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11/7: The July 2010 Kampala Bombings

Commentary, 20 July 2010
Terrorism, Africa
In the aftermath of the Kampala bombings, contentious questions are being raised regarding the influence of extremist groups in the region. With Uganda calling for a consolidated military presence in the country, is Somalia becoming the new Afghanistan?

In the aftermath of the Kampala bombings, contentious questions are being raised regarding the influence of extremist groups in the region. With Uganda calling for a consolidated military presence in the country, is Somalia becoming the new Afghanistan?

By Dr Knox Chitiyo, Head of the Africa Programme

After the War on Terror

The 11 July twin bombings in Kampala, which killed more than eighty people and wounded dozens more, were a deadly reminder that East Africa is not exempt from transnational jihadism. The Kampala attacks will also have triggered unhappy memories of the August 1998 terrorist bombings outside the US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam.

The Kampala bombings indicate that East Africa is once again, as in 1998, an operational zone for transnational jihadists. The parallels with the US Embassy attacks go beyond mere symbolism; one of the key suspects in the Kampala bombing is Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who was also the chief suspect in the 1998 bombings. But the significance of the Kampala bombings goes well beyond the search for one jihadist; there are major political and security implications for Uganda, the region and, potentially, the architecture of global security.

Al Shabab Claims Responsibility

The two Kampala blasts occurred within minutes of each other; one at Lugo Rugby Club, the second at the Ethiopian Village Restaurant. The bulk of casualties were at the Rugby Club, which was packed with fans watching the last quarter of the World Cup football final. The dead included Ugandans, East Africans, Somalis, Ethiopians and foreign nationals from across the globe. Soon after the twin blasts, an explosives-laden vest was discovered in a trash can outside a night club in the Makindye District in Kampala.

Within hours, representatives of al Shabab, the Islamist insurgent group which is waging war against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Somalia, had claimed responsibility. Two days after the bombings, al Shabab spokesman Sheik Abu Zubayr sent an audio message to various media outlets in which he thanked the bombers and insisted that the attacks will continue as long as the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) remains operative in Somalia. Al Shabab also promised to target Burundi which, together with Uganda, comprises the bulwark of AMISOM forces in Somalia.     

National and international suspects

In the immediate aftermath of the blasts, it was unclear whether they were the actions of foreign terrorists, homegrown jihadiists or disaffected armed groups which oppose the Museveni government. The claim by al Shabab that it was responsible does seem persuasive, but it is not conclusive: al Shabab, like other jihadist groups worldwide, often claims responsibility for attacks in which it has little or no involvement.

Uganda has its own 'homegrown' Islamist group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). The ADF, which is a coalition of radical Muslim groups, was prominent during the late 1990's when operatives carried out grenade attacks across Ugandan towns between 1997 and 2002. The ADF was overshadowed in the media by the better organized and far more lethal Lord's Resistance Army group which terrorized northern Uganda for the best part of two decades. In theory, the ADF was deactivated nearly a decade ago, but there have been persistent rumours that ADF remnants have now made common cause with al Shabab and become part of the global transnational jihadist network.

Following the Kampala attacks, more than twenty arrests were made in Uganda, with suspects including Ugandans, Pakistanis, Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans. There is now a growing suspicion that the Kampala bombings involved local Ugandan jihadists or other disaffected groups which may have been "sub-contracted" by al Shabab.

Uganda's military

The bombings have raised serious questions on two highly sensitive topics; Uganda's intervention in Somalia as part of AMISOM, and the professionalism of Uganda's Police and Intelligence services.

There is little doubt that Uganda's military intervention in Somalia has been contentious at home. There has been strong civil society opposition to deploying Ugandan forces in what many see as a costly and unwinnable war in Somalia. Museveni has also been criticized for promoting what many see as military adventurism; Ugandan forces have intervened in 'neighbourhood' conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and the Central African Republic.

After the Kampala bombings, Solomon Ngunda, spokesman for the Inter- Party opposition group stated that "it was a mistake to send our troops to Somalia and it is a mistake for us to get involved in ideological wars in which the US is fighting Islamic militants."

Support for deployment

Unsurprisingly, Uganda's military and government are strongly in favour of the Somalia operation, and cite the bombing as proof that Uganda and AMISOM, far from 'cutting and running', should  consolidate their presence in Somalia. Army spokesperson Felix Kulagiye stated that "the bombing is a confirmation of the need to control and pacify Somalia." (Uganda has 2700 forces in AMISOM, while Burundi has deployed 2500 personnel).

Interestingly, there is also strong civilian support at home for Uganda's deployment. The atrocities committed by the Lord's Resistance Army (which has itself become a regional threat), remain indelibly etched in the memories of Ugandans. Al Shabab also uses brutal methods including beheadings and maimings, and most Ugandans fear that a full al Shabab takeover in Somalia would spread Islamist extremism and social conflict throughout the Horn and East of Africa. They thus prefer that Somalia, rather than Uganda, remains the battleground for the Ugandan army operations against al Shabab.

