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Experts in Uganda call for vigilance against terrorism

By Haggai Matsiko

After the July 11, 2010 synchronised bomb attacks that ripped through two Kampala spots – Lugogo Rugby Club and Ethiopian Village – killing over 80 people in crowds watching the televised football World Cup final,  security checkpoints, sniffer dogs, car and body scans became part of daily life in Kampala and other major towns of Uganda.

Entrance to any crowded place; shopping malls, places of worship, recreation grounds and nightclubs, was strictly monitored. But it did not last long.

Today, at the entrances to the usually crowded taxi parks in Kampala, where managers had devised heavy security checks for people and luggage, there is no vigilance at all. Ismail Lugema, a taxi conductor recalls the days of intense security with nostalgia. He knows terrorists can strike at any moment.

“Nobody cares now,” he laments, “in fact it is hard to imagine that there was ever such a threat.”

The July attacks in Uganda were carried out by the Somali Islamist militant group, al Shabaab. After being kicked out of Mogadishu by the Uganda-led   Africa Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) in August, the al Shabaab vowed to attack Kampala. But not even that threat or the attack in the same month by the Boko Haram Islamist group on the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria could jerk Ugandans out of complacency.

“That is usual,” said a top UN Security and Safety Department official in Kampala who requested anonymity, “People tend to be lax as they forget about disasters.

“By nature no one really likes checkpoints. But again there is a sense of security now; there are metal detectors at many public buildings and public places like supermarkets.”

The August 26 attacks in Nigeria reawakened debate on the threat of terrorism just as Americans  and the world was witnessing events marking the 10th anniversary of the the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York city and the seat of the US Defense department, the Pentagon, in Arlington Virginia. This year marks 10 years since the attacks that killed over 3,000 people and changed the world.

After the attack, America embarked on a series of military missions under the so-called “war on terror”. It invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.  On May 2 this year, the attack on suspected safe havens of ideological-cum-religious fundamentalists culminated in the killing of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on America.

In America, the 10th anniversary has been marked by soul-searching. A poll by the Pew Charitable Trust shows that while in September 2001, only 33 percent of those asked thought wrongs by the United States might have motivated the attacks, up to 43 percent now hold that belief. Many of the September 11 books now being published criticise American policy before and after Sept. 11.

Just like America, critics say Uganda’s presence in Somalia is largely to blame for the terror threats the nation faces. Although AMISOM has celebrated pushing al Shabaab out of Mogadishu, a security expert with one of Uganda’s security firms says that the success is only partial and Uganda and the AMISOM now needs to be on alert as terrorists by their nature believe in revenging.

The Director of Uganda’s Counter Terrorism Directorate, Abbas Byakagaba, told The Independent that Uganda has improved its capacity, equipment, and personnel to fight terrorism. He said what is lacking is public vigilance.

“We are doing our best as far as sensitisation is concerned and I can say that we are in a better position to fight terrorism as never before,” Byakagaba said.

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