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Al-Shabaab comes to Kampala: Are we ready for it?

By Edward Tujunirwe

Last month, The New Vision carried a headline that went along the lines of ‘You Could Die During the World Cup’. This was a word of caution to football enthusiasts not to get overexcited and indulge themselves in unsafe sexual and other risky activities during the tournament. This call from the New Vision was a clear, genuine call considering the high HIV/AIDS infection, crime and road traffic accident rates in South Africa where the World Cup was showing. No one could imagine that this strong message would also apply to hundreds of innocent people that would converge in Kampala to watch that finals.

It is now reported that more than 76 people have died and hundreds are seriously injured after at three bombs went off at Kyadondo Rugby Club and the Ethiopian Village Restaurant in Kabalagala Kampala. It is also emerging that this was a terrorist attack by the Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. Apart from targeting the football fans, the bombs targeted Ethiopians and other expatriates.

The Al-Shabaab have claimed responsibility for the bombings in Kampala. A few hours after the attacks, one of their influential military commanders, Sheik Yusuf Sheik Issa told the Associated Press news agency that ‘Uganda is one of our enemies. Whatever makes them cry, makes us happy.’

If the link between these terror attacks and the Al-Shabaab is established, this will be one of the very first occasions in which the militant group has extended their operations far beyond Somalia. It will also confirm their leaders’ long established threat to extend their operations to Kampala and other capital cities of countries that have peacekeeping troops in Somalia. Their threat follows the tightening of security and peacekeeping operations by the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) which is leading an African Union Peacekeeping Mission (AMISOM) in the war-torn Somalia. These attacks are also more likely to threaten other countries that had promised to contribute troops to AMISOM and force them to either delay or indefinitely postpone their plans.

The Somali terrorists have been linked to a number of high profile attacks in East Africa, including the 1998 United States Embassy bombings in Dar-es-salaam and Nairobi in which more than 200 people died and the 2002 attacks in Mombasa, Kenya in which 15 people were killed. .

They are also linked to al-Qaeda, the world’s top terror organisations.

So, with nearly all the indicators showing that the attacks were the dirty work of the Al-Shabaab and that these attacks have implications on the security architecture of not only the East African region, but also Africa, three questions must be now answered: Who are the Al-Shabaab? Could these attacks have been foreseen and therefore prevented? What lessons do they teach us so as to avoid similar future and other violent tragedies?

The Al-Shabaab was formerly the military wing of the deposed Union of Islamic Courts that controlled much of central and southern Somalia until 2006 when they were driven out by the Ethiopian Armed forces. They were forced out of Somalia by Ethiopian troops in support of the largely powerless UN-backed interim government. The group refused to engage in the peace process that brought elements of the Islamic Courts into the government earlier this year. Sharif Ahmed, a former leader of the Islamic Courts was sworn in as President of Somalia’s government. But his former allies vowed to topple him accusing him of betraying the country.

Al-Shabaab is currently headed by Mohammed Abdi Godane. The Al-Shabaab has been waging a brutal war against Somalia’s fragile Transitional Government forces since 2006.

Some of the Al-Shabaab fighters were reportedly trained in Afghanistan by the Taliban. The US Federal Bureau of Investigations has expressed concern that the group may be expanding its network and recruiting western nationals to fight in Somalia and Ahmed has spoken repeatedly of an influx of foreign fighters fuelling the war.

No one knows for sure where the Al-Shabaab gets its financial and logistical support, but Eritrea and some Arab nations have been accused of funding it although Asmara has repeatedly denied the claims. The Al-Shabaab are estimated to be in thousands.

In light of the foregoing, how prepared is the security to stop this Al-Shabaab from their terror campaign? This attack has far reaching implications for the East African region’s security. The East African countries need to work out a regional security arrangement for joint operations, including sharing of relevant information

The preparedness and other responses to these threats need to be undertaken using new and improved methods, including utilising highly skilled and professional security forces supported by appropriate hi-tech equipment and infrastructure that effectively supports tracking, investigating and monitoring both suspects and highly potential criminals in the country. The highly laisser-faire approach to security must stop. Whether these attacks were foreseen is no longer an issue of much value.

This is because since the UPDF deployed in Somalia, its hard-line militants have publicly sworn to create chaos in Uganda. Therefore, our security agencies were well aware of what was likely to happen only that they did not know exactly how, when, where.

The government needs to take up this opportunity to mobilise people not only to ensure their personal security but also to raise their awareness and preparedness in anti-terrorist activities.

We need to be active participants in keeping our country safe both for ourselves and future generations. We must achieve this.

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