How to handle the new wave of terrorism without helping terrorist achieve their political objectives
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | On Tuesday, terrorists struck again exploding bombs that killed three innocent bystanders (may their souls RIP) and three people carrying the bombs. The initial suspicion was that these were suicide bombers. But a close study of the videos suggests the contrary. Those carrying bombs did not seek to maximise their impact by killing as many people (or as many police officers) as possible – as is custom among such terrorists. They made no effort to move closer to their points. Instead, both exploded their bombs in the middle of the road and while they were in motion – one walking, the other riding a motorbike. This suggests that those carrying the bombs may not have been the ones who detonated them.
But first we need to understand the logic and drivers of terrorism as a strategy to pursue political aims. Terrorism is a weapon of the weak who recognise that they cannot confront the power of the state directly. What makes it distinctive is that terrorism does not seek its goals through its own actions but through the response of the government to its acts. Thus, where military or revolutionary violence is used to achieve a physical result, terrorism seeks to achieve a psychological one. By using terror to spread fear, it can force the government to take extremely repressive measures to combat terrorists that alienate it from the population.
Therefore, the terrorist’s strategy is to give the government in power a rope with which to hang itself. The response to terrorism has thus to go beyond technology (investing in CCTV cameras to apprehend the terrorists) and the criminal justice system (prosecuting offenders) to the political and philosophical basis of terror. Terrorism as a strategy will win or lose depending on how a sitting government responds to its provocations. Terrorism wins only when a government responds in the way the terrorist wants it to. Should a government choose not to respond or respond in a way the terrorist does not desire or expect, then terrorism faces a crisis. So, the choice is always with the government, and that is the weakness of terrorism as a strategy for political struggle. A government can avoid doing what terrorists want it to do, and if it does that, terrorism fails.
This brings us to the specific case of ADF’s terrorism. The government of President Yoweri Museveni has a lot of experience in fighting counter insurgencies and terrorism. This will most likely give them a decisive advantage in the struggle to contain this new wave. Museveni personally and his security apparatus generally see terrorism as mainly a political problem than a mere criminal one. And that is a very good beginning point. While in the short-term they will seek to hunt individual criminals by infiltrating their underground cells, their long-term strategy is most likely going to focus on the political factors that can bring support to these terrorists. We are therefore likely to see many of their leaders being coopted through bribery, blackmail, persuasion and other tactics.
Most critically, the ADF terrorism begins with a serious disadvantage in its search for popular support among the Ugandan populace. Ideologically, it presents itself as a radical Islamic movement pursuing a religious agenda. But it is doing this in a country where Muslims form only 12-14% of the population. This religious foundation would have given it some reasonable basis for political agitation. However, it is difficult to argue that Muslims in Uganda are so badly discriminated against that they need a radical movement using terror to promote their cause. Even among the Muslim community, and except for a tiny fringe faction, the claim that government of Uganda is anti-Islam will be hard to sell.
Organisationally, ADF has associated itself with ISIL, the global jihad group seeking to recreate an Islamic Caliphate. This group has a very bad reputation among very many Ugandans including the vast majority of Muslims. It is therefore unlikely to attract significant sympathy necessary for it to transform from the terrorist movement into a serious military and political threat. Except for a small fringe, the vast masses of Uganda’s poor and unemployed youths in ghettos will find it hard to accept ADF’s methods. This is also the reason I suspect the terrorists used unsuspecting people to carry their bombs and then detonated them from a distance.
ADF used to have military bases and conduct military operations in Uganda in the mid to late 1990s up to about 2000. Since then, it suffered considerable atrophy and retreated to Eastern DRC. It found a home because of the absence of any meaningful state in that region. This may explain why it decided to associate with ISIL; instead of being an isolated nuisance, association with an organisation with a global reach can give it both access to money and international bragging rights. But this has been achieved at the cost of its domestic regional and national agenda. At the very best, ADF can only maximize its nuisance value but it cannot threaten the power of the state.
To make matters worse, ADF terrorist activities combined with its association with ISIL are going to make Western powers ally with Museveni to quash it. Once Uganda becomes the center of the fight against radical Islamic extremism, Museveni will sleep soundly knowing that Western countries will become careful in how they criticise his human rights and other anti-democratic practices. Without him doing much diplomatic footwork, ADF is helping Museveni, in the eyes of the Western world, reinvent himself as the guarantor of security in this region. For a president who was being pushed to the wall over political reform, ADF’s terror will give him a renewed diplomatic lifeline.
The opposition will now need to reposition themselves. They should avoid making statements that make them seem like being tolerant of the terror. They will need to act with skill and circumspection. This means they condemn the terror in clear and categorical terms and only question strategies employed to contain it. I also hope that government of Uganda and the wider public avoid panicking and acting out of proportion to the real threat. This is a movement on its deathbed. The only glimmer of hope is government running amok and beginning to hunt young innocent Muslims, jailing and torturing them. Then ADF will have achieved its aim of causing the state to do its campaign of recruiting young Muslims into its ranks.