Combating Terrorism: A Ugandan Perspective

By: Major David Munyua

Background: Terrorism in Uganda

"Uganda is truly the pearl of Africa," said Sir Winston Churchill. Many people would agree with that description, saying this small country in Eastern Africa that lies on the equator has been blessed with the best nature can offer humanity.

However, that endowment has not prevented Uganda from suffering terrorist threats and acts. Local terrorists orchestrated the attacks, while most of the threats came from international terrorist groups. Because of these actions and threats, the Ugandan Parliament enacted the Anti-Terrorism Act in 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. The Act defined terrorism as "Any act of violence or threat of violence carried out for purposes of influencing government or intimidating the public and for a political, religious, social and economic aim, indiscriminately without due regard for the safety of others or property."

It should be noted that most local terrorists in Uganda originated as insurgents who failed to win the support of the population. Over time, these groups began resorting to coercing and forcing local people to join them through acts of abduction, intimidation, and violence.

When the National Resistance Army/Movement (NRM) came into power in Uganda in 1986, many insurgent groups emerged to fight it, including the Holy Spirit Movement, Uganda People's Democratic Army, Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), Force Obote Back, West Nile Bank Front (I and II), Allied Democratic Front (ADF), and People's Redemption Army, among many others. Out of all those, the LRA and ADF crossed the line into terrorism. Most of the other groups were either defeated or entered into a settlement with the NRM government. Many of the still-active leaders of those insurgent groups currently serve either within the ranks of the NRM or as members of the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF), the nation's armed forces.

Acts by the LRA and ADF introduced Ugandans to terrorism. The LRA says it is fighting because it wants to rule Uganda according to the Ten Commandments in the Bible, and the group has been trained and facilitated by external forces, including some sovereign countries. LRA members have committed despicable atrocities against the people of northern Uganda, including abducting young boys to force them to join their ranks; taking young girls for sex; cutting off the limbs, ears, and lips of local people; and killing innocent civilians indiscriminately.If those actions were not excruciating enough, the LRA has admitted to cooking body parts of the dead and then feeding those parts to close relatives of the victim. As a result, many Ugandans were forced to abandon their villages and live in internally displaced people's (IDP) camps where the UPDF could effectively protect them.These acts of terrorism by the LRA were not committed only against Ugandans, but also against innocent people in Southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic. The LRA thus was transformed from a local terrorist organization into a regional/international one.

The ADF, just like the LRA, received training and facilitation from some external forces. One of their main objectives was to rule Uganda using Sharia law. They operated from the eastern areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), committing atrocities against the people of western Uganda and eastern DRC—raiding and burning down schools and villages, and killing innocent people indiscriminately. ADF not only terrorized the rural population, but they also used clandestine operatives to plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in commuter taxis, buses, bars, and busy streets in Kampala City. They also abducted and ruthlessly killed some civilians who refused to cooperate with them.

The American embassy in Uganda was on Al Qaeda's list of possible targets when the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, were simultaneously bombed on August 7, 1998. Al Qaeda continues to threaten Uganda, which has more recently begun to receive threats from Al Shabaab also. Al Shabaab is an Islamist terrorist organization directly linked to Al Qaeda that operates in war-torn Somalia and wants Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers out of Somalia. Members of Al Shabaab made several suicide and direct attacks on UPDF bases in Mogadishu, a port city in Somalia, as well as performing roadside ambushes and also trying on several occasions to infiltrate into Uganda and attack from within. Indeed, on July 11, 2010, Al Shabaab used suicide bombers in two separate attacks in Kampala City to kill 76 football fans watching the World Cup finals. Since then, they have continued to issue threats of attacks within Uganda and Burundi.

Uganda's Response to Terrorism

Faced with these real challenges, Uganda had to act very quickly to curb the deteriorating security situation. The government approached the problem from two angles: preventive actions and deliberate, disruptive interventions. Before bomb attacks in Kampala City and Jinja Municipality in 1999, the security forces—including the police, military, intelligence services, and private security firms—all worked independently. To ensure efficient use of scarce resources and to produce effective results, the Joint Anti-Terrorism (JAT) Task Force, an interagency unit, was created. JAT includes representatives from all security agencies, and its leader reports to a security committee which comprises all security agencies and is chaired by the police chief–inspector general of police.

More significantly, JAT could not have succeeded without the involvement of the population. Uganda introduced what it calls "community policing," literally meaning that local people will supplement the effort of the police by identifying and reporting suspicious elements within the community. People are watching each other's backs, taking interest in anything that is unusual in their neighborhood, and informing the police for immediate action. This effort also involved empowering and educating the population about terrorism through regular village meetings with the police.

The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2002 also solved a legal problem the police and the directorate of public prosecution had been facing, by saying that terrorists will no longer be treated like other criminals who are charged under the penal code. Instead, terrorists are to be charged under a separate criminal law.

As urban terrorism was being addressed through these measures, the Ugandan military also intensified efforts to eliminate terrorist activities in rural areas. To succeed, the military needed to attack these terrorists in their hideouts and points of origin and to ensure that their supply lines were blocked. As fighting occurred, diplomatic efforts were also made to ensure that the UPDF could cross the borders into both the DRC and Southern Sudan to deal with the terrorist groups. These efforts proved mostly successful.

Given the fact that some of the combatants had been abducted and indoctrinated by the terrorist groups, Parliament introduced the idea of amnesty for such fighters. Therefore, the amnesty law of 2000 allowed the government to peacefully welcome home those who denounced their evil acts against innocent civilians. In addition, resettlement packages were given to those who were captured, surrendered, or came out of the bush through peace talks and officially applied for amnesty.

Threats from Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab still cause discomfort for the leadership of the country. Although the LRA is operating more than 600 kilometers from the border of Uganda, the group should not be forgotten or ignored as long as the forces that kept them operational for many years still exist. Terrorists change their tactics with advances in technology; therefore, security agencies must stay on their toes to recognize and defend against any new high-tech tools terrorists may be planning to use.

At the regional level, the East African Community Inter-forces cooperation and partnership made tracking of terrorists groups a little easier. The forces share information and intelligence that can be used to prevent terrorist activities in the region. This effort is also supported by the governments of each country. For instance, the suspects in the July 2010 Kampala terrorist attacks were extradited from Kenya and Tanzania to Uganda. The Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, which are not members of the EAC, also cooperated with Uganda to allow UPDF to cross their borders and jointly fight the LRA in their countries. The Republic of South Sudan has been in partnership with Uganda since 1987, long before that country officially gained independence on July 9, 2011. This partnership contributed greatly toward winning the fight against the LRA in northern Uganda and southern Sudan. The passage of the LRA Disarmament Bill by the U.S. Congress in May 2010 also provided another strong CT partner for fighting—and hopefully eliminating—the LRA problem in the region.

Whereas regional CT efforts are already in place, challenges still exist that require even stronger cooperation and partnership. Not all the countries in the Great Lakes region of Africa have laws to address terrorism. That lack directly affects regional efforts to battle terrorism, especially when a terrorist act is committed in a country that lacks the relevant laws. These efforts are also hampered by continued support given to terrorists by some countries within and outside of Africa, differing levels of CT training and awareness within the Great Lakes countries, and the varied threats to the individual countries, which in part determines their strategic priorities.

I wish we could all appreciate that "a pain in any part of the body affects the whole body." If all countries in the region would respond with one voice and take action against terrorism, everyone's efforts would enjoy greater success.

The threat of terrorism is real and it affects every country. Partnering to counter terrorists is the most effective way to apply our resources.

About the Author(s): Major David Munyua is a Battalion Commanding Officer in the UPDF Marines.

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