enanga told The EastAfrican that police had wiped out all terror cells in Nabweru, Lweza and Mpererwe, all located in Kampala Metropolitan Area, as well as those upcountry in Luwero, Bundibugyo, Ntoroko and Kanungu.

But unease remains over the killing of suspects and the swift way the security organs have responded and eliminated the alleged sleeper cells that were allowed to assemble bombs and execute attacks, with ease.

Moreover, the United States' non-involvement in counterterrorism efforts to stop attacks masterminded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) raises questions, Charles Rwomushana, a former Internal Security Organisation operative says.

Mr Rwomushana argues that the choice of scene for the November 16 blasts - on less busy roads and not close to the embassies of global powers like the US, the UK or France - is not consistent with that of a suicide bomber, terrorist group or IS whose major characteristic is looking to make a statement.

Last month, the UK and France, issued a terror alert about Uganda, whose threat level the Uganda police downplayed, until the attack happened on October 24, killing one person, and injuring several others at an eatery, north-east of Kampala.

A second explosion came 48 hours later, on a bus that had just left the capital; three weeks later, police admitted that the problem was bigger than previously thought, after terrorists carried out deadly twin explosions outside Central Police Station and Parliament Avenue.

Assessment

The US is Uganda's longtime counterterrorism partner, but throughout these attacks, it has not raised the terror antennas to warn Uganda government but only issued security alerts after the explosions, for the benefit of its citizens in Kampala or anyone else intent on travelling there.

In its last terrorist assessment threat for Uganda, the US State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism noted that there had been no attack since 2019 but raised the antenna on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) activities in eastern Congo, from where the group could extend attacks to Uganda.

"In April, ISIS claimed responsibility for attacks in eastern DR Congo conducted by the ADF, a historically anti-Kampala armed group based in that area. This was the first claim by ISIS of an attack in the region and highlighted the persistent threat of terrorism in Uganda," the Bureau noted in 2019.

Nonetheless, the Bureau did not issue any other terror threat assessment, leaving the UK and France to take up this role.

After the 2010 twin bombs that al-Shabaab claimed, which killed 79 people in Kampala during the screening of the World Cup final, the US Federal Bureau of Instigations and Uganda security agencies started to collaborate on terror alerts, information sharing, training, and investigations.

The US Embassy in Kampala said: "We need approval from DC before responding but in the meantime let me direct you to US Embassy Kampala Security Alerts issued October 26, and November 16, 2021, as well as the US."

But other commentators argue that the US's diminished role stems from the significant pressure that the Trump, and subsequent Biden administration have been under to cut Museveni loose from Washington DC's usual carte blanche military aid, which the regime then uses to terrorise unarmed citizens.

Referring to the 54 people Uganda's security killed in November 2020 at the height of the presidential election campaigns, which sparked off arguments to rethink US military assistance to Uganda, some Americans say Washington has already acted.

The group behind the attacks is the ADF, Ugandan rebel force of Salafi-jihadist elements; it emerged in the 1990s, supported by radical elements in Sudan to carry out terrorist attacks inside Uganda, but has maintained bases in eastern Congo.

In March 2021, the US Department of State designated the ADF Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - Democratic Republic of Congo but ISIS itself only came to reference ADF as its Central Africa Province unit in April, according to the Centre for Strategic International Studies.

Over the years, the ADF has maintained sleeper cells in Uganda that it uses to strike at targets inside the country, with improvised explosive devices and guns - the latter used to target high profile individuals, the latest being Gen Katumba Wamala.

Security minister Jim Muhwezi says that ADF has succeeded in "radicalising our young people by either persuasion or coercion" to carry out attacks.

According to Mr Enanga, the ADF is motivated to continue the attacks to establish a caliphate of the IS in Uganda, revenge for their colleagues killed in the Gen Katumba operation, but also, that they are sponsored by an unnamed foreign country to cause economic sabotage.

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