There are other, more prosaic reasons for public support for the Somalia intervention; the deployment helps to promote Ugandan patriotism, while also alleviating public anxiety about having large national standing forces. However, the bombings have also caused the spectre of xenophobia to raise its ugly head: following the blasts, police have increased security for foreigners as a number of Somalis and Pakistanis in Uganda have been targeted by gangs who accuse them of being pro-al Shabab.

Creating debate

The bombings also gave scope for a relatively rare public debate and partial disclosure regarding Uganda's homeland security and Intelligence services. A few days after the bombing, there was a heated debate in Uganda's parliament. The Ministers of Internal Affairs, Security and Defence acknowledged that errors had been made but stated that investigations were proceeding. They also cited new counter-terrorism measures, including body searches and other bomb detection measures at airports and around strategic buildings.

The opposition, however, criticized the military for what they perceived as unnecessary turf wars between Uganda's Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force, the Special Forces and the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), all of whom are allegedly under-funded leading to departmental resource clashes. Opposition leader Professor Maurice Latigo called on police Chief General Kale Kayihura and Security Minister Amama Mbabazi to resign. This is unlikely to happen, but the Parliamentary discussion was in many ways a breakthrough civil-military debate on Uganda's national security and regional policy.

The Wider Context

The Kampala blasts have "frontloaded" the Somalia conflict onto the regional and continental agenda. AMISOM, which is in partnership with the Somali TFG forces, have a mandate to guard strategic buildings in Mogadishu and have established solid defensive perimeters across the city. Due to the weakness and unreliability of TFG forces, AMISOM units have become the 'bodyguards "' of the TFG.

The Kampala bombings will now infuse the perennial question regarding AMISOM's Rules of Engagement (ROE) with a new sense of urgency. Both Uganda and Burundi have requested a widening of operational strictures from a Chapter 6 defensive engagement, to a more aggressive deployment. The UN and US both assist AMISOM with equipment, but there has been a reluctance from the region and other African states to commit troops.

Following the attacks, a spokesperson for the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) indicated that the organisation would now press member states, including Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda to commit 20,000 personnel to the AMISOM mission. Regional military chiefs will also be discussing the modalities of possible troop deployment and terrorism in the region.

What is now clear is that with the US and UN unwilling - or unable - to commit ground forces to Somalia, dealing with that country's problems is very much a regional and continental responsibility. The national forces in the region have proven military capabilities, but the problem, as with NATO in Afghanistan, lies in fashioning a joined up, comprehensive and coordinated Counter-Insurgency (COIN) and Counter-Terrorism strategy; particularly given the limited resources available.   

Co-operating with the US

The Kampala bombings have also raised the contentious issue of African military co- operation with the US. There is often an ambiguity about Africa-US military partnerships; many Africans feel that their continent is paying for US Middle East policy failures. For many, jihadism in Africa and elsewhere is a direct result of America's unqualified support for Israel and for the 'War on Terror'. For critics of the US, the War on Terror is a western construct which has made Africa a 'forward platform' and proxy in US National Security policy.

However, there is increasing evidence which shows that jihadist terrorism in Africa is real, and not simply the fault, or invention of, the US and Israel. It is clear, in fact, that Africa faces a triangulated threat from nationalist or local Islamic extremists, regional operatives and transnational terrorists; these ideological groups exploit genuine social grievances and also ally with African and global criminal networks. The US military presence in Africa, and partnership with African states, may exacerbate the threat, but claims that a US military withdrawal from Africa would end jihadist insurgency on the continent, are wishful thinking. Anti-Westernism is an easy default position, but it does not solve Africa's security problems.

It is clear that the Horn of Africa, East Africa and the Sahel-Sahara region have become prey to local and transnational jihadist groups which are networked across Africa, the Middle East and across to the 'Af- Pak' region. As the UN increasingly reduces its military footprint across Africa, it is likely that that the bi-lateral military partnerships between Africa and a range of countries, including China and the US, will in fact become stronger as they make common cause against jihadist insurgency. In public, the region will continue to downplay the extent of its military partnership with the US in Somalia, but in private, that partnership will widen and deepen.

A New Afghanistan?

Uganda's '11/7' Kampala bombing is a tragic and traumatic reminder that East Africa is not exempt from ideological extremism. Beyond the here and now of fashioning an appropriate response to the bombing, lies a deeper question of what to do about Somalia, and of whether Somalia has become the region's Afghanistan. It may be that the Somalia-Afghanistan comparison is a facile one; if so, that would certainly ease growing regional disquiet about Somalia. But it may well be that as the decade progresses, the Somalia-Afghanistan comparison becomes a template. If that is indeed the case, then the levels of anxiety across five continents will increase exponentially.      

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